Keeping Americans in the Dark - The Pentagon's M.O.

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Colonel Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), recently made a startling disclosure to Voice of America (VOA). AFRICOM, he said, is currently mulling over 11 possible locations for its second base on the continent. If, however, there was a frontrunner among them Cheadle wasn't about to disclose it. All he would say was that Nigeria isn't one of the countries in contention.

Writing for VOA, Carla Babb filled in the rest of the picture in terms of U.S. military activities in Africa. "The United States currently has one military base in the east African nation of Djibouti," she observed. "U.S. forces are also on the ground in Somalia to assist the regional fight against al-Shabab and in Cameroon to help with the multinational effort against Nigeria-based Boko Haram."

A day later, Babb's story disappeared. Instead, there was a new article in which she noted that "Cheadle had initially said the U.S. was looking at 11 locations for a second base, but later told VOA he misunderstood the question." Babb reiterated that the U.S. had only the lone military base in Djibouti and stated that "[o]ne of the possible new cooperative security locations is in Cameroon, but Cheadle did not identify other locations due to 'host nation sensitivities.'"

U.S. troops have, indeed, been based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti since 2002. In that time, the base has grown from 88 acres to about 600 acres and has seen more than $600 million in construction and upgrades already awarded or allocated. It's also true that U.S. troops, as Babb notes, are operating in Somalia -- from at least two bases -- and the U.S. has indeed set up a base in Cameroon. As such, the "second" U.S. base in Africa, wherever it's eventually located, will actually be more like the fifth U.S. base on the continent. That is, of course, if you don't count Chabelley Airfield, a hush-hush drone base the U.S. operates elsewhere in Djibouti, or the U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations, and other outposts in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda, among other locales. When I counted late last year, in fact, I came up with 60 such sites in 34 countries. And just recently, Missy Ryan of the Washington Post added to that number when she disclosed that "American Special Operations troops have been stationed at two outposts in eastern and western Libya since late 2015."

To be fair, the U.S. doesn't call any of these bases "bases" -- except when officials forget to keep up the fiction. For example, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 included a $50 million request for the construction of an "airfield and base camp at Agadez, Niger." But give Cheadle credit for pushing a fiction that persists despite ample evidence to the contrary.

It isn't hard, of course, to understand why U.S. Africa Command has set up a sprawling network of off-the-books bases or why it peddles misinformation about its gigantic "small" footprint in Africa. It's undoubtedly for the same reason that they stonewall me on even basic information about their operations. The Department of Defense, from tooth to tail, likes to operate in the dark.

Today, in "The Pentagon's War on Accountability," Bill Hartung reveals another kind of Defense Department effort to obscure and obfuscate involving another kind of highly creative accounting: think slush funds, secret programs, dodgy bookkeeping, and the type of financial malfeasance that could only be carried out by an institution that is, by its very nature, too big to fail (inside the Beltway if not on the battlefield).

Rejecting both accurate accounting and actual accountability -- from the halls of the Pentagon to austere camps in Africa -- the Defense Department has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to keeping Americans in the dark about the activities being carried out with their dollars and in their name. Luckily, Hartung is willing to shine a bright light on the Pentagon's shady practices.