Abbas's Police State

The Palestinian Authority is taking aggressive new measures to squelch dissent -- and the White House is missing in action.

President Barack Obama's administration has loudly touted its efforts to protect peaceful activists across the globe from regimes that would oppress them. On April 26, the White House issued an executive order to stop technology companies from helping Iran and Syria commit human rights abuses. The two countries have become what members of Congress have called "zones of electronic repression," where the regimes use modern technologies to crush those seeking democratic reforms.

But amid all this, Obama is missing an opportunity to promote positive change in a government over which the United States has much more leverage: Mahmoud Abbas's increasingly repressive fiefdom in the West Bank. On the same day as the White House issued its executive order, the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported an explosive story detailing how Palestinian officials have "quietly instructed Internet providers to block access to news websites whose reporting is critical of President Mahmoud Abbas."

This wasn't a rogue operation. All signs suggest the order to shut the website came straight from the top. The Ma'an article, citing a Palestinian official, claims that Palestinian Authority Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni personally delivered the order but that he "was acting on instructions from higher up in the government -- either from the president's office or an intelligence director."

Mughni had already come under fire for other draconian efforts to muzzle free speech. In January 2012, Palestinian security forces arrested Al-Ahram reporter Khaled Amayreh for criticizing Abbas and referring to Hamas strongman Ismail Haniyeh as the "legitimate Palestinian prime minister." They also detained several journalists and bloggers for critical writing. Among them was Jamal Abu Rihan, a Palestinian blogger who ran the Facebook page "The people want an end to corruption."

The arrests go on. According to al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, "It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been detained in violation of the right to freedom of expression because victims, in many cases, are charged with or accused of penal offenses to mask the political motivation behind their arrest." In some cases, arrests appear to be roundups of Hamas supporters. In others, they appear to be aimed at non-violent political opponents or critics of the Abbas regime.

The repression also extends beyond Palestinian outlets. In July 2009, the Palestinian Authority banned Al-Jazeera from operating in the West Bank after the news channel reported on allegations that Abbas and former Gaza security chief Mohammad Dahlan were accomplices in the death of Yasser Arafat. In January 2011, following its publication of internal documents related to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations known as the "Palestine Papers," Palestinian security officers (among others) attempted to storm Al-Jazeera's Ramallah offices.

These and other incidents have had a chilling effect on reporting. As former Palestinian intelligence official Fahmi Shabaneh remarked in 2010, "al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets... are afraid to publish anything that angers the Palestinian Authority."

Amid such accounts, in April 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a 35-page report titled "No News is Good News: Abuses Against Journalists by Palestinian Security Forces." It revealed that Palestinian journalists in the West Bank "have had their equipment confiscated and been arbitrarily detained, barred from traveling abroad, assaulted, and in one case, tortured, by Palestinian security services."

The watchdog conceded it couldn't identify clear "instructions from PA leaders to the security services" but noted that the "utter failure of the PA leadership to address the prevailing culture of impunity" seemed to reflect official policy.

Given the recent revelations from Ma'an, we can now be more definitive. It is clear that Mahmoud Abbas's government is pursuing a policy of quashing critical media coverage and stifling free speech on the Internet.

It appears that the PA has not only quashed critical voices through official channels, but at times has also resorted to using extrajudicial means. On Jan. 28, hackers took down InLightPress, a website that alleged that Abbas had ordered his security forces to tap his political opponents' phones. When InLightPress returned online, its editors claimed the cyber attack "came from the Palestinian Authority with the approval of President Abbas." The site further alleged that Abbas had created a "crisis cell" headed by Sabri Saidam, former head of the PA's ministry of telecommunications and information technology, to coordinate the attack.

A week later, on Feb. 3, InLightPress was hacked again. When it returned, its editors stated , "[W]e now know who [the hackers] are, and why they did it, and they know that we will not stop." In defiance, the site continued to publish scathing criticism of Abbas. In response, the Palestinian leadership blocked access to InLightPress in the territories. Days later, the Gaza-based website Amad, which also is critical of Abbas, reported that Palestinian users could not access its website because the Palestinian government had blocked it.

In an apparent confirmation of this campaign, an official from the Telecommunications and Information Technology Ministry was quoted by InLightPress as saying that the site was spreading "sedition and lies to break up the structure of Palestinian society." As a result, he claimed, the PA had the "right to defend... against this malicious and suspicious campaign."

Having a right is not the same as being in the right. The West Bank has now erupted in scandal. On April 25, the Palestinian Telecommunications Company (Paltel) issued a statement admitting it had "no choice except to abide by" orders from Palestinian officials to block websites. On April 26,  Palestinian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mashour Abu Daka resigned, citing "personal reasons" for his departure. And on Saturday, long-time Abbas loyalist Hanan Ashrawi came out and publicly condemned the actions of her government.

But as InLightPress and Ma'an have both noted, Palestinians have no recourse here. There appears to be no law criminalizing what the PA has done. And Abbas conveniently deflects all criticism toward the Israelis, claiming that their presence makes him unable to introduce democratic reforms. As a result, the political environment in the West Bank looks increasingly like the Gaza Strip, where the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas rules with an iron fist.

Obama's new executive order, which is designed to prevent human rights violations involving technology, may provide Palestinians with their best recourse for combating Abbas's attempts to dominate the political space in the West Bank. But the president has so far failed to live up to his lofty rhetoric. Just days after the scandal erupted, the president signed a waiver releasing $192 million in aid for the Palestinians that had been frozen by Congress on the grounds that it was "important for the security interests of the United States."

The president, however, issued the waver without first demanding that Abbas take measures to guarantee free speech in the West Bank. This was a lost opportunity. Only direct intervention by the United States will ensure greater freedom of expression for Palestinians engaged in this important struggle.



What Lies Beneath

The mission to secure and seal off Kazakhstan's vast nuclear material -- buried deep underground -- is one of the greatest nonproliferation stories never told.

There's one fear that keeps leaders from across the globe awake at night: The prospect that somehow, somewhere, criminals or terrorists are getting their hands on the essential ingredients of a nuclear weapon. At the nuclear summit in South Korea last month, policymakers gathered to prevent that nightmare from becoming a reality by launching an initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear stockpiles within four years. But despite the fanfare surrounding the summit, one of the greatest recent successes in this initiative has thus far remained buried -- both literally and figuratively.

In an extraordinary feat of engineering and international cooperation, U.S., Russian, and Kazakh scientists, engineers, and miners recently secured enough fissile material for a dozen nuclear weapons that had been left behind vulnerable to theft in tunnels formerly used by the Soviet Union for underground nuclear weapons tests in Kazakhstan.

The formerly secret mission was launched in 2005 at the encouragement of an intrepid U.S. weapons expert, after it was discovered that metal scavengers had penetrated the abandoned tunnels. The project received attention from the highest levels of government -- both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama monitored its progress. It is an example of the quiet but essential international cooperation that is urgently needed to prevent terrorists from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

How this extraordinary, seven-year effort came to pass deserves the long version of the story. From 1961 to 1989, the Soviet Union conducted hundreds of nuclear tests and experiments at a remote and forbidding site called Degelen Mountain. Located within Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk test range, the site is about the size of New Jersey and located some 300 miles east of Astana, the second coldest capital city in the world. It was chosen by the Soviets precisely because it is so desolate: Temperatures soar to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and plunge to -40 degrees in the winter. Blizzard conditions are common -- remarkably, they sometimes make the test site more accessible by filling in potholed roads, which have gone unrepaired since the Soviet era, with ice and snow.

The Soviets conducted over 450 nuclear detonations at Semipalatinsk, mostly in tunnels hundreds of yards long, buried deep below ground. Roughly 40 of the tests were small explosions with very low nuclear yields, so the fissile material -- highly enriched uranium or plutonium -- was neither consumed by the blasts nor infused into the molten rock created by them. Instead, according to one senior Obama administration official, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade fissile material was "readily recoverable" in the tunnels. This did not matter much so long as the KGB, the USSR's premier internal security agency, held an iron grip on the Soviet Union, with special attention paid to remote and sensitive nuclear sites like Semipalatinsk. But when the Soviet Union crumbled into 15 independent countries in 1991, all that changed.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan gained its independence. But it came with a catch: Kazakh officials were now responsible for an environmental catastrophe, as well as a proliferation risk, at the former Soviet test site.

Indeed, the world did move quickly -- but sadly, insufficiently -- to contain this risk. Working under Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, which were launched by President George H.W. Bush's administration, to dismantle the former Soviet nuclear establishment in the 1990s, U.S. engineers helped to barricade 181 tunnels and demolish their entrances to prevent them from ever again being used for nuclear testing -- but, in a pre-9/11 world -- they paid little attention to the possibility of fissile material left in the testing tunnels.

The extreme weather conditions and the passage of time eventually cracked and eroded the material sealing the testing tunnels. By 2004, scavengers looking for scrap metal to sell had broken into some of them. Reports of the looting alarmed U.S. officials, who feared that fissile material could be at risk. The U.S. government encouraged and aided the Kazakh government to improve security at the site until more permanent measures could be implemented. Astana declared an exclusion zone, where a ban on trespassing was strictly enforced, and mounted patrols to guard the tunnels and the surrounding area.

Next, nuclear weapons scientists who once sat on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain determined how best to secure the material. They decided to fill the test chambers with a specialized grout, which bonds chemically with fissile material to render it useless for weaponization. In some tunnels, it would be necessary to mine horizontally to reach the test chamber where the nuclear experiments took place.

It was hazardous work: The old tunnels were partially collapsed and dangerous to enter. At other sites, the cement could be pumped from above after drilling into the test chambers. In every case, once the work was done, removing the cement would require a major mining operation that required specialized equipment and was beyond the capability of scavengers or would-be terrorists. Because fissile material was involved, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was also informed of the project.

The United States, working with Kazakhstan and Russia, spent $150 million on the project -- a tiny amount of money given the threat posed by the material required for one nuclear weapon falling into the hands of criminals or terrorists, let alone enough material for a dozen weapons.

But the hard work to secure the site couldn't have been accomplished without America's local Kazakh partners. Four 10-man Kazakh crews worked year round for seven years to dig out, drill into, and ultimately fill the former nuclear test chambers with the special cement. They lived in modified 40-foot cargo containers and braved extreme conditions. One frigid day on the steppe, a work crew had to take a blow torch to the side of their frozen water tank truck just to melt a supply of drinking water. The Kazakh work crews were guided by Russian nuclear scientists and U.S. experts from the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who traveled to the site every four to six weeks, also braving difficult conditions.

U.S. assistance also went to help the Kazakh government enforce its exclusion zone, pay for fences, patrol vehicles, aerial surveillance drones, and even seismic sensors disguised as rocks to alert security forces to the presence of an intruder. These measures have worked. No scavenger activity has been observed at the site since 2009.

Related initiatives to secure other types of nuclear material are ongoing around the world -- and more will be required. The work at Degelen Mountain is a model of how the international community, and Republican and Democratic administrations alike, is cooperating to reduce the nuclear threat. The world is safer for this effort, and it deserves to be recognized.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images