Torture Is Torture - Regardless of Who Does It

James Snell   |   December 16, 2014    1:01 AM ET

On Tuesday 9 December, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the executive summary and portions of an as yet unpublished report into the torture undertaken by the CIA. In the following days, much was revealed about American programmes of 'enhanced interrogation'. We had all heard of 'waterboarding', of course, but this was different. In scale, intensity and variety, the programmes of torture as described in the report eclipse the expectations of all but the most seasoned observers.

Some of these horrors make agonising reading - but it is incorrect to say that they defy description. In the cold, expressionless language of the Senate report, even blunt, mechanical phrases can contain the key to understanding a world of pain. 'Rectal feeding' is one. 'Stress position' is another. Through reams of inert prose, an appalling picture of abuse is built up and solidified.

There is one small, meek defence to all of this, a defence not in and of itself, but one which begs comparison. 'Other countries do it too,' this line of thought goes, 'but only America has the guts to say it.' This is true for many secretive nations; and tyrannies and theocracies partake in torture just as much as, if not more than, the Americans. But this truth is a hardly a mitigating factor; it does not excuse the brutality, and it does not excuse the futility.

Much is made of the following hypothetical, the 'ticking bomb' scenario. There is, we are told, an imminent attack; terrorists are threatening to kill a vast number of innocent, blameless civilians in a public place; and the only way we can get hold of the intelligence necessary to avert this catastrophe is by torturing another, captured terrorist into telling us. The situation is horrifying, but it is also neat. Too neat. The moral calculation is placed before us as if it were a simple numerical exercise: One person against hundreds, possibly thousands; an awful individual, engaged in nefarious acts, is pitted against a moral mass of the innocent. Quite simple, really; it is almost utilitarianism in action. But that is not the whole story. An essential, shocking part of the equation has been entirely removed. In this scenario, and in all of the others which populate the messy, eternally complicated world of security and defence, we don't even know if it's going to work. And we never know; not until it's underway or over. And it probably won't work: This torture produced 'false confessions and fabricated information, [and] no useful intelligence'. Brutality was condoned and even encouraged by the CIA, and for almost no gain.

Knowing this, the inescapable conclusion is the following: We will not be able to know if our actions of inhumanity are justified until they have taken place. Morally, I think, there is only one place to be, and it is not alongside the professional sadists employed to threaten to murder the mothers of captives, or to leave detainees to freeze to death in a hidden prison camp, days after subjecting them to '48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment.'

There is, of course, a little hitch in my own thinking. I do not pretend otherwise. I am very happy, as a rule, for those in the employ of my country to kill, or to maim, or to brutalise those agents of terror who threaten the innocent. Bomb them in their hiding places; kill them on the battlefield; vaporise them with drones - I can handle that. But when the battle is over, when these men are stripped of their weapons, their offensive capacity, and even, in some cases, their clothes, by the agents of democracy - that's when I start to get a little squeamish. Perhaps it's the indefinite confinement. Perhaps it's the transportation to secretive facilities across the world. It's certainly got something to do with the torture.

One of the most vehement defences of inhumane and illegal conduct is the rallying cry of pragmatism. I have outlined it above. This is war, the argument goes, and sometimes bad things have to happen in order to protect that which we hold most dear. But this sentiment has two major flaws: In engaging in torture, there is no guarantee of protecting that which we hold dear; and by doing so, we are participating in the self-destruction of our own morality, something I imagine most would like their governments to at least bear in mind.

This is war, and some acknowledgement of the situation must be made. Killing terrorists and fascists 'legitimately' - on the battlefield, from the air, with the assistance of drones - is my own concession to the imperfect world in which we live. Such methods are flawed, and do not always achieve the desired result; but at least they are not predicated on the false hope of averting imaginary massacres, and at least they do not challenge the very core of what makes Western civilisation worth defending.

Is Racism the New Black?

Tracey Agyeman   |   December 13, 2014   12:11 AM ET

The United States prides itself on being a melting pot, intertwining cultural, religious and racial differences in the hope of finding freedom and, most importantly, achieving the American Dream. Nevertheless, today's reality would contradict this idea given that the USA's social construction is not founded upon assimilation but rather multiculturalism. The Grand Jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the death of unarmed Michael Brown is a confirmation of the cultural and racial divide. Despite the progress made in race-related issues including the black freedom and justice movement and, in more recent years, with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the USA continuously struggles to desegregate itself and grow towards racial equality. Presidencies have repeatedly and fruitlessly promised 'change' and 'hope' to the electorate, but disillusionment and outrage felt across generations have proven to be a recurrent theme.

The USA's racial divide has encouraged me to reflect on Britain and its progress towards racial equality. I was born during the year of Stephen Lawrence's murder, and today as a black woman in my twenties, living in the 21st century, I can acknowledge the fact that Britain has come a long way since then, yet I believe there is still a long way to go. British society is often described as multi-cultural, and the rising representation of ethnic minorities in politics, music, arts, media and other agents of socialisation, is a product of greater tolerance and change in social attitudes. However, despite progress on the small screen and in the high-visibility worlds of these establishments, this is not reflected in the real lives of individuals of ethnic backgrounds who according to the Guardian, 'are 26 times more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped and searched by police'. Or who enter a department store only to be followed around by the 'discreet' security guard watching their every move, or who, better yet, are encouraged by careers advisers to 'westernise' their full name because the employer may struggle to pronounce their 'ethnic' name. Despite graduating with a prestigious degree, or gaining years of valuable work experience, a report conducted by MPs indicated that women originating from an ethnic minority background face discrimination at every stage of the recruitment process. Accordingly, even if candidates possess identical education, experience, skills and work history, gender and race also play a significant role in the candidate's profile.

It seems the only time we attempt to confront the race question is when a life is taken and announced on the news. Otherwise, the issue is kept hidden in the wardrobe amongst other short-term issues and discarded until it comes back into fashion. Why is race a topic that is given up so easily? Why do we need a tragic event to reawaken our concerns about social inequality? Why do we believe that living in an era in which the president of the United States is of Kenyan descent is an indication of the end of racism? Why are we still pushing for greater representation and equality in society when it should already be the norm? Why should job seekers put his or her name in a smaller font or in a less visible place on a CV in order to be considered by the recruiter? Why do we fail to notice racism because it is presented in a subtle manner?

When it comes to addressing race, it seems there are more questions than dignified answers. There are more problems than solutions. There is more fear than courage. There are more surveys and data than action. There are more deaths than survivors. There is more despair than hope.

The truth is, although we may no longer live in the shadows of the past, traces of our history remain in the present, and resonate on a widespread level.

Paul Vale   |   December 12, 2014    2:08 PM ET

NEW YORK -- Michele Bachmann, perhaps the least hinged Republican serving in a Congress in which sanity passes as voting to repeal a healthcare law 33 times, is to leave the august institution at the end of the year, thus robbing Washington of one of its more colourful minds.

Yet the Representative from Minnesota, who once equated the gay community with child rape, has not exited the stage without delivering one final piece of insanity advice, informing President Obama at a recent White House holiday Party that he should "bomb Iran".

Speaking to the Washington Free Beacon, Bachmann said she told the President that he must take out the Iranian nuclear facilities otherwise the "course of world history" would change.

"I turned to the president and I said, something to the effect of, ‘Mr. President, you need to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, because if you don’t, Iran will have a nuclear weapon on your watch and the course of world history will change,'" Bachmann told the conservative newspaper.

"And he got his condescending smile on his face and laughed at me and said, ‘Well, Michele, it’s just not that easy,’" she continued. "And I said to him, ‘No, Mr. President, you’re the president, it will happen on your watch, and you’ll have to answer to the world for this.’ And that was it and then I left. Merry Christmas."

What a lovely festive gift for those diplomats entrenched in delicate negotiations to rein in Tehran’s nuclear programme. A statement like this couldn’t possibly upset that at all…


CIA Torture Report: The Lid Lifted?

Neil Durkin   |   December 11, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Is the long-awaited report into CIA torture during the so-called "war on terror" an exercise on transparency or something rather less than that?

Seems to me it's clearly the latter. This is a 525-page "executive summary" of a 6,700-page report (sprinkled with 38,000 footnotes apparently), or about one thirteenth of the full report which, lest we forget, is still a top-secret classified document which seems set to stay that way. And the summary report itself is littered with blacked-out sections, with the Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein saying that the redactions obliterate something like 7% of its content.

And of course this is not all. As The Intercept made clear ahead of this week's much-trumpeted publication, the Feinstein report has been the subject of months - possibly years - of struggle with the White House which was, we can surmise, under enormous pressure from the CIA and pro-Bush Republicans to thin out and water down the report. Moreover, the report is a narrow-focus one anyway, looking only at the CIA's conduct (not the US military or its contractors), and the report's authors rather amazingly didn't interview either the scores of actual victims of torture or the perpetrators or the perpetrators' superiors.

So no, this isn't really the revelatory report it may appear to be. The Senate's report pales in comparison even to the UK's recent Intelligence and Security Committee report into the murder of Lee Rigby - 200 pages into just this one case. Whatever the weaknesses of that committee as an investigatory body - and they're significant - the Rigby report's length is notable. (By the way, David Cameron's claim that war on terror torture has been "dealt with from a British perspective" is ... a very far cry from the truth). And of course a long process of leaks from the CIA report have drip-fed content into the media in a way that has - surely by design - reduced the impact of this week's report. The CIA's treatment having been "more brutal than was previously acknowledged" was already aired months ago, and numerous details about how detainees were tormented - a la Orwell's Winston Smith, with insects and other "Room 101"-type phobias - were known several years ago.

All this said, the Feinstein report still provides some depressing insight into the sheer horror of being subjected to the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques". This could include: having food or water forced into your body via your anus ("rectal feeding" or "rectal hydration"); being confined for days in a coffin-like "confinement box"; undergoing partial drowning until you were convulsing and vomiting (indeed waterboarding seems to have been used on a wider scale than previously admitted); being subjected to extended sleep deprivation (anything up to 180 hours per month) until you were hallucinating. Naturally, these would often be used in combination - along with beatings, strippings, threats (of rape, of death: to you and your children), stress positions, extremes of heat and cold, white noise auditory barrages ... and on and on. All being done to people who had been abducted and taken to places where there were no lawyers, no doctors (not ones on your side anyway), and no people to help you.

Here's just one example, concerning the so-called Salt Pit facility in Afghanistan:


One detainee, Gul Rahman, an Afghan national, died of hypothermia in 2002 after being shackled to a concrete wall with very little clothing in near-freezing conditions in the Salt Pit. His family only learnt of his death more than seven years later, when his name appeared in the media. Amazingly enough, the junior officer in charge of Salt Pit interrogations was at one stage recommended for a $2,500 bonus, and we also gather that no-one was ever even disciplined for Rahman's death, much less prosecuted.

And here, finally, is the nub of the issue. President Obama is willing to acknowledge that "These techniques did significant damage to America's standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners", and even - more flatly - that "we tortured some folks". But the buck seems to be getting stopped just there. The US Justice Department says it has no plans to initiate criminal investigations, despite what seems a wealth of evidence. And meanwhile supposed "liberal" figures like the former assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton - James Rubin - are popping up in the media (eg Today programme, about 8.50am) to opine that the no-prosecutions decision is the right one, apparently seeing political convenience as superior to justice and remedy for victims.

Obama is right to say the kidnappings, secret detentions and torture in the war on terror damaged his country's standing in the world, but so too does failing to prosecute people for these manifest crimes. And so too does failing to close Guantánamo, itself a scene of rendition, torture and long-term detention without trial.

As if there wasn't already enough torture and suffering in the world - enough for Amnesty to launch a Stop Torture campaign to highlight its presence in over 140 countries - the USA's disastrous attempt first to semi-justify and then later to "turn the page" on all this has surely given the green light to torturers the world over. Yes the Senate Committee has made some attempt to grapple with this dark episode, but the report doesn't really lift the lid on the full depth and breadth of human rights abuse during the Bush/Cheney years. And Obama's administration seems content to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, when you read in the Senate report that certain CIA operatives brought with them the experience of using torture and other "counter-insurgency" techniques learnt in Latin America in the 1980s, you're left with the distinct impression that this is a far bigger problem than we're being led to believe. We don't need summary reports, we need the full Monty.

Paul Vale   |   December 10, 2014    3:44 PM ET

The US and Russia are preparing for “many long years of confrontation,” according to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Writing on Wednesday in the Russian state newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, the 83-year-old delivered his grim assessment, warning that the frosty relations between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin could have “terrible consequences”.

The "new Cold War", as Gorbachev recently described increasing tensions between Washington and Moscow, was brought about by the crisis in Ukraine, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military encroachment into the state on the side of pro-Russian separatists.

The elder statesmen, whose policies of perestroika and glasnost led to the dissolution the Soviet Union in 1991, wrote: "The result of events in recent months is a catastrophic fall of the level of trust in international relations. Judging by the recent declarations, diplomats of both sides are preparing for many long years of confrontation. This is extremely dangerous."

He continued: “With such emotions running so high, as we have now, we may not survive through these years. Somebody may just lose control of himself. We must do our best to overturn this tendency.”

Gorbachev called for a thawing of frosty relations on both sides, adding that international efforts to diffuse the crisis in Ukraine must be ramped up.


'Both sides are preparing for many long years of confrontation'

“I suggest that the leaders of Russia and the United States think about holding a summit on a broad agenda, without preliminary conditions,” he wrote. “The same kind of summit must be prepared between Russia and the European Union.”

Gorbachev admitted that both separatists and loyalists in the Ukrainian conflict were guilty of breaking ceasefire agreements, and that both were guilty of using "especially dangerous types of weapons and breaching human rights”.

“War until the victorious end is impossible... It's time to stop,” he wrote, adding that the US and Russia have a “special responsibility” due to their nuclear arsenals.

"We shouldn't be afraid that someone will 'lose face' or someone will win a propaganda victory. That should all belong in the past. We should think about the future."

The 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner urged for greater co-operation between the Russia and the US, particularly when dealing with global threats.

“Now the West is almost curtailing interaction with Russia in these areas. But will anyone win from refusing to present a united front against terrorism, climate changes, epidemics? We should immediately ‘defrost’ relations in this direction.”

Gorbachev has previously backed Putin’s annexation of Crimea, calling it a correction to a historical mistake. In Wednesday's editorial, he suggests this should be “welcomed [by the West] instead of imposing sanctions over it".

Gorbachev has become increasingly vocal in recent months, decrying "American triumphalism" for bringing about a new Cold War. In early December he warned that "militarists” were pushing Europe to the brink of conflict.


  |   December 10, 2014   12:27 PM ET

With the final episode of 'The Colbert Report' due to air on December 18 - Stephen Colbert is off to take over from David Letterman, of course - it seems only right that the big guns are appearing during the show's final weeks.

And they don't get much bigger than the leader of the free world - who made a memorable appearance on the show on Monday night, deadpanning his way through the regular segment 'The Word' (although he changed it to 'The Decree').

"Nation: as you know, I, Stephen Colbert, have never cared for our president," reads Obama from the autocue.

"The guy is so arrogant I bet he talks about himself in the third person."

And so it continues - chiefly about Obamacare - in very amusing fashion.

As Colbert himself would put it: a tip of the hat to you, Mr President.

Check out more of Obama on Monday's 'The Colbert Report':

SEE ALSO: Stephen Colbert Says Goodbye To 'The Daily Show'

United States of America: Liberty, Freedom and Justice for All?

Meliha Hayat   |   December 10, 2014   12:18 AM ET

Liberals and Conservatives alike were outraged by the decision made by a grand jury in America not to charge a white New York City police officer named Daniel Pantaleo, after he placed an unarmed Blackman named Eric Garner into a choke hold and killed him.

This decision has only further enraged the American public following an earlier verdict which saw another white police officer, Darren Wilson, not charged for killing a black youth named Michael Brown.

Rev Al Sharpton said the state-level grand jury system was "broken" when it comes to police brutality cases. But perhaps the issue of racial inequality extends further than law enforcement.

Granted this is not the first case we have read about racial conflict between civilians and law enforcement officials in the United States, but for a country that pledges liberty, freedom and justice for all, the rule of law and in fact many social, political and economic sectors are all plagued by racial inequality which has never been truly confronted by Congress at large.

The case of Eric Garner is evidence to the point, he was an unarmed victim who showed no sign of resistance throughout the incident, and despite his pleading he was put in to a choke hold-which is forbidden to use by NYPD- that led to his death. The course of events were documented on video which brings to question that even with video evidence, if his killer can't be indicted then is this ruling a mark of a huge flaw in the American legal system? Or is this a grave miscarriage of justice and racial inequality?

President Barack Obama has released a statement claiming that he plans to introduce new schemes that will help improve relations between the black community and law enforcement officers, including better training for police, he said:

"This is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem, When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law that's a problem and it's my job as president to help solve it."

On some level one could agree with Obama on this issue, when it comes to policing and law enforcement, America struggles to impose the rule of law; a law which refers to the principal of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public, private and States are accountable to law. This includes the principals of supremacy of law and equality before the law. According to various national statistics, if an ordinary American citizen is being investigated for a crime by a grand jury, there is a 99.993 percent chance they will be indicted, however, for a police officer the chance is practically nil.

But Obama cannot turn a blind eye from the huge racial disparity America faces: Americans today incarcerate more African Americans as a percentage than Apartheid Africa did. According to the NAACP African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, The net worth of the average black household in America is $6,314 which is minute in comparison to the $110,500 for the average white household. The race gap of wealth in America between the average white family and black family is eighteen fold, that's greater than the gap between black-white communities during Apartheid Africa.

Black students in America are significantly less likely to attend schools offering advance courses in various core subjects including Maths and Science. They are three times more likely to be suspended and expelled which of course is only setting them up for educational failure.

In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination in employment, however, according to national statistics, 3 out of every 10 African male born in the US will serve time in prison. This places a huge hindrance on their future prospects for legitimate employment and obtaining professional licences. Racial profiling means even greater numbers will probably end up having some sort of criminal record.

Yes, the election of Barack Obama was a huge milestone for the US, and a big milestone towards racial equality, but with a majority Republican Congress, Obama too has been put into a metaphorical choke hold when it comes to bringing about any significant social change. New York City has revealed details of a $35 million project to retrain cops, but the problem stems further than law enforcement alone, all social and economic sectors should be revised, and not just by providing big budget projects, they have to eliminate racial profiling and start enforcing the rule of law, equal justice for equal society, only then can America proudly claim itself to be land of the free and home of the brave.

Paul Vale   |   December 8, 2014    4:59 PM ET

The British monarchy, historically not the most welcome institution in Washington, was well received at the White House on Monday as Prince William met with President Obama in the Oval office, part of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s three day tour of the US.

More than 250 miles north, the Duchess carried out her own solo engagement, meeting with New York’s First Lady, Chirlane McCray, before visiting the Northside Centre for Child Development in Harlem. The pregnant Duchess, whose hair was half swept back and who was wearing a black coat by Goat with white edging, was greeted with cheers from spectators across the street. The centre provides educational and mental health services to about 3,300 children and families each year.

It is the couple's first visit to the US since 2011 and their first to New York or Washington. William is delivering a major speech on the illegal wildlife trade in Washington after meeting Obama and vice president Joe Biden.

READ: William's blog 'Why We Need a Truly International Approach to Tackling Illegal Wildlife Trade'

Press Association   |   December 8, 2014    8:21 AM ET

The UK-based family of a British-born hostage killed by Islamic militants has said he might still be alive had it not been for an attempted US rescue mission.

Luke Somers, 33, was shot by his al Qaida captors as they fought US special forces attempting to extract him and South African teacher Pierre Korkie.

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAB) posted a video online on Thursday, threatening to kill the American citizen within three days but his stepmother Penny Bearman and half-sister Lucy Somers indicated they still had hope because previous threats had not been carried out.

luke somers

Sommers' parents have revealed their anger

Ms Bearman, 55, of Deal, Kent, told the Times they were "quite angry because if there had not been a rescue attempt he would still be alive."

"We are sure Luke would have given support to the ongoing discussions (to secure his release) in Yemen rather than the conflict approach. There had been threats before that had not been carried out," she said.

She added the the release of the video had "led to things escalating horribly" and the family had been "kept in the dark" about the effort, as well as a previous attempt last month.

US president Barack Obama sanctioned the mission and secretary of state John Kerry cited "a compelling indication that Luke's life was in immediate danger" and said "we recommended that the president authorise an attempt to rescue Luke".

luke somers

Luke Sommers was killed in a failed US rescue mission

Speaking in Afghanistan, defence secretary Chuck Hagel said the rescue operation was "extremely well executed" but complicated and risky.

Ms Somers said she had learned of her brother's death from FBI agents.

He was kidnapped in September 2013 in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa while working as a photojournalist.

His death follows similar killings by another extremist group Islamic State (IS), who released online videos of the seperate murders of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, US aid worker Peter Kassig and two British aid workers, David Haines and Alan Henning.

  |   December 7, 2014    2:38 PM ET

An American photojournalist and a South African teacher were killed Saturday during a high-risk, US-led raid to free them from al-Qaida militants in Yemen, a turbulent Arab country that is a centerpiece of US counterterrorism efforts in the region.

The raid before dawn was the second rescue attempt in as many weeks to free Luke Somers, a 33-year-old freelance photographer and editor kidnapped just over a year ago in Yemen's capital.

South African Pierre Korkie, abducted 18 months ago with his wife in the city of Tazi, also was killed by militants as U.S. forces descended upon the militants' compound in southern Yemen. A South African aid group trying to negotiate Korkie's release said he was a day from freedom after a deal late last month that included a "facilitation fee" to the kidnappers. The relief organisation had told Korkie's wife that "the wait is almost over."

President Barack Obama said he ordered the raid because Somers was believed to be in "imminent danger." The president, in a statement, condemned Somers' killing as a "barbaric murder," but did not mention the 56-year-old Korkie by name, offering condolences to the family of "a non-US citizen hostage." The South African government said it was informed that Korkie died during the mission by American special forces.

"It is my highest responsibility to do everything possible to protect American citizens," Obama said. "As this and previous hostage rescue operations demonstrate, the United States will spare no effort to use all of its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located."

About 40 American special operations forces were involved in the rescue attempt, which followed U.S. drone strikes in the area, US officials said. The rescuers, backed by Yemeni ground forces, advanced within 100 meters (110 yards) of the compound in Shabwa province when they were spotted by the militants. A firefight ensued.

Amid the fighting, US forces saw a militant briefly enter a building on the compound. US officials believe it was then that Somers and Korkie were shot. When Americans entered the building, they found both men alive, but gravely wounded.

Officials said that based on the location where Somers and Korkie were being held, there was no possibility that they were struck by American gunfire.


Pierre Korkie, the South African teacher held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen, who was killed on Saturday

US forces pulled Somers and Korkie onto V-22 Ospreys, and medical teams began performing surgery in midair. One hostage died during the short flight; the second died after the Ospreys landed on the USS Makin Island, a Navy ship in the region.

The raid was over in about 30 minutes.

US officials disclosed details of the mission on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the raid.

Saturday's operation was the second rescue attempt by US and Yemeni forces to bring Somers home alive. On Nov. 25, American special operations forces and Yemeni soldiers raided a remote al-Qaida safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border.

Eight captives, including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian, were freed. Somers was not at that location. He and five other hostages had been moved days earlier, officials later said.

Roughly a dozen people are believed held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen.

On Thursday, al-Qaida militants released a video showing Somers and threatening to kill him in three days if the United States did not meet the group's unspecified demands or if another rescue was attempted.

US officials said that threat prompted Obama to move quickly. Using information obtained during the first raid, US officials believed Somers was being held Shabwa province, a stronghold of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group's Yemeni branch. Officials believed a second hostage was there, too, but did not know it was Korkie.

By Thursday evening, the Pentagon had sent the White House a proposed plan, which Obama approved the following day. Officials alerted Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who gave his support.

Hadi has been a critical US partner in seeking to undermine Yemen's dangerous al-Qaida affiliate. With the permission of Yemen's government, the US has for years launched drone strikes against militant targets in the country and provided Yemen with hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance. Civilian casualties from the drone strikes have stoked anger in the country, however.

When Obama announced US airstrikes this year against militant targets in Syria and Iraq, he held up the Yemen effort as a comparable model.

Yemen's highest security body, the Supreme Security Committee, issued a rare statement Saturday acknowledging that the country's forces had carried out the raid with "American friends." The committee said all the militants holding the hostages were killed in the operation.

No American forces were killed or sustained serious injuries in the raid. Yemen's government said four of its forces were wounded.

Korkie was abducted in May 2013 along with his wife, Yolande, who was doing relief work. She was released in January without ransom as a result of negotiations by the South African relief group, Gift of the Givers.

But al-Qaida militants demanded a $3 million ransom for Korkie's release, according to those close to the negotiations. Although that demand was dropped, the kidnappers did insist on the "facilitation fee," according to the aid group. The undisclosed amount was raised by Korkie's family and friends, according to the South African Press Agency.

"A team of Abyan (Yemeni) leaders met in Aden this morning and were preparing the final security and logistical arrangements, related to hostage release mechanisms, to bring Pierre to safety and freedom," said Imtiaz Sooliman, the aid group's founder. "It is even more tragic that the words we used in a conversation with Yolande at 5:59 this morning was: 'The wait is almost over.'"

The US government has a policy against paying ransoms to win the release of hostages.

Korkie was a dedicated teacher, a family friend said. "Teaching was his life. His heart took him to Yemen. He loved teaching the poor," said Daan Nortier, who is acting as a family spokesman.

Lucy Somers, the photojournalist's sister, told The Associated Press that she and her father learned of her brother's death from FBI agents just after midnight Saturday.

"We ask that all of Luke's family members be allowed to mourn in peace," she said, speaking from Kent, England.

luke somers

Luke Somers, 33, the American photojournalist killed alongside South African Hostage Pierre Korkie on Saturday in a failed US raid

Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in Sanaa, according to Fakhri al-Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen, where Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.

Before her brother's death, Lucy Somers released an online video describing him as a romantic who "always believes the best in people." She ended with the plea: "Please let him live."

In a statement, Somers' father, Michael, also called his son "a good friend of Yemen and the Yemeni people" and asked for his safe release.

Fuad Al Kadas, who called Somers one of his best friends, said Somers spent time in Egypt before finding work in Yemen. Somers started teaching English at a Yemen school but quickly established himself as a one of the few foreign photographers in the country, he said.

"He is a great man with a kind heart who really loves the Yemeni people and the country," Al Kadas wrote in an email from Yemen. He said he last saw Somers the day before he was kidnapped.

Al-Arashi, Somers' editor at the National Yemen, recalled a moment when Somers edited a story on other hostages held in the country.

"He looked at me and said, 'I don't want to be a hostage,'" al-Arashi said. "'I don't want to be kidnapped.'"

  |   December 5, 2014    7:34 PM ET

The Duke of Cambridge will call on President Barack Obama during his visit to America with the Duchess. The two men will meet at the White House in Washington on Monday ahead of a major speech William will deliver, expected to be about the illegal wildlife trade, at the World Bank Group's International Corruption Hunters Alliance Conference.

William and Kate will travel to the US on Sunday for a three-day visit, spending the majority of their time in New York, where they will promote their charitable interests and other good causes. The Duke will be following in the footsteps of his father, the Prince of Wales, who chatted to Mr Obama in the White House's Oval Office in May 2011.

The US leader famously told Charles that America had been mesmerised by William and Kate's wedding a few days earlier. President Obama and his family have developed a close affinity with the British monarchy during his term in office.

white house

President Obama is the speak to William at the White House

When the Queen hosted the US leader and his wife, Michelle, at Buckingham Palace during a state visit in 2011, the First Lady was seen putting her arm around the monarch's waist, showing how the women had become firm friends.

William and Kate also met the Obamas during their official visit and chatted to them in the sumptuous surroundings of the Palace's 1844 Room. While William is attending events in Washington, Kate will join the first lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, on a visit to a local child development centre.

During their brief trip to the US, the Duke and Duchess will attend events in support of their Royal Foundation and other organisations. The engagements include promoting sustainable conservation issues, young people's mental health and supporting disadvantaged young people.

Three Myth Busters About the Land of the Free

Joana Alfaiate   |   December 4, 2014    5:42 PM ET

The image of the US as the Land of the Free is being put into question. Ferguson, plus the cases of Tamir Rice, Darrien Hunt and Eric Garner, exposed America as an intolerant country where many are not free. The Prosperity Index shows this is true not only for African Americans, but for all citizens across the board. It paints a very accurate picture of current events in the country, where Americans are not buying into the myth of US's freedom and tolerance any more.

1. The US is the freest country in the world

NO: The US is not the freest country in the world in 2014 - actually New Zealand is. The US does not even make it to the top 20 this year, placing 21st below countries such as Uruguay, Costa Rica, Malta and Portugal. This represents a drop of 11 places since 2009. Freedom of choice in the US is at the lowest it has ever been since 2006, and this perception crosses almost all layers of society: all age brackets; all income levels; people in full-time employment and not; women; people who have completed tertiary education; and people from the rural parts of the country.

2. Freedom has been higher in the US under Obama

NO: The most satisfied Americans have ever been with freedom of choice has been between 2006 and 2008. From 2009 on, after President Obama's election, satisfaction has been declining. It is very interesting to note that this trend affects both people who approve and disapprove of government. 90% to 91% of people who approve of government declare to be satisfied with freedom choice since 2009, which although very high, pales in comparison with the 97% satisfaction in 2007. On the other hand, people who disapprove of government have never been as dissatisfied with freedom of choice as in more recent years, with a low 73% of satisfaction in 2013. In 2006 for example, 85% of the people who disapproved of the Bush administration were satisfied with freedom of choice.

3. There are not that many countries more tolerant than the US

NO: 81% of Americans say that the US is a good place to live for ethnic minorities, which, although high, places the US after such countries as Uruguay, Brazil, Senegal, and Mali in people's perceptions. The same happens with tolerance for immigrants, with the US falling behind countries such as Spain, Argentina and Taiwan.

The data warns that there are worrying trends in both tolerance and freedom that need to be addressed, confirming the concerning news that come in from the country. Due to recent cases, there is a clear picture forming of an US that needs to re-evaluate the way its citizens are being treated and the freedoms that are available to them. Americans take pride on US's freedom, tolerance and democracy. It would be a great lost to see these values abandon the Land of the Free.

Thomas Tamblyn   |   December 3, 2014    9:42 AM ET

UFO fans have found what they believe is definitive proof that President Obama is probably a martian spy after finding a rock that looks exactly like his head.

The picture was taken by NASA's Spirit rover in 2005 - suspiciously (...) three years before he took office -- and shows what appears to be a single rock that does indeed bare a striking resemblance to America's own President.

Despite the best efforts of UFO enthusiasts, experts have sadly already debunked the statue instead claiming it to be nothing more than a case of pareidolia.

obama head

Much in the same way that we see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast the rock is nothing more than visual trickery in which out brains associate the shape with our own memories.

Other enthusiasts had initially suggested the image looked like Morgan Freeman, but President Obama became the resounding choice.

Paul Vale   |   December 1, 2014    5:45 PM ET

David Cameron has met with a group of immovable, grey, ageing relics… and it’s not members of the Tory far right.

The prime minister was in Wiltshire on Monday to unveil a £2 billion project to turn the A303 from a nasty little back road to a modern expressway, replete with a £1.2 billion tunnel around Stonehenge to provide uninterrupted views of the Wiltshire Downs.

The PM said visiting the ancient site reminded him of trips as a child, particularly being stuck in traffic around the historic monument (a structure so old it might actually pre-date Tory immigration policy).

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Cameron and Obama have now both visited the Wiltshire site in 2014

Speaking to the Western Daily Press, he said: “This is the green light, it really is going to happen. The money is there. We’ve managed the nation’s budgets carefully so we can afford to do this.

“I think it’s not just what’s happening at Stonehenge but the whole of the expressway down to the south west I think is going to be really important for that region, its jobs, economy and prosperity to make sure that every region of the country benefits from the long-term economic plan.”

Cameron is the second world statesman to visit the English Heritage site in 2014 after Barack Obama toured the prehistoric monument on the way back from the Nato summit in Wales in September.

That visit resulted in what is was was the greatest piece of live-tweeting in West Country history when a mum of three (who runs 10K races dressed as a bumble bee), hiked up to the site hoping to get a glance of the President... only for Obama to wave, walk over, shake hands and have a picture taken.