The torture that flourishes from Gitmo to an American supermax

FeaturePardiss Kebriaei writes: I just returned from Guantánamo, where I met with my client Ghaleb Al-Bihani, a Yemeni citizen who began his thirteenth year of detention without charge there this month. He has been deprived of a third of his life, from ages 22 to 35, because the United States government says that in 2001 he was a cook for a Taliban affiliate that no longer exists. In a few months, he will go through another government review that will either recommend his transfer from Guantánamo or his continued and indefinite imprisonment. We have words and images to describe waterboarding; it is harder to convey the suffocation of perpetual detention.

The crisis of Ghaleb’s continuing detention — its injustice and pain — was at one time more visible. Guantánamo began as a prison the Bush administration declared was outside the law, and there was little pretense about it. People were shoved off the first transport planes in shackles and hoods and locked into outdoor cages. For two years, they were held incommunicado and denied the right to know or contest why they were being detained. When it came to torture, the “gloves were off,” to paraphrase top military and civilian officials.

The wrongful detention and abuse of the men who remain are less overt now. Today, as the result of years of legal challenges and advocacy, detainees have the right to challenge the legality of their detention in federal court; indeed, it is a federal court that sanctioned Ghaleb’s indefinite detention for being a cook. Today, the cages of the makeshift “Camp X-Ray” are overgrown with weeds; the majority of detainees are held in “state-of-the-art” facilities that resemble maximum-security prisons in the United States and mask similar cruelties. Today, torture is the mental torment of 4,380 days behind the walls of an island prison without good reason or end. It is that which Ghaleb says is excruciating.

A colleague, the first civilian attorney allowed access to the prison in 2004, talks of that first visit. The barbarity of the way human beings were being treated was raw and exposed. My visits nowadays begin with a mint on my pillow in my lodging quarters. I can bring pizza to my clients. The crisis at Guantánamo is as present now as ever, but it has been given legal cover, sanitized, normalized. It took a mass hunger strike at the prison last year to wake us up to it.

A few years ago, at an event in January marking yet another anniversary of the Guantánamo prison’s existence, I met the father of Fahad Hashmi, a US citizen of Pakistani descent who grew up in New York City. Fahad is incarcerated at another infamous US prison — the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Colorado. As a lawyer, I had spent the last several years trying to extend the protections of the American legal system to Guantánamo. But that meeting was an introduction to a slice of unjust punishment and torture on American soil—another outrage born of the “War on Terror,” where government zealotry produces grotesque outcomes, the façade of legal process can legitimize profound unfairness, and barbarity is masked by utter normality. [Continue reading...]

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Why I hate coming home to America

OpinionHost/producer for HuffPost Live, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, writes: It’s not easy coming back home to America when your name is Ahmed.

I want to look forward to returning home from a trip abroad, but thanks to my name or as the TSA officer put it — my “profile” — I’ve come to dread it.

The last four times I’ve traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival. It’s as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, “blessed,” each time I land at JFK airport, I can’t help but feel somewhat cursed.

On Sunday night, after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time, I was detained for two hours upon arrival. In October, I was held for almost four, returning home after a 14-hour trip to Turkey where I moderated a UN conference on peace in the Middle East. For what it’s worth, I breezed through security in Istanbul.

In Davos — where I interviewed some of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful and highest-profile people — the running joke among our production team, and many of the other participants was how unusually friendly and hospitable the thousands of police officers, special forces, and security guards were. My team passed through security checkpoint after checkpoint at each of the various venues with respect and dignity.

Why then, you might be wondering, am I detained every time I set foot on U.S. soil? As it is always abstractly and bluntly explained to me: My “name” and “my profile” are simply a “match.”

Like all Americans (and every human being for that matter), I want to be safe. But I can’t help but question the efficacy of our national security policy, including the practice of detaining U.S. citizens because something (never specifically explained) about a name or person’s identity is said to match that of someone somewhere in the world who is deemed to pose a threat to America. [Continue reading...]

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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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The threat of institutional anti-extremism

James Harkin writes: Moderation, just like extremism, is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Last month the British and US governments suspended deliveries of “non-lethal aid” – vehicles, communication devices, intelligence assistance – to its preferred group of moderate Syrian rebels, the Free Syrian Army. That was because the FSA was as dead as a dodo and our aid had been confiscated by a newer coalition of rebel groups called the Islamist Front.

This month the same Islamist Front, together with Syria’s home-grown al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – and with the presumed acquiescence or encouragement of Turkey and other Nato countries – helpfully led attacks on the most ruthless al-Qaida group in northern Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis). At least 50 Isis members, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, were summarily executed; some of their families have been kidnapped and brutalised. Meet the new moderates.

Our confused approach to Syria is simply the internationalisation of a familiar problem – our definition of extremism and how to beat it. One result of the London terror attacks in 2005 was a mushrooming of well-meaning, generously endowed initiatives designed to combat extremism. Most went beyond traditional anti-terror techniques to focus on the alleged causes of terrorism, and how to rescue young men on the pathway to radicalisation. More Malcolm Gladwell than Andy McNab; the point was to tip, nudge and channel young men at risk of indoctrination towards more benign alternatives. Then there were all those attempts to “turn” Islamist militants or English Defence League activists. Occasionally came news of a coup – after delicate negotiations a firebrand had jumped ship, leading to a new career in anti-extremism and a round of media congratulation. Like a former drug addict playing the awareness circuit, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), with the help of his new friends at the “deradicalisation” thinktank the Quilliam Foundation, is now said to be carving out a new role teaching tolerance to children.

This is nice work if you can get it. But just how helpful is it to label the average EDL supporter or conservative Muslim as a dangerous extremist? To put it another way: do we have a problem with specific acts of violence or intimidation, or with radicalisation per se? If our problem is radicalisation itself, we’re in serious trouble. No liberal, democratic state should be in the business of steering people away from radical or fundamentalist beliefs – as long as their plans don’t congeal into plans to perpetrate terrorism.

Then there’s the question of strategy. Attempts to counter Islamist extremism often take the form of puffing up the importance of allegedly moderate counterweights whose leaders may be corrupt or not representative of anyone but themselves. The UK government’s much-criticised preventing violent extremism strategy spent large sums of public money footing the bill for tours by peaceable-sounding Islamic scholars. This was grossly patronising to believers: it is not up to us to tell Muslims how to be Muslim. Neither was it clear what the money was supposed to achieve. A friend of mine who teaches in an inner-city London school scored £5,000 from the Prevent programme because it was there for the taking: with no idea how to spend it she made a comic documentary about jihad and took the whole class to see the Chris Morris satire Four Lions.

If this kind of woolly subsidy existed anywhere else in the public sector it would have been hammered with endless demands for evidence-based assessment of its output – because there is little or no evidence it works. No matter: institutional anti-extremism is better dug in than ever, an enormous intellectual gravy train of research centres and thinktanks for the feeble minded. [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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Nick Turse: Secret wars and black ops blowback

These days, when I check out the latest news on Washington’s global war-making, I regularly find at least one story that fits a new category in my mind that I call: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Take last Saturday’s Washington Post report by Craig Whitlock on the stationing of less than two dozen U.S. “military advisers” in war-torn Somalia.  They’ve been there for months, it turns out, and their job is “to advise and coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from the al-Shabab militia.”  If you leave aside the paramilitarized CIA (which has long had a secret base and prison in that country), those advisers represent the first U.S. military boots on the ground there since the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993.  As soon as I read the piece, I automatically thought: Given the history of the U.S. in Somalia, including the encouragement of a disastrous 2006 Ethiopian invasion of that country, what could possibly go wrong?

Some days when I read the news, I can’t help but think of the late Chalmers Johnson; on others, the satirical newspaper the Onion comes to mind.  If Washington did it — and by “it,” I mean invade and occupy a country, intervene in a rebellion against an autocrat, intervene in a civil war, launch a drone campaign against a terror outfit, or support and train local forces against some group the U.S. doesn’t like — you already know all you need to know.  Any version of the above has repeatedly translated into one debacle or disaster after another.  In the classic term of CIA tradecraft that Johnson took for the title of a book — a post-9/11 bestseller — send a drone over Yemen with the intent to kill, kick down doors in Afghanistan or Iraq, put U.S. boots back on the ground in Somalia and you’re going to be guaranteed “unintended consequences” and undoubtedly some form of “blowback” as well.  To use a sports analogy, if since 9/11 Washington has been the globe’s cleanup hitter, it not only hasn’t managed to knock a single ball out of the park, it’s struck out enough times to make those watching dizzy, and it’s batting .000. 

You would think that someone in the nation’s capital might have drawn a lesson or two from such a record, something simple like: Don’t do it!  But — here’s where the Onion should be able to run riot — there clearly is no learning curve in Washington.  Tactics change, but the ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-fated Global War on Terror (GWOT), which long ago outran its own overblown name, continues without end, and without either successes of any lasting sort or serious reconsideration.  In this period, al-Qaeda, a small-scale organization capable of immodest terror acts every couple of years and, despite the fantasies of Homeland and Fox News, without a sleeper cell in the United States, managed, with Washington’s help, to turn itself into a global franchise.  The more the Bush and Obama administrations went after it, the more al-Qaeda wannabe organizations sprang up across the Greater Middle East and north Africa like mushrooms after a soaking rain. 

The earliest GWOTsters, all Onion-style satirists, believed that the U.S. was destined to rule the world till Hell froze over.  Their idea of a snappy quip was “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran,” and they loved to refer to the Greater Middle East as “the arc of instability.”  That, mind you, was before they sent in the U.S. military.  Today, 12 years later, that long-gone world looks like an arc of stability, while the U.S. has left the Greater Middle East, from North Africa to Syria, from Yemen to Afghanistan, a roiling catastrophe zone of conflict, refugees, death, and destruction.  As it happened, the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be the only genuine weapons of mass destruction around, loosing, among other things, what could prove to be the great religious war of modern times. 

And the lessons drawn?  As TomDispatch regular Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback), suggests in today’s post, the Obama administration has overseen the reorganization of the Global War on Terror as a vast secret operation of unrivaled proportions.  It now oversees a planetary surveillance network of staggering size and reach (itself leading to historic blowback) and the spread of a secret military spawned inside the U.S. military and now undergoing typically mindless expansion on a gargantuan scale. What could possibly go wrong? Tom Engelhardt 

The Special Ops surge
America’s secret war in 134 countries
By Nick Turse

They operate in the green glow of night vision in Southwest Asia and stalk through the jungles of South America.  They snatch men from their homes in the Maghreb and shoot it out with heavily armed militants in the Horn of Africa.  They feel the salty spray while skimming over the tops of waves from the turquoise Caribbean to the deep blue Pacific.  They conduct missions in the oppressive heat of Middle Eastern deserts and the deep freeze of Scandinavia.  All over the planet, the Obama administration is waging a secret war whose full extent has never been fully revealed — until now.

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, from their numbers to their budget.  Most telling, however, has been the exponential rise in special ops deployments globally.  This presence — now, in nearly 70% of the world’s nations — provides new evidence of the size and scope of a secret war being waged from Latin America to the backlands of Afghanistan, from training missions with African allies to information operations launched in cyberspace. 

In the waning days of the Bush presidency, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world.  By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post.  In 2011, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120.  Today, that figure has risen higher still.

[Read more...]

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The cost of misusing American might

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: The U.S. military is like the highly skilled, gadget-toting contractor who promises to give your kitchen a nifty makeover in no time whatsoever. Here’s the guy you can count on to get the job done. Just look at those references! Yet by the time he drives off months later, the kitchen’s a shambles and you’re stuck with a bill several times larger than the initial estimate. Turns out the job was more complicated than it seemed. But what say we take a crack at remodeling the master bath?

That pretty much summarizes the American experience with war since the end of the Cold War. By common consent, when it comes to skills and gadgets, U.S. forces are in a league of their own. Yet when it comes to finishing the job on schedule and on budget, their performance has been woeful.

Indeed, these days the United States absolves itself of any responsibility to finish wars that it starts. When we’ve had enough, we simply leave, pretending that when U.S. forces exit the scene, the conflict is officially over. In 2011, when the last American troops crossed from Iraq into Kuwait, President Obama proudly declared that he had made good on his campaign promise to end the Iraq war. Sometime late this year, when the U.S. terminates its combat role in Afghanistan, he will waste no time consigning that war to the past as well. [Continue reading...]

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The ghosts of Benghazi

David Kirkpatrick reports: Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there [on September 11, 2012] and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria’s civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests.

In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A. station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.

Mr. Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi.

To this day, some militia leaders offer alibis for Mr. Abu Khattala. All resist quiet American pressure to turn him over to face prosecution. Last spring, one of Libya’s most influential militia leaders sought to make him a kind of local judge.

Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.

One has it that the video [Innocence of Muslims], which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.

The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs. [Continue reading...]

Irrespective of whatever actually happened in Benghazi, the ability of most Americans of all political stripes to view such an event without a distorted perspective is severely constrained by the degree to which terrorism has become a pillar of the American worldview.

The neoconservatives were resoundingly successful in promoting the idea of a global terrorist network — not one which has a formal, verifiable structure; but one that exists more like a mycelium of evil.

Its tentacles are subterranean, vast, and yet ethereal. It is everywhere and nowhere, elusive and yet all-powerful; at some moments about to expire and yet paradoxically always an inextinguishable force.

We are meant to fear it just as resolutely as we cling to any object of faith. Indeed, to fail to view terrorism with sufficient gravity is to fail to uphold ones responsibilities as a patriotic American.

Even though it’s more than a decade since 9/11, terrorism remains America’s cultural straightjacket — that’s why even now in popular culture we have yet to see the war on terrorism being satirized.

At the height of the Cold War, when thousands of young Americans were getting killed in Vietnam in the name of standing up against Communism, it was somehow possible for Mel Brooks to create Get Smart and poke fun at spies and the paranoiac neuroses of the era.

The world has since pulled back from the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction and yet by some spectacular defiance of logic or any sense of proportion, terrorism has been conjured as an even greater threat.

At this time, 83% of Americans believe that protecting this nation from terrorist attacks should be the U.S. government’s top foreign policy priority whereas only 37% would prioritize dealing with global climate change.

That, to my mind, is a definition of collective insanity.

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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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The War on Terror’s Jedi mind trick

Julian Sanchez writes: A Republican-appointed judge and President Obama’s own handpicked Surveillance Review Group both came to the same conclusion last week: The National Security Agency’s controversial phone-records program has been of little real value to American security. Yet its defenders continue to insist that it is necessary, clinging desperately to long-debunked claims about foiled terror plots. Their stubbornness fits a decade-long pattern of fear trumping evidence whenever the word “terrorism” is uttered — a pattern it is time to finally break.

Since the disclosure of the NSA’s massive domestic phone-records database, authorized under a tortured reading of the Patriot Act’s Section 215 authority to obtain business records, intelligence officials and their allies in Congress have claimed it plays a vital role in protecting Americans from “dozens” of terror attacks. But as the expert panel Obama appointed to review the classified facts concluded, in a report released Wednesday, that just isn’t true.

“Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks,” the report found, “and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.”

In other words, instead of vacuuming up sensitive information about the call patterns of millions of innocent people, the government could have followed the traditional approach of getting orders for specific suspicious numbers. As for those “dozens” of attacks, the review groups found that the NSA program “generated relevant information in only a small number of cases, and there has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different without the section 215 telephony meta-data program.” [Continue reading...]

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MI6 ‘turned blind eye’ to torture of rendered detainees

The Guardian reports: MI6 officers were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva conventions and turned a “blind eye” to the torture of detainees in foreign jails, according to the report into Britain’s involvement in the rendition of terror suspects.

Even when individual MI6 and MI5 officers expressed concerns about the abuse of detainees they did not pass on their thoughts for fear of offending the US, Britain’s closest intelligence partner.

British officials were reluctant to question sleep deprivation, hooding, and waterboarding for “fear of damaging liaison relationships” – an unmistakable reference to the CIA.

This is the message of the 115-page report by a panel led by Sir Peter Gibson, the former appeal court judge, into Britain’s involvement in the extra-judicial abduction of terror suspects who were flown in secret to prisons where they were ill treated. [Continue reading...]

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Richard Rodriguez on what the Left has lost by rejecting religion

Salon talks to Richard Rodriguez about his new book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography:

Let me read a line to you from late in the book, and if you could explain it a little bit. You say, “After September 11, critical division in America feels and sounds like religious division.” Where are you going with that?

Well, it seems to me that there are two aspects of that. One of them is that I think that increasingly the left has conceded organized religion to the political right. This has been a catastrophe on the left.

I’m old enough to remember the black Civil Rights movement, which was as I understood it a movement of the left and insofar as it was challenging the orthodoxy of conservatives in the American South. White conservatism. And here was a group of protestant ministers leading processions, which were really religious processions through the small towns and the suburbs of the South. We shall overcome. Well, we have forgotten just how disruptive religion can be to the status quo. How challenging it is to the status quo. I also talk about Cesar Chavez, who is, who was embraced by the political left in his time but he was obviously a challenge to organized labor, the teamsters and to large farmers in the central valley.

So somehow we had decided on the left that religion belongs to Fox Television, or it belongs to some kind of right-wing fanaticism in the Middle East and we have given it up, and it has made us a really empty — that is, it has made the left really empty. I’ll point to one easy instance. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And what America heard was really a sermon. It was as though slavery and Jim Crow could not be described as a simple political narrative; racism was a moral offense, not simply an illegality. And with his vision of a time “when all of God’s children” in America would be free, he described the nation within a religious parable of redemption.

Fifty years later, our technocratic, secular president gave a speech at the Lincoln memorial, honoring the memory of the speech Dr. King had given. And nothing President Obama said can we remember these few weeks later; his words were dwarfed by our memory of the soaring religious oratory of fifty years ago. And what’s happened to us — and I would include myself in the cultural left — what has happened to us is we have almost no language to talk about the dream life of America, to talk about the soul of America, to talk about the mystery of being alive at this point in our lives, this point in our national history. That’s what we’ve lost in giving it to Fox Television.

So here’s the flip side of that. You write about the “New Atheism” emerging from England, catching on here. How is it new and why does it seem like a dead end to you?

It seems to me that the New Atheism — particularly its recent gaudy English manifestations — has a distinctly neo-colonial aspect. (As Cary Grant remarked: Americans are suckers for the accent!) On the one hand, the New Atheist, with his plummy Oxbridge tones, tries to convince Americans that God is dead at a time when London is alive with Hinduism and Islam. (The empiric nightmare: The colonials have turned on their masters and transformed the imperial city with their prayers and their growing families, even while Europe disappears into materialistic sterility.) Christopher Hitchens, most notably, before his death titled his atheist handbook as a deliberate affront to Islam: “God Is Not Great.” At the same time, he traveled the airwaves of America urging us to war in Iraq — and to maintain borders that the Foreign Office had drawn in the sand. With his atheism, he became a darling of the left. With his advocacy of the Iraq misadventure, he became a darling of the right. [Continue reading...]

As an Englishman in America who is frequently reminded that Americans are indeed suckers for the accent I retain, let me add a cultural footnote whose validity I can’t document but about which I am nevertheless convinced.

It’s on the origin of American crassness: it comes from England. Bad taste — we invented it.

From the English perspective, civilization has always been something that came from somewhere else.

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Ann Jones: Suffer the children

Another week, another revelation about spying by the National Security Agency.  This time, it was the NSA’s infiltration of online video games and virtual realms like World of Warcraft and Second Life.  And it was hardly a shock.  More than a decade ago, TomDispatch began reporting on the U.S. military’s collaborations with the video game industry, including a virtual world known as There.  As the years went by, the military became ever more enmeshed in the digital world.  In 2008, while covering the 26th Army Science Conference, I spoke to the chief of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command about a new recruiting initiative he was setting up in the fantasy realm of Second Life.  General William Wallace was over the moon about the possibility of engaging with the “four million young people” who had signed onto that virtual online environment.

While the Army was making an overt play for new recruits in the digital universe, the NSA was secretly targeting virtual worlds for clandestine activities.  A top-secret 2008 NSA document, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, cast online games as a “target-rich communication network.”  They were imagined (with little evidence) to be potential terrorist havens and so, as one document gushed, “an opportunity!”

In the time since I spoke to General Wallace, virtual worlds have bloomed.  The number of Second Life accounts, for example, has grown to 36 million registered users, according to its creator, Linden Labs.  And it seems, as the Times and ProPublica reported, that a surprising number of those new visitors were from the U.S. Intelligence Community.  Second Life, in fact, became so thick with spies from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the FBI that it was necessary to create what one of the leaked documents called a “deconfliction” group to keep them from duplicating their efforts, spying on one another, and so turning their online push into a digital snarl.

And yet, after all that virtual snooping, there is no evidence that the untold millions of dollars spent infiltrating digital spies into worlds of pixies, scantily-clad lion-women, and pony skeleton avatars (no, I’m not making these up) has uncovered any terrorists or foiled any al-Qaeda plots.  It has, however, allowed the U.S. government to penetrate the lives of the young (and increasingly, the not-so-young) in new and intrusive ways. 

Today, Ann Jones, author of the acclaimed new Dispatch Book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, examines another way the U.S. military targets America’s youth — via a completely non-virtual, off-line, old school social network: the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.  It’s a startling look at the sort of everyday military indoctrination that may be happening, possibly in your very neighborhood, and almost as quietly as government agents slip in and out of their favorite digital fantasy worlds.

After recently shining much needed light on what happens to America’s veterans once they return from this country’s war zones, Jones turns her perceptive gaze on one way the military gets hold of young men and women in the first place.  If you thought only countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Chad had child soldiers, think again. Nick Turse

America’s child soldiers
JROTC and the militarizing of America
By Ann Jones

Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.

It turned out, however, that Congress — in its rare moment of concern for the next generation — had it all wrong. In its greater wisdom, the White House found countries like Chad and Yemen so vital to the national interest of the United States that it preferred to overlook what happened to the children in their midst.

As required by CSPA, this year the State Department once again listed 10 countries that use child soldiers: Burma (Myanmar), the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  Seven of them were scheduled to receive millions of dollars in U.S. military aid as well as what’s called “U.S. Foreign Military Financing.”  That’s a shell game aimed at supporting the Pentagon and American weapons makers by handing millions of taxpayer dollars over to such dodgy “allies,” who must then turn around and buy “services” from the Pentagon or “materiel” from the usual merchants of death. You know the crowd: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and so on.

Here was a chance for Washington to teach a set of countries to cherish their young people, not lead them to the slaughter. But in October, as it has done every year since CSPA became law, the White House again granted whole or partial “waivers” to five countries on the State Department’s “do not aid” list: Chad, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.

Too bad for the young — and the future — of those countries.  But look at it this way: Why should Washington help the children of Sudan or Yemen escape war when it spares no expense right here at home to press our own impressionable, idealistic, ambitious American kids into military “service”?

[Read more...]

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Video: Landmark case goes to trial over massive U.S. terrorism ‘no-fly’ database

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Who is watching the watch lists?

Susan Stellin writes: Governments wade into treacherous waters when they compile lists of people who might cause their countries harm. As fears about Japanese-Americans and Communists have demonstrated in the past, predictions about individual behavior are often inaccurate, the motivations for list-making aren’t always noble and concerns about threats are frequently overblown.

So it might seem that current efforts to identify and track potential terrorists would be approached with caution. Yet the federal government’s main terrorist watch list has grown to at least 700,000 people, with little scrutiny over how the determinations are made or the impact on those marked with the terrorist label.

“If you’ve done the paperwork correctly, then you can effectively enter someone onto the watch list,” said Anya Bernstein, an associate professor at the SUNY Buffalo Law School and author of “The Hidden Costs of Terrorist Watch Lists,” published by the Buffalo Law Review in May. “There’s no indication that agencies undertake any kind of regular retrospective review to assess how good they are at predicting the conduct they’re targeting.”

What’s more, the government refuses to confirm or deny whether someone is on the list, officially called the Terrorist Screening Database, or divulge the criteria used to make the decisions — other than to say the database includes “individuals known or suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and terrorist activities.”

Even less is known about the secondary watch lists that are derived from the main one, including the no-fly list (used to prevent people from boarding aircraft), the selectee and expanded selectee lists (used to flag travelers for extra screening at airport checkpoints), the TECS database (used to vet people entering or leaving the United States), the Consular Lookout and Support System (used to screen visa applications) and the known or suspected terrorists list (used by law enforcement in routine police encounters).

For people who have landed on these lists, the terrorist designation has been difficult to challenge legally — although that may be about to change. On Monday, a lawsuit brought by a traveler seeking removal of her name from the no-fly list, or at least due process to challenge that list, is going to trial in Federal District Court in San Francisco, after almost eight years of legal wrangling. [Continue reading...]

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Today is Guantánamo’s 12th anniversary, and there’s no end in sight

Morris Davis writes: Twelve years ago, on 13 November 2001, President George W Bush signed an order authorizing the detention of suspected al-Qaida members and supporters, and the creation of military commissions. To borrow a line from the Grateful Dead: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

The order was modeled on one issued by President Franklin D Roosevelt on 2 July 1942, authorizing a military commission to try eight Nazi saboteurs apprehended in the United States. The men were captured, convicted and six of the eight executed in a span of 43 days. Roosevelt’s military commission was swift, secret and severe, so some urged President Bush to dust it off and use it again.

A total of seven detainees out of the 779 men ever held at Guantánamo have been convicted and sentenced. Five of the seven are no longer at Guantánamo creating a paradox: you have to lose to win. Those lucky enough to get charged and convicted of a war crime have good odds of getting out of Guantánamo, but those who are never charged could spend the rest of their lives in prison. [Continue reading...]

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