Mark Danner: Still living in Cheney’s world

Rest assured of one thing: he was the only American vice president ever to travel regularly with “a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit” in the back seat of his car.  You could say that he took his weapons of mass destruction seriously, and perhaps even infer from Jane Mayer’s account of his anxieties back in September 2001 that he had something of a paranoid view of a world he believed wanted to do him harm in a weapons-of-mass-destructive way.

It was in this mood that he and the president he served decided to show that world just who was who and leaped, post-9/11 — not to put the matter too modestly — to create a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.  (At home, they were planning for a Pax Republicana coast to coast until hell froze over.)  In their imaginations, and some of their official documents as well, they dreamed of reorganizing the whole planet in ways that would more than rival any imperial power since Rome went down amid mad emperors and barbarian invasions. In the fabulous future they didn’t hesitate to document, no power or bloc of powers would be allowed to challenge the United States for years, decades, eons to come.  And their means of doing this?  The U.S. military, which the president took to calling “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” That high-tech force, romanticized and idolized by administration fundamentalists, turned out to be the only tool in their toolkit, all they believed was necessary to transform Earth into a first-class American protectorate.

Give credit to George W. Bush and his more-than-right-hand man, Dick Cheney, the vice president who essentially nominated himself: there’s never been a duo like them in the White House.  Cheney, in particular, was a geopolitical visionary, his planet-encompassing vision fueled by his experiences in the energy trade and by a Cold Warrior’s urge to roll back ever further the remnants of the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation.  He was also, as Mark Danner illustrates, mad in his vision and desperately wrong.  But again, give him and his president credit: before they were done mistaking military for economic power, they had punched a gaping hole through the heart of the Middle East and, as Arab League head Amr Moussa warned at the time, had driven directly through “the gates of hell” dreaming of a path strewn with “sweets and flowers” and lined with grateful Iraqis who would greet them as liberators on their way to Tehran.

Before they could complete their global damage, however, the adults were brought in, among them Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  At his congressional nomination hearings in December 2006, Gates put the vice president, his ever-endangered heart still pounding, in his political grave by describing the particular nightmare that would ensue from any U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.  The signal was clear enough.  If Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran, no one else would (despite much talk in the years to come about all “options” remaining on “the table”).  In fact, 2007 should probably be considered the beginning of the Obama years, a time when top officials with no vision at all of how the planet should function raced like so many overworked firemen from the scene of one global blaze to another (many originally set by Cheney and Bush).

Today, Mark Danner reminds us, as he did in his remarkable three-part series at the New York Review of Books on Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald (“stuff happens”) Rumsfeld, that if the cast of characters from those first post-9/11 years is gone, we still live in the ruins they created and the special darkness they embraced.  In an essay that focuses on Cheney’s memoir, a movie about the former vice president, and a book by his surgeon, Danner takes us deep into that darkness.  Thanks to the kindness of the editors of the New York Review of Books, it’s an honor to be able to post Danner’s latest piece for the first time online.  The start of a three-part series on Cheney, it will appear in that magazine’s March 6th issue.  Tom Engelhardt

In the darkness of Dick Cheney
The smile of secret power
By Mark Danner

[This essay appears in the March 6th issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine. The film and two books under review in this piece are listed at the end of the essay.]

If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.
— Dick Cheney, 2013

1.  “We Ought to Take It Out”

In early 2007, as Iraq seemed to be slipping inexorably into chaos and President George W. Bush into inescapable political purgatory, Meir Dagan, the head of the Israeli Mossad, flew to Washington, sat down in a sunlit office of the West Wing of the White House, and spread out on the coffee table before him a series of photographs showing a strange-looking building rising out of the sands in the desert of eastern Syria. Vice President Dick Cheney did not have to be told what it was. “They tried to hide it down a wadi, a gulley,” he recalls to filmmaker R.J. Cutler.

“There’s no population around it anyplace… You can’t say it’s to generate electricity, there’s no power line coming out of it. It’s just out there obviously for production of plutonium.”

The Syrians were secretly building a nuclear plant — with the help, it appeared, of the North Koreans. Though the United States was already embroiled in two difficult, unpopular, and seemingly endless wars, though its military was overstretched and its people impatient and angry, the vice president had no doubt what needed to be done: “Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take it out.”

[Read more...]

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The fall of Falluja reveals the tragic futility of America’s strategy in the Middle East

Graham E. Fuller writes: When is a war “worth it?” It’s a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.

The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans’ attention — US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa’ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago — for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.

What about the Iraqis — was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now — upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile — equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders–Iraqis must wonder — whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage — constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict –is not yet over.

Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi’a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi’ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today “better off” — at least politically, than before the war. But that’s a political abstraction.

Was it “worth it” to individual Shi’ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was “a hard choice… but it was worth it.” That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.

What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it’s been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.

Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan. [Continue reading...]

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How the U.S. turned the world into a war zone

Gregory D Johnsen writes: Sunrise was still nearly an hour off when Nazih al-Ruqai climbed into his black Hyundai SUV outside a mosque in northern Tripoli and turned the key. The lanky 49-year-old had left the house barely 30 minutes earlier for a quick trip to the mosque on a Saturday. It was Oct. 5, 2013, and after more than two decades in exile, he had settled into a predictable existence of prayer and worship.

The homecoming hadn’t always been so smooth. Ruqai, who is better known in the jihadi world as Abu Anas al-Libi, was still feeling the effects of the hepatitis C he had contracted years earlier during a stint in an underground prison in Iran. Following overtures from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government, his wife and children had returned to Libya in 2010. But Libi stayed away, wary of the man he had once plotted to kill. Only when the Libyan uprisings started in early 2011 did he follow his family back to Libya. But by then it was already too late. His oldest son, Abd al-Rahman, the only one of his five children who had been born in Libya, was dead, shot while fighting for the capital.

After that, things moved in fits and starts. Qaddafi was killed weeks later in October 2011, and Libi eventually settled in Nufalayn, a leafy middle-class neighborhood in northeast Tripoli, alongside several members of his extended family. Life after Qaddafi was chaotic and messy — nothing really worked as the new government struggled to reboot after 42 years of dictatorship, often finding itself at the mercy of the heavily armed militias and tribes that had contributed to Qaddafi’s downfall.

Libi knew he was a wanted man. He had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade, following an indictment in 2000 for his alleged role in al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two years earlier. Along with Libi the indictment named 20 other individuals, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as defendants.

“He suspected that at any moment he would be killed,” his son later told The New York Times. Still, on that Saturday morning in early October, much of the danger seemed to have passed. Libi had been living in the open for nearly a year, attending prayers and settling local disputes, where his history as a fighter and knowledge of the Qur’an made him a respected arbiter. Neighbors called him simply “the shaykh,” a sign of respect in the conservative circles in which Libi still moved.

He had also taken steps to address his past. Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 15, Libi had sat down with Libya’s attorney general to discuss his indictment, according to one report. (The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests to confirm Libi’s meeting.) But mostly he just wanted to move on with his life. He had applied for his old job at the Ministry of Oil and Gas and he couldn’t stop talking about how much he was looking forward to becoming a grandfather for the first time.

A trio of cars around 6 a.m. ended all of that.

Inside the family’s apartment, Libi’s wife heard the commotion. From a window she looked out over the beige wall that surrounded their building and into the street where several men had surrounded her husband, who was still in the driver’s seat of his black Hyundai.

“Get out,” the men shouted in Arabic. “Get out.” Then they smashed the window. Most of the men were masked, but she could see a few faces, she said later in Arabic interviews. They looked Libyan; they sounded Libyan. Some of them had guns; some didn’t, but they all moved quickly.

By the time the rest of the family made it to the street, all that was left was a single sandal and a few drops of blood.

Early that same morning, nearly 3,000 miles away in the seaside city of Baraawe on Somalia’s eastern coast, U.S. Navy SEALs crept through the darkness toward their target, which a local resident later described to me as a walled compound more than 100 yards inland. The Americans had been here before. Four years earlier, in September 2009, a contingent of Navy SEALs had ambushed a two-car convoy just outside of town. Flying low in helicopter gunships, the SEALs quickly disabled the cars and then touched down to collect the bodies.

This time the target — Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Abd al-Qadir, a young Kenyan of Somali descent better known as Ikrima — was stationary. The SEALs would have to go in and get him. Pre-raid intelligence suggested that the compound housed mostly fighters with few or no civilians present. Only 130 miles south of Mogadishu and what passed for the Somali government, Baraawe had been under the control of al-Shabaab, a fragmentary militant group, since 2009. Fighters came and went freely, as al-Shabaab implemented its own narrow version of Islamic law in the city.

Moving up the beach and into enemy territory, the SEALs needed the element of surprise. Through the trees and scrub brush ahead of them, most of the city was dark. Baraawe had only a few hours of electricity each day, usually from evening prayers until midnight. But al-Shabaab’s members lived separately and, along with some of the city’s wealthier residents, got around the shortages by running private generators. The plan that night took this into account, calling for the SEALs to jam internet signals, apparently in an attempt to cut off communication once the raid began. That would prove to be a mistake.

Inside the compound, some of the al-Shabaab fighters were up late and online. And, according to a report in the Toronto Star, when the internet suddenly went out in the middle of the night, they went to look for the source of the problem. At least one fighter stepped outside, and as he moved around in the darkness he spotted some of the SEALs.

The plan to knock the internet offline and isolate the fighters in the villa had backfired, effectively giving al-Shabaab an early warning that the SEALs were on their way. (In the days after the raid, al-Shabaab would arrest a handful of local men who were known to visit Western websites, accusing them of spying and aiding U.S. efforts.)

The firefight lasted several minutes, although residents reported hearing gunfire throughout the night as members of al-Shabaab discharged their weapons into the dark for hours after the Americans had withdrawn, empty-handed.

In the span of a few hours, the U.S. had launched a pair of raids — one successful and one not — 3,000 miles apart, in countries with which the nation was not at war. Hardly anyone noticed.

More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.

The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words. [Continue reading...]

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How data thieves have captured our lives on the internet

John Naughton writes: [T]he biggest misjudgment of all – the one that legitimised most of the excesses that Snowden has unveiled – was … a political one. It was the decision of the George W Bush administration to declare a “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – and the eager adoption by the UK and other allies of the same stance.

As Professor Eben Moglen of Columbia University puts it, the intelligence agencies “presented with a mission by an extraordinarily imprudent national government in the United States, which having failed to prevent a very serious attack on American civilians at home, largely by ignoring warnings, decreed that they were never again to be put in a position where they should have known. This resulted in a military response, which is to get as close to everything as possible. Because if you don’t get as close to everything as possible, how can you say that you knew everything that you should have known?” In a real war, one in which the very survival of a state is threatened by a foreign adversary, almost anything is permissible, including the suspension of civil liberties, the right to privacy and all the other things we liberals hold dear. Between 1939 and 1945, Britain was governed by what was effectively a dictatorship wielding unimaginable powers, including comprehensive censorship, the power to requisition private property on demand, and so on. Citizens might not have liked this regime, but they consented to because they understood the need for it.

The “war” on terror is not a war in this sense. It is a rhetorical device aimed at engineering consent for a particular political strategy. But it was enough to provide legislative cover for the acquisition by the US intelligence-gathering agencies of warlike powers, which included the means of surveilling every citizen on earth who had an internet connection, and every owner of a mobile phone in most countries of the world. The war on terror may have succeeded in turbocharging the surveillance capabilities of the US and its allies, but it has also inflicted significant collateral damage on the foreign policy of the US, threatened its dominance of cloud computing and other markets, undermined its major technology companies, infuriated some of its most important allies and superimposed a huge question-mark on the future of the internet as a global system. The war on terror may have made tactical sense in the traumatic months post-9/11. But as a political decision it has had a catastrophic long-term impact. [Continue reading...]

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Rumsfeld’s war and its consequences now

Mark Danner writes: A bare two weeks after the attacks of September 11, at the end of a long and emotional day at the White House, a sixty-nine-year-old politician and businessman—a midwesterner, born of modest means but grown wealthy and prominent and powerful—returned to his enormous suite of offices on the seventh floor of the flood-lit and wounded Pentagon and, as was his habit, scrawled out a memorandum on his calendar:

Interesting day—
NSC mtg. with President—
As [it] ended he asked to see me alone…
After the meeting ended I went to Oval Office—He was alone
He was at his desk—
He talked about the meet
Then he said I want you to develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover [?]

Then he said Dick [Cheney] told me about your son—I broke down and cried. I couldn’t speak—
said I love him so much
He said I can’t imagine the burden you are carrying for the country and your son—
He said much more.
Stood and hugged me
An amazing day—
He is a fine human being—
I am so grateful he is President.
I am proud to be working for him.

It is a touching and fateful scene, this trading of confidences between the recovering alcoholic president and the defense secretary whose son is struggling with drug addiction, and shows the intimacy that can be forged amid danger and turmoil and stress. Trust brings trust, confidence builds on confidence: the young inexperienced president, days before American bombs begin falling on Afghanistan, wants a “creative” plan to invade Iraq, developed “outside the normal channels”; the old veteran defense secretary, in a rare moment of weakness, craves human comfort and understanding.

And yet they’d hardly known one another, these two, before George W. Bush chose him for his secretary of defense nine months before. To George W., Donald Henry Rumsfeld had been little more than a political enemy of the Bush family. It was Rumsfeld, as President Gerald Ford’s ambitious young chief of staff, who had been instrumental in the so-called “Halloween Massacre” in 1975 that—so the legend goes—had helped clear the way for his own presidential ambitions by shunting George H.W. Bush, the wealthy eastern born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth preppie who was the scrappy Illinois-born wrestler’s main rival, off to be CIA director. This was a job for which Bush could gain Senate confirmation only by agreeing not to accept the vice-presidential nomination in 1976—even as Rumsfeld, as he tells us in his memoir, “for the third time in three years,…found myself being discussed for the vice presidential nomination.” As Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III cautioned George W. a quarter-century later, when Rumsfeld’s name was bruited for secretary of defense, “You know what he did to your daddy.”

Certainly he knew, and one can be forgiven for suspecting that this knowledge might have been a strong part of the attraction, perhaps for both men. When Errol Morris asks Rumsfeld whether his former aide Dick Cheney had brought him into the Bush administration, Rumsfeld replies, “I assume that’s the case. I don’t think George W. Bush’s father recommended it,” and then beams with self-congratulatory mischievousness. [Continue reading...]

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America’s ‘army of lawyers’ is almost as deadly as its drones

Dawood Ahmed writes: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Some ascribe this quote to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; others say Hitler authored the idea. In Mein Kampf he did speak of the invention of a lie so “colossal” that few would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”.

Whoever coined the idea, the point is this: controlling the narrative matters immensely.

Military prowess is not enough in this age. And the United States knows it. America’s “other army” – its less visible but equally potent cadre of skillful lawyers (in government and even in private institutions) – dutifully got busy crafting appropriate international law narratives for the War on Terror. They realized that winning the battle for defining “legality” on the world stage was critical.

This is something states in the developing world would do well to understand. And particularly, governments of countries that bear the brunt of US military interventions touted as “self-defense” and “counter-terrorism” – Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Such states need to build intellectual-professional capacity to counter precedent-setting international legal arguments strategically employed (or better said: deployed) against them.

No contemporary political discourse provides us with a clearer illustration of this than the heated debate about the (ill)legality of drones and targeted killings. [Continue reading...]

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The secret diaries of Abu Zubaydah

Jason Leopold reports:

Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of the secret personal diaries of Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-profile prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The six notebooks, which were obtained from a former U.S. government intelligence official who worked with the CIA and FBI on Al-Qaeda’s rise to power, were discovered at a safe house in Pakistan where Abu Zubaydah was captured in 2002. Repeatedly cited by U.S. officials in making the case for holding a number of prisoners at Guantanamo, the diaries, which were never officially released, cast fresh light on Abu Zubaydah and challenge some of the Bush administration’s accounts of its “war on terror.” Below are some of the highlights of the first notebook.

Arriving in Afghanistan in 1991, the young computer-science student Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah had no idea of the fateful journey he was embarking on — a journey that, 10 years later, would land him in a CIA black-site prison and then in Guantanamo Bay, branded by President George W. Bush as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.”

“I am actually scared,” he conceded in his diary. “Not of a bullet or a shell, rather of the future itself. If I decide to settle here, it means that I will cancel my education and there is no harm in that, God willing; jihad is a good thing, and I will stay.”

Abu Zubaydah arrived in Afghanistan from Mysore, India, where he had gone against his father’s wishes to study computer science.

“But,” his diary continues, “I am scared that I’ll be left high and dry in the future, God forbid. At that point, I will have no contingent plan to resort to, a degree or a job to lean on.” His fear was not martyrdom but surviving the war in Afghanistan, particularly if he was wounded. “What would I do if the party is over and there is no more jihad in Afghanistan! Where would I go when I have no job and no college degree?”

He was distrustful of the few friends he had, describing many of them as backstabbers. “Friendship is a fantasy, friendship is false.”

So in the diary — which offers deep insight into a man portrayed by the Bush administration as a seminal figure in the “war on terror” — Abu Zubaydah created a friend he could talk to.

“Dear 30-year-old Hani,” the diary begins, referring to himself by a childhood nickname and making clear that the audience is himself 10 years in the future, “Today I have decided to write my memoirs and these words are to you. So, this will be the letter in which I complain to you, get things off my chest, and cry in your arms whenever I feel the need to share my burden, from this silly world, with someone.”

He states that he intends to reread the diary only after he reaches that age. “So, I will be you; the 30 years old Hani, provided that I get to live to meet you.”

Perhaps mindful of how others might interpret his literary device, Abu Zubaydah writes, “I am not a schizophrenic, which is a split personality disease; rather, I am trying to divide myself into two parts because; I believe that everything changes with time, even human beings. Therefore, it is inevitable that you Hani 2 at 30 years of age are different than Hani 1 … Me… at 20 years old.”

FBI agents who read the diaries said that Abu Zubaydah’s writing to a different version of himself proved that he had a “schizophrenic personality.” The correct term for the exhibition of multiple personalities is dissociative identity disorder, however, not schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a disease often characterized by hallucinations or delusions but not by multiple personalities. [Continue reading...]

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Could Merkel have been spied on without Obama’s approval?

Der Spiegel reports: Among the politically decisive questions is whether the spying was authorized from the top: from the US president. If the data is accurate, the operation was authorized under former President George W. Bush and his NSA chief, Michael Hayden. But it would have had to be repeatedly approved, including after Obama took office and up to the present time. Is it conceivable that the NSA made the German chancellor a surveillance target without the president’s knowledge?

The White House and the US intelligence agencies periodically put together a list of priorities. Listed by country and theme, the result is a matrix of global surveillance: What are the intelligence targets in various countries? How important is this reconnaissance? The list is called the “National Intelligence Priorities Framework” and is “presidentially approved.”

One category in this list is “Leadership Intentions,” the goals and objectives of a country’s political leadership. The intentions of China’s leadership are of high interest to the US government. They are marked with a “1″ on a scale of 1 to 5. Mexico and Brazil each receive a “3″ in this category.

Germany appears on this list as well. The US intelligence agencies are mainly interested in the country’s economic stability and foreign policy objectives (both “3″), as well as in its advanced weapons systems and a few other sub-items, all of which are marked “4.” The “Leadership Intention” field is empty. So based on the list, it wouldn’t appear that Merkel should be monitored.

Former NSA employee Thomas Drake does not see this as a contradiction. “After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Germany became intelligence target number one in Europe,” he says. The US government did not trust Germany, because some of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots had lived in Hamburg. Evidence suggests that the NSA recorded Merkel once and then became intoxicated with success, says Drake. “It has always been the NSA’s motto to conduct as much surveillance as possible,” he adds.

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Bush administration feared chemical weapons inspections would conflict with rationale for invading Iraq

The New York Times reports: More than a decade before the international agency that monitors chemical weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize, John R. Bolton marched into the office of its boss to inform him that he would be fired.

“He told me I had 24 hours to resign,” said José Bustani, who was director general of the agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. “And if I didn’t I would have to face the consequences.”

Mr. Bolton, then an under secretary of state and later the American ambassador to the United Nations, told Mr. Bustani that the Bush administration was unhappy with his management style.

But Mr. Bustani, 68, who had been re-elected unanimously just 11 months earlier, refused, and weeks later, on April 22, 2002, he was ousted in a special session of the 145-nation chemical weapons watchdog.

The story behind his ouster has been the subject of interpretation and speculation for years, and Mr. Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat, has kept a low profile since then. But with the agency thrust into the spotlight with news of the Nobel Prize last week, Mr. Bustani agreed to discuss what he said was the real reason: the Bush administration’s fear that chemical weapons inspections in Iraq would conflict with Washington’s rationale for invading it. Several officials involved in the events, some speaking publicly about them for the first time, confirmed his account. [Continue reading...]

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Elliot Abrams’ plan to divide the Palestinians

By Mark Perry

Some stories you have to work for – while others just fall in your lap. That was the case for me in the summer of 2006, when a senior source inside the Pentagon laid out the Bush administration’s covert program to arm and then set loose a Fatah militia in Gaza. It was hoped that the resulting coup would reverse the January 2006 Palestinian election, which Hamas had won, and buttress the fortunes of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The story came complete with documents and enraged officials. That is to say: it fell into my lap.

What was so shocking about the story was that, at least here in the U.S., the details of the Bush administration’s initiative were almost unknown. That wasn’t true in the Middle East, where regional leaders openly questioned the covert program’s necessity. Egypt’s then-President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah bluntly told U.S. officials that they believed the program would backfire – staining America’s already sullied regional reputation.

In early January of 2007, just months after being fed details of the covert program, I wrote and published a summary of what I had found. Elliot Abrams was at the center of my story because he was at the center of the covert program. It was his brainchild, his “baby.”

That same month I sent the details of what I knew to my colleague David Rose, who was following the same leads. His article, “The Gaza Bombshell,” was published by Vanity Fair in April 2008 and contained new details of the Bush administration’s plan – and how it had failed. “The Gaza Bombshell” was, in fact, a bombshell.

Sorting through the history of the Bush administration’s adventures in the Middle East is crucial to understanding how and why America lost its footing in the region and continues to struggle to recoup its credibility. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Elliot Abrams’ new tome, Tested By Zion, on his time as President Bush’s most powerful Middle East advisor. Touted as a “diplomatic tour de force” and “definitive,” the book’s promoters elegantly ignore a larger truth: that Abrams authored one of the most ill-conceived Middle East interventions in American history.

Elliot Abrams, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy in the Bush Administration, 2005-2009.


January 7, 2007: Is the Bush administration violating the law in an effort to provoke a Palestinian civil war?

Deputy National Security Advisor, Elliott Abrams — who Newsweek recently described as “the last neocon standing” — has had it about for some months now that the U.S. is not only not interested in dealing with Hamas, it is working to ensure its failure. In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas elections, last January, Abrams greeted a group of Palestinian businessmen in his White House office with talk of a “hard coup” against the newly-elected Hamas government — the violent overthrow of their leadership with arms supplied by the United States. While the businessmen were shocked, Abrams was adamant — the U.S. had to support Fatah with guns, ammunition and training, so that they could fight Hamas for control of the Palestinian government.

While those closest to him now concede the Abrams’ words were issued in a moment of frustration, the “hard coup” talk was hardly just talk. Over the last twelve months, the United States has supplied guns, ammunition and training to Palestinian Fatah activists to take on Hamas in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. A large number of Fatah activists have been trained and “graduated” from two camps — one in Ramallah and one in Jericho. The supplies of rifles and ammunition, which started as a mere trickle, has now become a torrent (Haaretz reports the U.S. has designated an astounding $86.4 million for Mahmoud Abbas’s security detail), and while the program has gone largely without notice in the American press, it is openly talked about and commented on in the Arab media — and in Israel. Thousands of rifles and bullets have been poring into Gaza and the West Bank from Egypt and Jordan, the administration’s designated allies in the program.

At first, it was thought, the resupply effort (initiated under the guise of “assist[ing] the Palestinian Authority presidency in fulfilling PA commitments under the road map to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza,” according to a U.S. government document) would strengthen the security forces under the command of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Officials thought that the additional weapons would easily cow Hamas operatives, who would meekly surrender the offices they had only recently so dearly won. That has not only not happened, but the program is under attack throughout the Arab world — particularly among America’s closest allies.

While both Egypt and Jordan have shipped arms to Mahmoud Abbas under the Abrams program (Egypt recently sent 1,900 rifles into Gaza and the West Bank, nearly matching the 3000 rifles sent by the Jordanians), neither Jordan’s King Abdullah nor Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak believe the program will work — and both are now maneuvering to find a way out of it. “Who can blame them?” an administration official told us recently. “While Mubarak has no love for Hamas, they do not want to be seen as bringing them down. The same can be said for Jordan.” A Pentagon official was even more adamant, cataloguing official Washington’s nearly open disdain for Abrams’ program. “This is not going to work and everyone knows it won’t work. It is too clever. We’re just not very good at this. This is typical Abrams stuff.” This official went on to note that “it is unlikely that either Jordan or Egypt will place their future in the hands of the White House. Who the hell outside of Washington wants to see a civil war among Palestinians? Do we really think that the Jordanians think that’s a good idea. The minute it gets underway, Abdullah is finished. Hell, fifty percent of his country is Palestinian.”

Senior U.S. Army officers and high level civilian Pentagon officials have been the most outspoken internal administration critics of the program, which was unknown to them until mid-August, near the end of Israel’s war against Hezbollah. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld learned about it he was enraged, and scheduled a meeting with President Bush in an attempt to convince him the program would backfire. Rumsfeld was concerned that the anti-Hamas program would radicalise Muslim groups among American allies and eventually endanger U.S. troops fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq. According to our reports, Rumsfeld was told by Bush that he should keep his focus on Iraq, and that “the Palestinian brief” was in the hands of the Secretary of State. After this confrontation, Rumsfeld decided there was not much he could do.

The Abrams program was initially conceived in February of 2006 by a group of White House officials who wanted to shape a coherent and tough response to the Hamas electoral victory of January. These officials, I am told, were led by Abrams, but included national security advisors working in the Office of the Vice President, including prominent neo-conservatives David Wurmser and John Hannah. The policy was approved by Condoleezza Rice. The President then, I am told, signed off on the program in a CIA “finding” and designated that its implementation be put under the control of Langley. But the program ran into problems almost from the beginning. “The CIA didn’t like it and didn’t think it would work,” I was told in October. “The Pentagon hated it, the US embassy in Israel hated it, and even the Israelis hated it.” A prominent American military official serving in Israel called the program “stupid” and “counter-productive.” The program went forward despite these criticisms, however, though responsibility for its implementation was slowly put in the hands of anti-terrorism officials working closely with the State Department. The CIA “wriggled out of” retaining responsibility for implementing the Abrams plan, I have been told. Since at least August, Rice, Abrams and U.S. envoy David Welch have been its primary advocates and the program has been subsumed as a “part of the State Department’s Middle East initiative.” U.S. government officials refused to comment on a report that the program is now a part of the State Department’s “Middle East Partnership Initiative,” established to promote democracy in the region. If it is, diverting appropriated funds from the program for the purchase of weapons may be a violation of Congressional intent — and U.S. law.

The recipients of U.S. largesse have been Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan, a controversial and charismatic Palestinian political leader from Gaza. The U.S. has also relied on advice from Mohammad Rashid, a well-known Kurdish/Palestinian financier with offices in Cairo. Even in Israel, the alliance of the U.S. with these two figures is greeted with almost open derision. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hesitantly supported the program, many of his key advisors have made it clear that they want to have nothing to do with starting a Palestinian civil war. They also doubt whether Hamas can be weakened. These officials point out that, since the beginning of the program, Hamas has actually gained in strength, in part because its leaders are considered competent, transparent, uncorrupt and unwilling to compromise their ideals — just the kinds of democratically elected leaders that the Bush Administration would want to support anywhere else in the Middle East.

Of course, in public, Secretary Rice appears contrite and concerned with “the growing lawlessness” among Palestinians, while failing to mention that such lawlessness is exactly what the Abrams plan was designed to create. “You can’t build security forces overnight to deal with the kind of lawlessness that is there in Gaza which largely derives from an inability to govern,” she said during a recent trip to Israel. “Their [the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority] inability to govern, of course, comes from their unwillingness to meet international standards.” Even Middle East experts and State Department officials close to Rice consider her comments about Palestinian violence dangerous, and have warned her that if the details of the U.S. program become public her reputation could be stained. In fact, Pentagon officials concede, Hamas’s inability to provide security to its own people and the clashes that have recently erupted have been seeded by the Abrams plan. Israeli officials know this, and have begun to rebel. In Israel, at least, Rice’s view that Hamas can be unseated is now regularly, and sometimes publicly, dismissed.

According to a December 25 article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, senior Israeli intelligence officials have told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that not only can Hamas not be replaced, but that its rival, Fatah, is disintegrating. Any hope for the success of an American program aimed at replacing Hamas, these officials argued, will fail. These Israeli intelligence officials also dismissed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for elections to replace Hamas — saying that such elections would all but destroy Fatah. As Haaretz reported: “Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet Sunday [December 24] that should elections be held in the Palestinian Authority, Fatah’s chances of winning would be close to zero. Diskin said during Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting that the Fatah faction is in bad shape, and therefore Israel should expect Hamas to register a sweeping victory.”

Apparently Jordan’s King Abdullah agrees. On the day this article appeared, December 25, Abdullah kept Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waiting for six hours to see him in Amman. Eventually, Abdullah told Abbas that he should go home — and only come to see him again when accompanied by Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. Most recently, Saudi officials have welcomed Haniyeh to Saudi Arabia for talks, having apparently made public their own views on the American program to replace Hamas. And so it is: one year after the election of Hamas, and one year after Elliot Abrams determined that sowing the seeds of civil war among a people already under occupation would somehow advance America’s program for democracy in the Middle East, respect for America’s democratic ideals has all but collapsed — and not just in Iraq.

Mark Perry is a Washington-based author and reporter. His most recent book is Talking To Terrorists. His forthcoming book (Basic Books, 2013) is a study of the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and General Douglas MacArthur. Perry served as an unofficial advisor to PLO Chairman and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from 1989 to 2004.

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The secret program empowering Obama to kill anyone, anywhere, without any explanation

The Washington Post reports: Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory.

The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.

The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.

It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.

Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years — resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan — it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.

In outlining its legal reasoning, the administration has cited broad congressional authorizations and presidential approvals, the international laws of war and the right to self-defense. But it has not offered the American public, uneasy allies or international authorities any specifics that would make it possible to judge how it is applying those laws. [Continue reading...]

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The we-are-at-war! mentality

Glenn Greenwald writes: Two significant events happened on Thursday: (1) the Democratic-led Senate rejuvenated and expanded the War on Terror by, among other things, passing a law authorizing military detention on U.S. soil and expanding the formal scope of the War; and (2) Obama lawyers, for the first time, publicly justified the President’s asserted (and seized) power to target U.S. citizens for assassination without any transparency or due process. I wrote extensively about the first episode on Thursday, and now have a question for those supporting the assassination theories just offered by the President’s lawyers.

To pose that question, I’d like to harken back for a moment to the controversy over the Guantanamo detention system. Democrats universally purported to be appalled that the Bush administration was indefinitely imprisoning people without any charges or due process. Barack Obama, as a Senator from Illinois, denounced “the Bush Administration’s attempt to create a legal black hole at Guantanamo” — i.e., that people would be put in cages, possibly forever,with no charges. But Bush lawyers offered a theory for why due-process-free imprisonment was justifiable. The theory had these four fairly simple premises:

(1) Terrorism is not primarily a criminal offense. It is an act of war. Thus: We Are At War With The Terrorists.

(2) Those who try to harm the U.S. as part of this War are combatants and Terrorists — not criminals — and are thus entitled to no due process or any other rights to which accused criminals are entitled. It is the U.S. military (led by the Commander-in-Chief) — not courts — which decides who is and is not a combatant and Terrorist.

(3) Whether someone is a combatant or Terrorist is decided by only one thing: the President’s unilateral decree. Once the President decrees someone a combatant or Terrorist — including one of his own citizens — that person by definition becomes one, and he can then be treated as such without any further judicial process or Constitutional protection. Once that presidential accusatory decree issues, protections of the Constitution and law disappear. In sum, presidential accusations that someone is a Terrorist are the same as proof and a verdict of guilt.

(4) Unlike virtually every other war ever fought, the “battlefield” of this War is not found where opposing forces are shooting at each other, but is rather defined as: wherever an accused Terrorist is found anywhere in the world. Thus, the President’s battlefield powers — which are limitless: unilateral targeting for death, indefinite imprisonment without charges, spying on communications without any oversight – are not confined to any geographical location, but instead can be applied everywhere. Wherever an accused combatant or Terrorist physically exists — sleeping in a bed, riding in a car with his children, thousands of miles away from any actual shooting — is the “battlefield.”

Those were the once-controversial theoretical premises offered repeatedly by Bush lawyers and other defenders to justify the Guantanamo detention system. More generally, these theories were (and remain) the heart and soul of the neocon view of the War on Terror. Once you accept those four premises, there is no coherent way to oppose Guantanamo. So here is my question:

At this point, do Obama defenders reject any of these four premises? I mean this literally: I cannot count how many times I have heard exactly this same theory offered by Obama supporters justifying his assassination powers (the President is entitled to target citizens for death because we are at War, and once you take up arms against the U.S. (meaning: once the President accuses you of doing so) you have no due process rights). Indeed, there simply is no possible way to defend the assassination powers claimed by Obama without embracing each of these theories. And therefore, here is what Obama lawyers said on Thursday:

U.S. citizens are legitimate military targets when they take up arms with al-Qaida, top national security lawyers in the Obama administration said Thursday. The lawyers were asked at a national security conference about the CIA killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and leading al-Qaida figure. . . .

The government lawyers, CIA counsel Stephen Preston and Pentagon counsel Jeh Johnson, did not directly address the al-Awlaki case. But they said U.S. citizens do not have immunity when they are at war with the United States.

Johnson said only the executive branch, not the courts, is equipped to make military battlefield targeting decisions about who qualifies as an enemy.

When Obama lawyers refer to “U.S. citizens who take up arms with al-Qaida,” what they mean is this: those whom the President accuses (in secret, with no due process or evidence presented) of having taken up arms with al-Qaida. When they refer to “battlefield targeting decisions,” they do not mean a place where there is active fighting, but rather: anywhere in the world an accused Terrorist is found (leaving no doubt about that, Johnson decreed that the limits of “battlefield v. non battlefield is a distinction that is growing stale“). In other words: the whole world is the battlefield, a claim Obama officials have long embraced, and someone is a Terrorist the minute the President declares him to be one: the President is the sole judge, the sole jury, and now even the sole executioner.

So my question to defenders of Obama’s assassination powers is this: which of those four core Bush/Cheney War on Terror premises do you reject, if any?

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Hank Paulson’s inside jobs

Felix Salmon writes: What on earth did Hank Paulson think his job was in the summer of 2008? As far as most of us were concerned, he was secretary of the US Treasury, answerable to the US people and to the president. But at the same time, in secret meetings, Paulson was hanging out with his old Goldman Sachs buddies, giving them invaluable information about what he was thinking in his new job.

The first news of this behavior came in October 2009, when Andrew Ross Sorkin revealed that Paulson had met with the entire board of Goldman Sachs in a Moscow hotel suite for an hour at the end of June 2008. He told them his views of the US and global economies, he previewed a market-moving speech he was about to give, and he even talked about the possibility that Lehman Brothers might blow up. Maybe it’s not so surprising that Goldman Sachs turned out to be so well positioned when Lehman did indeed do just that a few months later.

Today we learn that the Goldman meeting in Moscow was not some kind of aberration. A few weeks later, on July 28 2008, Paulson met with a who’s who of the hedge-fund world in the headquarters of Eton Park Capital Management — a fund founded by former Goldman superstar Eric Mindich.

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Visions of slaughter: Jennifer Rubin, Rachel Abrams and the Washington Post

Here’s the post that got this story rolling. It’s written by Rachel Abrams and appears on her blog, Bad Rachel, and is her bloodcurdling response to the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, on October 18:

GILAD!!!!!!!!!!

He’s free and he’s home in the bosom of his family and his country.

Celebrate, Israel, with all the joyous gratitude that fills your hearts, as we all do along with you.

Then round up his captors, the slaughtering, death-worshiping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages who dip their hands in blood and use women—those who aren’t strapping bombs to their own devils’ spawn and sending them out to meet their seventy-two virgins by taking the lives of the school-bus-riding, heart-drawing, Transformer-doodling, homework-losing children of Others—and their offspring—those who haven’t already been pimped out by their mothers to the murder god—as shields, hiding behind their burkas and cradles like the unmanned animals they are, and throw them not into your prisons, where they can bide until they’re traded by the thousands for another child of Israel, but into the sea, to float there, food for sharks, stargazers, and whatever other oceanic carnivores God has put there for the purpose.

And here’s how the Washington Post got involved: Their right wing, pro-Israel, blogger, Jennifer Rubin, gave Abrams the thumbs up when she retweeted a tweet in which Abrams was promoting her post.

The Post‘s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton says “Rubin should not have retweeted Abrams’s tweet.”

He concludes: “Rubin is not responsible for the offensive words; Abrams is. But in agreeing with the sentiment, and in spreading it to her 7,000 Twitter followers who know her as a Washington Post blogger, Rubin did damage to The Post and the credibility that keeps it afloat.”

Pexton’s analysis of Abrams’ post is less than exact. He writes:

Abrams’s post is so full of dashes it’s hard to follow, but the subject of her run-on sentence does appear to be “captors” not Palestinians in general. The language is so over the top, though —“child-sacrificing savages,” “devil’s spawn,” “pimped out by their mothers,” “unmanned animals” — it’s easy to how some people might see it as an endorsement of genocide.

The mangled sentence is indeed difficult to decipher, but this call for vengeance is not simply directed at Shalit’s captors — it includes “their offspring.” Presumably Abrams shares the view of many right wing Zionists that the children of terrorists are baby terrorists and thus she hopes for their preemptive slaughter.

Having said all that, some observers may wonder why a blogger like Abrams could garner so much attention. Pexton merely identifies her as “an independent blogger and board member of the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel” — a group so extreme that it has drawn criticism from the pro-Israel American Jewish establishment.

The context the Post‘s ombudsman failed to provide was this:

Her spouse, Elliott Abrams is a veteran of both the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations who was convicted (and later pardoned) for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal; her mother, Midge Decter, is on the board of the Center for Security Policy and was a founding member of the Project for the New American Century and the Reagan-era Committee for the Free World, which she co-directed with Donald Rumsfeld; her step-father, Norman Podhoretz, is a former editor of the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary and a widely recognized trailblazer of the neoconservative “tendency” (Norman’s son from another marriage, John Podhoretz, is currently editor of Commentary); and her sister, Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, is a columnist for the conservative Israeli daily, the Jerusalem Post.

Back in 2006, when Elliot Abrams backed an armed uprising in Gaza in an effort to overthrow the democratically elected government, what kind of encouragement was he getting from his wife? Was she also then sharing visions of mass slaughter with President Bush’s Deputy National Security Adviser who at that time was arguably the most influential Middle East policymaker inside the administration?

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World history at warp speed

Helena Cobban asks: From Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Pakistan, to Somalia, to Yemen– and now, to Libya… What has the U.S. military brought in its wake?? The collapse of communities, of whole economies, of institutions, and families… Tragedies, wherever you look.

This is not to indict individual members of the military, which as a group of people probably contains as great a proportion of decent, competent people as any group of that size. What has happened has not been the fault of the individual people in the military, but in the fact that it was the military that was used at all in response to all these problems. For each and every one of those “problems”, there were non-military policies that were available and could have been pursued– most likely with, at the end of the day, a lot more success from the American people’s point of view than we ended up winning. But the rush, the urge, the unseemly push to use military force proved overwhelming. Especially to those three presidents– Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama– who had never themselves experienced the horrors of war.

Almost none of this destruction need have happened– if only these men and their advisers had kept fast to the older, more principled visions of America as a country that upholds and strengthen the rule of international law and all the institutions built up around it… If only these men had not been so easily tempted by the ‘flash-bang’ wizardry and testosterone-driven arrogance of war.

But here we are. And at the other end of the Mediterranean this week, there have been two notably different kind of gatherings. At one of them, on Monday, world leaders gave a strong vote to Palestine’s application to become a member of the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural organization (UNESCO). In that vote, 107 nations (including several substantial European allies of Washington) defied vigorous American arm-twisting to support the Palestinian request.

The U.S. State Department announced almost immediately that it would stop providing the funding it has been giving to UNESCO. Far-reaching legislation passed over recent years by the strongly Israeli-controlled U.S. Congress means that the administration may have to extend its funding cut-off to other agencies, too.

How very, very far the United States has come from those idealistic days, 60 years ago, when it was a victorious America, standing unchallenged astride the the whole world, that exercised wisdom and restraint by setting up the United Nations as a set of institutions based on the key principles of human equality, respect for the rule of law, and the need to stress nonviolent, negotiated ways to resolved conflicts whenever possible.

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The Unpatriotic Act: ten years later

Stephen Rohde writes: The USA Patriot Act became law ten years ago today. Bearing the awkward name, Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, it passed the US Senate by an overwhelming vote of 96-1, with only Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) in dissent, voicing deep concerns about the impact the new law would have on civil liberties and privacy rights.

During the debate over the Patriot Act, Senator Feingold observed that the “founders who wrote our Constitution and Bill of Rights exercised that vigilance even though they had recently fought and won the Revolutionary War. They did not live in comfortable and easy times of hypothetical enemies. They wrote a Constitution of limited powers and an explicit Bill of Rights to protect liberty in times of war, as well as in times of peace.”

He traced the dark periods in our nation’s history when civil liberties took a back seat to what appeared at the time to be the legitimate exigencies of war, including the Alien and Sedition Acts, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the internment of Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans during World War II, the blacklisting of alleged communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era, and the surveillance and harassment of antiwar protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the Vietnam War.

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