A story in the Guardian yesterday about alleged CIA co-operation with Palestinian security forces involved in torture has exploded across the Arab media today. There isn't all that much new in the story, since such allegations have been widely circulating for years and have been investigated by a wide range of human rights organizations. But the way the story is playing out now is all too familiar. It will likely further discredit the Palestinian Authority and Salam Fayyad's government, give greater traction to the widespread complaints about the role of U.S. trained security forces, and strengthen the Hamas arguments within the Palestinian public.
The Guardian story carefully distinguishes between the intelligence agencies working directly with their Palestinian counterparts on the one hand, and the security forces being trained by General Keith Dayton on the other. This part rings true, given the way U.S. security efforts are organized over there. But at the political level it probably doesn't matter. As Brian Katulis and I warned some six months ago, "Palestinians will not likely distinguish between different chains of command" when faced with such abuses. Dayton and Fayyad's efforts could be badly undermined even if the alleged abuses were done by other agencies beyond their control. Such discontent is of course magnified a thousand-fold by the general atmosphere of political crisis after the Goldstone report fiasco, the cancelation of Palestinian elections and failure to get a national unity agreement, and the frustration over a settlement freeze.
This doesn't come out of nowhere, of course. Complaints about the U.S. trained Palestinian security forces have been swirling for a long time now (remember David Rose's Vanity Fair story about Gaza? or the controversy over Dayton's speech to the Washington Institute?). Such abuses have always been one of the great dangers of a security-first approach which fails to develop a commensurate institutional foundation for the rule of law (see Yezid Sayigh's excellent recent brief on security sector reform in Palestine and elsewhere for more). They may help in the short term to establish "security" but can have highly negative long-term effects in terms of the legitimacy of the emerging political institutions and the imbalance between the security and civil sectors. And in the absence of any political horizon for negotiations towards a Palestinian state, even the security efforts will likely become unsustainable.
There's also a strategic communications angle here. The story is spreading virally through new media and is all over the Arab mass media. Thus far I've seen little effective American engagement with this potentially devastating story, other than a routine denial by the CIA spokesman. That denial has been included in most of the stories I've seen (including al-Jazeera's and several Palestinian papers), but doesn't seem likely to make a dent in the circulation of the story. Most people I've heard from just assume it's true. This is one of those issues which needs to be confronted head on: with a communications strategy and with real policy adjustments to make that strategy credible and true.