In America, infamy is as easy to acquire as a gun

In post 9/11 America, terrorism has been used to justify wars, drone strikes, torture, secret detention, kidnapping, extrajudicial killing, mass surveillance, and the unfettered expansion of the national security state.

In recent days, numerous commentators, many of whom have surely previously been disturbed by the way the fear of terrorism has been used to manipulate this country’s political system and global outlook, are nevertheless now arguing that in America today the term “terrorist” is not being used broadly enough.

Since the white male Charleston killer, Dylann Roof, is unlikely to be branded a terrorist by public officials or in most of the media, Anthea Butler suggests:

the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.

Nevertheless, Butler writes:

The Charleston shooting is a result of an ingrained culture of racism and a history of terrorism in America. It should be covered as such. On Friday, Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce acknowledged that the Charleston shooting “was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community” (though terrorism is not among the nine murder charges brought against Roof, so far). And now that Roof has admitted to killing those people to start a “race war,” we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.

Then what?

Ship him off to Guantánamo?

Terrorist is a politically charged and legally dubious term precisely because it gets used to shut down debate and curtail analysis. It is used to justify sidestepping due process and ignoring human rights.

The terrorist is the ghoul of modern America — the term functions more as an instrument of exorcism rather than illumination.

In America and elsewhere in the West, fear of terrorism dovetails with the inclinations to treat skin color as a mark of foreignness, and the tendency to view the foreign as threatening.

Calling Dylann Roof a white American terrorist, isn’t going to diminish the levels of racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia across this country.

Calling Roof a terrorist, merely elevates his infamy, grants him the attention he obviously craves and turns attention away from the flawed legal system that allowed a worm of hatred inside his mind to be transformed into an act of deadly violence.

In America, infamy is no harder to obtain than a gun.

I recognize that there is a common sentiment which justifiably perceives an undercurrent of racism in the way in which people get labelled terrorists — that it’s a term that sticks much more easily to non-whites and especially to Muslims — but I don’t think this indicates we lack a sufficiently expansive definition and application of the term.

On the contrary, we would be better off not using the term at all, rather than trying to make its application more racially inclusive.

Jared Keller argues:

by not calling Roof’s atrocity terrorism, we gloss over the past — and present — of white America’s war of terror against its black citizens.

To my mind, that assertion, much as it contains an element of truth, is also indicative of the cultural stranglehold with which the war-on-terrorism narrative continues to grip America, fourteen years after 9/11.

The only way in which we can sense the gravity of a mass killing is by calling it terrorism, because it goes without saying — supposedly — that nothing is more serious than terrorism.

The real problem here is not the failure to call Roof a terrorist, but rather a failure to acknowledge that America faces many issues that are actually much more serious than terrorism:

Racism, inequality, environmental degradation, an unsustainable economic system, and foundationally a societal breakdown that results from individual interests being placed above collective welfare.

In a mind-your-own-business society, the mass murderers always seemingly come out of nowhere. No one sees them coming, because no one was paying enough attention. A live-and-let-live philosophy easily shifts into a live-and-let-kill reality.

In a word, we live in a country where people do not care for each other enough.

We do not live in a country where the number of terrorists is being undercounted.

After the shooting, President Obama said: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

But why wasn’t that point reached long ago? The signs of this ugly form of American exceptionalism has been evident for decades.

Most Americans don’t own a gun and yet gun owners are more likely to think of themselves as “a typical American” (72% vs. 62%). Indeed, gun owners are more likely to say they “often feel proud to be American” (64% vs. 51%).

The most vocal among the 24% of Americans who own a gun are using their weapons to intimidate the whole population. Through their arrogance, ignorance and selfishness, they seem to imagine they have a stronger claim on what it means to be an American than everyone else.

After the Charleston shootings, National Rifle Association board member Charles Cotton blamed the deaths on one of the dead, Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator had voted against a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.

“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead,” Cotton wrote. “Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

Gun owners like Cotton, regard guns as the protectors of freedom, and see gun control laws as threats to their own freedom. In practice, they prize their weapons more highly that the lives of the tens of thousands of Americans who get killed each year by firearms.

As Gary Younge writes:

America does not have a monopoly on racism. But what makes its racism so lethal is the ease with which people can acquire guns. While the new conversation around race will mean the political response to the fact of this attack will be different, the stale conversation around gun control means the legislative response to the nature of this attack will remain the same. Nothing will happen.

After Adam Lanza shot 20 primary school children and six adults in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012 before turning his gun on himself, nothing happened. Seven children and teens are shot dead every day in America and nothing happens.

So these nine victims will join those who perished before them – a sacrifice to the blood-soaked pedestal erected around the constitution’s second amendment that gun lobbyists say guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms.

At some point, America as a nation needs to challenge its superstitious reverence for a piece of paper, and demonstrate that it is no longer willing to see the lives of so many of its citizen’s needlessly wasted.

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The secret history of SEAL Team 6: Quiet killings and blurred lines

The New York Times reports: They have plotted deadly missions from secret bases in the badlands of Somalia. In Afghanistan, they have engaged in combat so intimate that they have emerged soaked in blood that was not their own. On clandestine raids in the dead of the night, their weapons of choice have ranged from customized carbines to primeval tomahawks.

Around the world, they have run spying stations disguised as commercial boats, posed as civilian employees of front companies and operated undercover at embassies as male-female pairs, tracking those the United States wants to kill or capture.

Those operations are part of the hidden history of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, one of the nation’s most mythologized, most secretive and least scrutinized military organizations. Once a small group reserved for specialized but rare missions, the unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden has been transformed by more than a decade of combat into a global manhunting machine.

That role reflects America’s new way of war, in which conflict is distinguished not by battlefield wins and losses, but by the relentless killing of suspected militants. [Continue reading…]

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The $25 million building in Afghanistan nobody needed

Megan McCloskey and Vince Dixon report: This is a story about how the U.S. military built a lavish headquarters in Afghanistan that wasn’t needed, wasn’t wanted and wasn’t ever used—at a cost to American taxpayers of at least $25 million.

From start to finish, this 64,000-square-foot mistake could easily have been avoided. Not one, not two, but three generals tried to kill it. And they were overruled, not because they were wrong, but seemingly because no one wanted to cancel a project Congress had already given them money to build.

In the process, the story of “64K” reveals a larger truth: Once wartime spending gets rolling there’s almost no stopping it. In Afghanistan, the reconstruction effort alone has cost $109 billion, with questionable results.

The 64K project was meant for troops due to flood the country during the temporary surge in 2010. But even under the most optimistic estimates, the project wouldn’t be completed until six months after those troops would start going home.

Along the way, the state-of-the-art building, plopped in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, nearly doubled in cost and became a running joke among Marines. The Pentagon could have halted construction at many points—64K made it through five military reviews over two years—but didn’t, saying it wanted the building just in case U.S. troops ended up staying. (They didn’t.) [Continue reading…]

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Top UN official says ‘Global War on Terror’ is laying waste to human rights

Thalif Deen reports: The United Nations, which is the legal guardian of scores of human rights treaties banning torture, unlawful imprisonment, degrading treatment of prisoners of war and enforced disappearances, is troubled that an increasing number of countries are justifying violations of U.N. conventions on grounds of fighting terrorism in conflict zones.

Taking an implicit passing shot at big powers, the outspoken U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein of Jordan puts it more bluntly: “This logic is abundant around the world today: I torture because a war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because terrorism, repulsive as it is, requires it.

“I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity or my way of life is being threatened as never before. I kill others, because others will kill me – and so it goes, on and on.”

Speaking Thursday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Zeid said the world needs “profound and inspiring leadership” driven by a concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people. [Continue reading…]

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James Fallows and the chickenhawks

James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.

At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.

“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”

I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.

“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]

Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”

Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.

During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”

Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”

No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.

But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.

Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.

The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.

If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.

A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.

The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.

Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.

In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.

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America just launched its 500th drone strike

Micah Zenko writes: The most consistent and era-defining tactic of America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies has been the targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants outside of defined battlefields. As one senior Bush administration official explained in October 2001, “The president has given the [CIA] the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.” Shortly thereafter, a former CIA official told the New Yorker, “There are five hundred guys out there you have to kill.” It is quaint to recall that such a position was considered extremist and even morally unthinkable. Today, these strikes are broadly popular with the public and totally uncontroversial in Washington, both within the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. Therefore, it is easy to forget that this tactic, envisioned to be rare and used exclusively for senior al-Qaeda leaders 13 years ago, has become a completely accepted and routine foreign policy activity.

Thus, just as you probably missed the 10th anniversary — November 3, 2012 — of what I labeled the Third War, it’s unlikely you will hear or read that the United States just launched its 500th non-battlefield targeted killing.

As of today, the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama. Noticeably, these targeted killings have not diminished the size of the targeted groups according to the State Department’s own numbers. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ties to terrorism in Iran

The New York Times reports: After a car bombing in southeastern Iran killed 11 Revolutionary Guard members in 2007, a C.I.A. officer noticed something surprising in the agency’s files: an intelligence report, filed ahead of the bombing, that had warned that something big was about to happen in Iran.

Though the report had provided few specifics, the C.I.A. officer realized it meant that the United States had known in advance that a Sunni terrorist group called Jundallah was planning an operation inside Shiite-dominated Iran, two former American officials familiar with the matter recalled. Just as surprising was the source of the report. It had originated in Newark, with a detective for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The Port Authority police are responsible for patrolling bridges and tunnels and issuing airport parking tickets. But the detective, a hard-charging and occasionally brusque former ironworker named Thomas McHale, was also a member of an F.B.I. counterterrorism task force. He had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and developed informants inside Jundallah’s leadership, who then came under the joint supervision of the F.B.I. and C.I.A.

Reading the report, the C.I.A. officer became increasingly concerned. Agency lawyers he consulted concluded that using Islamic militants to gather intelligence — and obtaining information about attacks ahead of time — could suggest tacit American support for terrorism. Without specific approval from the president, the lawyers said, that could represent an unauthorized covert action program. The C.I.A. ended its involvement with Mr. McHale’s informants.

Despite the C.I.A.’s concerns, American officials continued to obtain intelligence from inside Jundallah, first through the F.B.I., and then the Pentagon. Contacts with informants did not end when Jundallah’s attacks led to the deaths of Iranian civilians, or when the State Department designated it a terrorist organization. [Continue reading…]

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Obama to seek new authorization for fight against ISIS

The Washington Post reports: President Obama said Wednesday that he will ask Congress for new authority to combat the Islamic State, replacing the administration’s reliance on laws passed more than a decade ago to justify its current military operations against the militants in Syria and Iraq.

“The idea is to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight rather than previous fights,” the president said at a White House news conference.

“We now have a different type of enemy; the strategy is different,” Obama said. “It makes sense for us to make sure that the authorization . . . reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward.”

Obama pledged nearly 18 months ago to work with lawmakers to “refine and ultimately repeal” what he said were the outdated 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, against al-Qaeda and the 2002 authority against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Since then, White House engagement with Congress on the issue has been minimal. [Continue reading…]

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Hustlers, con men & dupes cashing in on the war on terror

Jeff Stein writes: At long last we can retire Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as the icons of investigative reporting. With his second book probing the dark tunnels of the so-called war on terror, James Risen has established himself as the finest national security reporter of this generation, a field crowded with first-rank talent at The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Reuters, McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times, his employer and sometimes bane.

Bane, because in 2004, the executive editor of the Times, cowed by Bush administration officials, twice spiked Risen’s story revealing that the National Security Agency had launched a massive, covert wiretapping program that was riffling through the personal communications of hundreds of millions of Americans without even a secret court order. Unbowed, Risen got a contract for a book that would reveal the NSA’s extralegal program. Only when the publication of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration appeared imminent did his editors, cornered, allow Risen to publish a version of it (co-authored with his colleague Eric Lichtblau) in the paper. And that disturbing saga provides the backdrop to Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.

After turning the last page of his latest volume, one might wonder what other important stories the Times has spiked in recent years. Although parts of Risen’s new revelations have been published in the Times or elsewhere, here they are fleshed out in richly reported chapters studded with eye-popping new charges. Read together, they offer an original and deeply disturbing perspective on the war on terror. It is, Risen writes, a story of “how greed and the hunt for cash have all too often become the main objects of the war on terror.”

In fine detail, he demonstrates how the courts, Congress and the national security and law enforcement agencies of the executive branches – aided and abetted by the high priests of the media – have been corrupted in the hugely profitable business of pursuing terrorists. “[T]he search for money and power have become the hallmarks of the war on terror,” Risen writes of one of the many unsavory episodes in the book. “The story,” he says of another episode, “shows how, during the war on terror, greed and ambition have been married to unlimited rivers of cash in the sudden deregulation of American national security to create a climate in which clever men could seemingly create rogue intelligence operations with little or no adult supervision.”

The U.S.-led war in Iraq, as we already know, was rife with lax supervision and thievery. But Risen adds an astonishing new chapter to that reprehensible folly. He tells the story of how billions of dollars intended to rebuild Iraq, shrink-wrapped in packets of $100 bills, were shipped out of a Federal Reserve warehouse in New Jersey to Baghdad and eventually made their way to secret Lebanese bunkers (an account excerpted by the Times last week).

“Approximately $2 billion of the money that was flown from the United States to Baghdad” to prop up the Iraqi government after Saddam Hussein was toppled, “was stolen and secretly transported out of Iraq in what may be one of the largest robberies in modern history,” he writes. “…In addition to cash, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold was stolen from the Iraqi government and is also being hidden in Lebanon, current and former U.S. officials have said.”

One might assume that U.S. officials would be deeply interested in finding out what happened to that money, not to mention eager to get it back. But, no. [Continue reading…]

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Matthew Harwood: One nation under SWAT

Think of it as a different kind of blowback.  Even when you fight wars in countries thousands of miles distant, they still have an eerie way of making the long trip home.

Take the latest news from Bergen County, New Jersey, one of the richest counties in the country.  Its sheriff’s department is getting two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs — 15 tons of protective equipment — for a song from the Pentagon.  And there’s nothing special in that.  The Pentagon has handed out 600 of them for nothing since 2013, with plenty more to come.  They’re surplus equipment, mostly from our recent wars, and perhaps they will indeed prove handy for a sheriff fretting about insurgent IEDs (roadside bombs) in New Jersey or elsewhere in the country.  When it comes to the up-armoring and militarization of America’s police forces, this is completely run-of-the-mill stuff.

The only thing newsworthy in the Bergen story is that someone complained.  To be exact, Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan spoke up in opposition to the transfer of the equipment.  “I think,” she said, “we have lost our way if you start talking about military vehicles on the streets of Bergen County.”  And she bluntly criticized the decision to accept the MRAPs as the “absolute wrong thing to do in Bergen County to try to militarize our county.”  Her chief of staff offered a similar comment: “They are combat vehicles. Why do we need a combat vehicle on the streets of Bergen County?”

Sheriff Michael Saudino, on the other hand, insists that the MRAPs aren’t “combat vehicles” at all.  Forget the fact that they were developed for and used in combat situations.  He suggests instead that one good reason for having them — other than the fact that they are free (except for postage, gas, and upkeep) — is essentially to keep up with the Joneses.  As he pointed out, the Bergen County police already have two MRAPs, and his department has none and, hey, self-respect matters!  (“Should our SWAT guys be any less protected than the county guys?” he asked in a debate with Donovan.)

striking recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union indicates that, as in Bergen County, policing is being militarized nationwide in all sorts of unsettling ways.  It is, more precisely, being SWATified (a word that doesn’t yet exist, but certainly should).  Matthew Harwood, senior writer and editor for the ACLU, as well as TomDispatch regular, offers a graphic look at just where policing in America is heading. Welcome to Kabul, USA. Tom Engelhardt

To terrify and occupy
How the excessive militarization of the police is turning cops into counterinsurgents
By Matthew Harwood

Jason Westcott was afraid.

One night last fall, he discovered via Facebook that a friend of a friend was planning with some co-conspirators to break in to his home. They were intent on stealing Wescott’s handgun and a couple of TV sets. According to the Facebook message, the suspect was planning on “burning” Westcott, who promptly called the Tampa Bay police and reported the plot.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the investigating officers responding to Westcott’s call had a simple message for him: “If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill.”

Around 7:30 pm on May 27th, the intruders arrived. Westcott followed the officers’ advice, grabbed his gun to defend his home, and died pointing it at the intruders.  They used a semiautomatic shotgun and handgun to shoot down the 29-year-old motorcycle mechanic.  He was hit three times, once in the arm and twice in his side, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

[Read more…]

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U.S. is no safer after 13 years of war, a top Pentagon official says

Christian Science Monitor reports: The nation is no safer after 13 years of war, warns a top US military official who leads one of the nation’s largest intelligence organizations.

“We have a whole gang of new actors out there that are far more extreme than Al Qaeda,” says Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which employs some 17,000 American intelligence collectors in 140 countries around the world.

That the United States is no safer – and in some respects may be less safe – even after two wars and trillions of dollars could prove to be disappointing news for Americans, noted the journalist questioning General Flynn at the Aspen Security Forum last week. [Continue reading…]

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The secret government rulebook for labeling you a terrorist

The Intercept reports: The Obama administration has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist, according to a key government document obtained by The Intercept.

The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” a 166-page document issued last year by the National Counterterrorism Center, spells out the government’s secret rules for putting individuals on its main terrorist database, as well as the no fly list and the selectee list, which triggers enhanced screening at airports and border crossings. The new guidelines allow individuals to be designated as representatives of terror organizations without any evidence they are actually connected to such organizations, and it gives a single White House official the unilateral authority to place entire “categories” of people the government is tracking onto the no fly and selectee lists. It broadens the authority of government officials to “nominate” people to the watchlists based on what is vaguely described as “fragmentary information.” It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted.

Over the years, the Obama and Bush Administrations have fiercely resisted disclosing the criteria for placing names on the databases — though the guidelines are officially labeled as unclassified. In May, Attorney General Eric Holder even invoked the state secrets privilege to prevent watchlisting guidelines from being disclosed in litigation launched by an American who was on the no fly list. In an affidavit, Holder called them a “clear roadmap” to the government’s terrorist-tracking apparatus, adding: “The Watchlisting Guidance, although unclassified, contains national security information that, if disclosed … could cause significant harm to national security.” [Continue reading…]

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How American history judges Bowe Bergdahl

Mark Perry writes: When the movie “Patton” was released in 1970, in the midst of one of our most divisive wars, it thrilled American theatergoers. The account of our nation’s finest tank commander won seven academy awards, including best picture.

The movie opens with a reprise of George Patton’s legendary speech to the U.S. Third Army just before D-Day, in 1944. In his address, the full-throated Patton extolled the virtues of American manhood and the sanguine character of combat. His words brought howls of appreciation in 1944 — and have ever since.

“Men,” Patton said, “all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.”

Was Patton right? Do we Americans love “the sting and clash of battle”?

The controversy over President Barack Obama’s swap of five Guantanamo detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held in Afghanistan as a Taliban prisoner since June 2009, places Patton’s claims in a new light, just as Bergdahl’s return has spurred questions about whether he is a hero, or should be put on trial for deserting his post. Claims that the search for Bergdahl might have resulted in as many as six U.S. combat deaths have deepened the controversy. And Bergdahl’s return has aroused impassioned criticism of Obama from his partisan opponents.

The Bergdahl controversy masks the difficulty all militaries have in defining when a soldier has deserted, or “just wandered off” — which might have been the case with Bergdahl. For the U.S. military, the key is intent: A soldier is listed as a deserter when he intends to separate himself from his unit permanently, and forever shirk his service. In wartime, as Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes clear, desertion is punishable by death.

You would think that this punishment, when added to the opprobrium that a deserter suffers from his family and fellow soldiers, would dampen the rate at which men (or women) in uniform leave their posts. But an examination of American military history shows that that’s not true.

Desertion rates in George Washington’s Continental Army peaked in the early years of the Revolutionary War (when desertion rates averaged an astonishing 20 to 25 percent of all men under arms), but fell off when his army became more professional. This didn’t keep Washington from lamenting his losses. The situation was so bad, he said, that the mountainous areas between New Hampshire and Vermont were “populated by hundreds of Deserters from this Army.”

Desertion rates during the Civil War were not as high, with the Union Army suffering a 9 to 12 percent desertion rate. Of the approximately 42,000 Union soldiers court-martialed during the war, just over 14,000 were for desertion, with 147 executions for the offense. The desertion rate among Confederate units was much worse. In the wake of the Gettysburg defeat, Robert E. Lee struggled to keep his army together, with desertion rates peaking at between 20 to 25 percent. In all, more soldiers (North and South) were executed during the Civil War (some 500 in all) than in all our other conflicts combined — two-thirds of them for desertion.

With the Civil War as its model, the Army created a Morale Division after the U.S. entered World War One. The unit’s commander later noted that explaining to recruits why they were fighting kept them on duty. A 1918 memo noted that many U.S. recruits “seemed unclear about the purpose of the war.” The division’s work had an effect: 5,584 men were charged with desertion during the conflict (the lowest rate of any U.S. war), and 2,657 were convicted — with no executions.

Explaining a war’s purpose is a significant factor in the Bergdahl case. His unit was isolated for long periods of time and fighting a conflict that was fast becoming an afterthought for the American people. In truth, most Americans didn’t even know that Bergdahl was being held by the Taliban until his release, a chilling commentary on America’s focus on the war. [Continue reading…]

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The war on terror has been a total failure, so it must continue

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism,” President Obama said at West Point last week.

If the war on terror was conceived as a never-ending war, then I guess its continuation can be regarded as a success in the sense that relentless war has been normalized.

But the success for which neither the current nor previous administration will take credit is that the U.S. government, through its actions over the last thirteen years, has been instrumental in transforming al Qaeda from an organization into a movement.

Obama’s proudest accomplishment — overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden — turned out to be the hollowest victory. For the sake of grabbing a bloody trophy, a genuine historic opportunity was sacrificed: the open trial of the al Qaeda leader.

The failure of the war on terror was built in from its conception. A refusal to address the political dimensions of terrorism has guaranteed that the ideological questions are only being raised and answered by one side, thereby reinforcing a perception that the U.S. and the West fight from an indefensible position.

Since relatively few Americans are willing to admit that 9/11 triggered a national psychosis and a foreign policy debacle, the sentiment now, in the face of failure, is that what is called for is persistence.

I’m reminded of a story about Mullah Nasrudin:

Nasrudin is sitting outside an Arabian spice shop. He’s sitting beside a huge basket of red hot ‘dynamite chillies’. Nasrudin’s eyes are filled with tears as he takes chillies from the basket and bites into one after another. His friend comes along and sees Nasrudin sweating and crying. “Nasrudin what are you doing. You’re crying and sweating. Why are you chewing on those chillies?” Nasrudin answers, “I’m trying to find a sweet one.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reprises the narrative of a never-ending threat that necessitates a never-ending fight:

Al-Qaida has decentralized, yet it’s unclear whether the terrorist network is weaker and less likely to launch a Sept. 11-style attack against the United States, as President Barack Obama says, or remains potent despite the deaths of several leaders.

Obama said in his foreign policy speech last week that the prime threat comes not from al-Qaida’s core leadership, but from affiliates and extremists with their sights trained on targets in the Middle East and Africa, where they are based. This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-type attacks against America, the president said.

“But it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi,” he said, referring to the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Experts argue that this restructured al-Qaida is perhaps even stronger than it has been in recent years, and that the potential for attacks on U.S. soil endures.

“We have never been on a path to strategically defeat al-Qaida. All we’ve been able to do is suppress some of its tactical abilities. But strategically, we have never had an effective way of taking it on. That’s why it continues to mutate, adapt and evolve to get stronger,” said David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Decentralization does not mean weakness, he said. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s revamp of anti-terror policies stalls

The Washington Post reports: A year after President Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.

In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”

But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.

Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others. [Continue reading…]

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The Muslims are coming!

Robin Yassin-Kassab just reviewed Arun Kundnani’s new book, The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, for The Guardian. He knew that some of his observations would be challenging for a section of the paper’s readership — and its editors and columnists.

He writes: I like the Guardian’s books section and its G2 section, not least because they sometimes pay me to write. I also like some of their brave correspondents, such as Martin Chulov. What I don’t like at all is the idiotic, orientalist, conspiratorial, fact-free, and sometimes racist narrative against the revolutions in Syria and Libya which is so common in the Guardian’s comment sections. Blanket-thinking statist leftists like Seamus Milne and Jonathan Steele dominate, alongside ignorant polemicists like Tariq Ali. The last lines of my review target people like them, who are unfortunately influential in ‘liberal’ Britain. I am not at all surprised that the Guardian cut these lines from the review, although I name no names. These lines: “….the new Islamophobia of sections of the left, the notion that US imperialism and ‘al-Qa’ida’ are in league to destabilise imagined ‘secular’, ‘resistance’ regimes. Those who defended Iraqi Islamists in the Blair years now point to the Allahu Akbar chant as evidence of an agenda far more benighted than that of the genocidal neo-liberal dictatorships.” (I just spoke to the good man who commissioned the piece. He says the issue was space in the print edition. Fair enough. But why cut the lines which apply to Guardianistas?)

Arun Kundnani’s “The Muslims Are Coming”, vastly more intelligent than the usual ‘war on terror’ verbiage, focusses on the war’s domestic edge in Britain and America.

Kundnani’s starting point is this: “Terrorism is not the product of radical politics but a symptom of political impotence.” The antidote therefore seems self-evident: “A strong, active, and confident Muslim community enjoying its civic rights to the full.” Yet policy on both sides of the Atlantic has ended by criminalising Muslim opinion, silencing speech, and increasing social division. These results may make political violence more, not less, likely.

The assumptions and silences of the counter-radicalisation industry end up telling us far more about particular ideological subsections of Anglo-American culture than they do about the Muslims targetted. The two dominant security approaches to Muslim citizens described by Kundnani – ‘culturalist’ and ‘reformist’ –focus on ideology rather than socio-political grievances.

Culturalism’s best-known proponent is Bernard Lewis, Dick Cheney’s favourite historian, who locates the problem as Islam itself, a totalitarian ideology-culture incompatible with democratic modernity. So Mitt Romney explains the vast divergence between Israeli and Palestinian economies thus: “Culture makes all the difference” – and decades of occupation, ethnic cleansing and war make none. Writer Christopher Caldwell believes residents of the Paris Banlieu rioted in 2005 because they were Muslims (although many weren’t), and not because of unemployment, poor housing, and police violence. Perhaps the silliest culturalist intervention was Martin Amis’s “The Second Plane”, where Amis breezily admitted he knew nothing of geopolitics but claimed authority nevertheless from his expertise in ‘masculinity’ – 9/11 was explained by Islamic sexual frustration. Such discourses are part of an influential tradition of silliness. [Continue reading…]

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Syria seen through the eyes of a British journalist and a Dutch jihadist

Emblematic of the feeble condition of Western political thought these days are the indications that there is more agreement about the evil of terrorism than there is about the value of democracy.

Witness an observation made recently by Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist admired by many on the Left, who wrote in The Independent:

The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that had fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement.

For those who want to distance themselves from the crude lexicon of Bush and Cheney, jihadism is supposedly a word with less charge, signalling that the term’s user is not on a crusade. Yet under this veneer of objectivity there is sometimes a surprising concordance with the neoconservative perspective.

Over a decade ago, I wrote:

Richard Perle, in quasi-theological terms, posits a “unity of terror.” In the same spirit, an editorial in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, in reference to the terrorists who killed three Americans in Gaza this week, goes so far as to say:

Whether it was Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or perhaps even al-Qaida itself matters little and in fact tends to distract from what the West knows but often does not like to admit: The tentacles all belong to the same enemy.

Within this conception of terrorism, a phenomenon that is scattered across the globe has been turned into a beast of mythological proportions. The explicit connection is militant Islam, but whether the “tentacles” linking Islamic terrorists amount to concrete connections through finance and organization, or whether we are looking at bonds that have no more substance than a common cause or simply the common use of particular techniques of terrorism, these are all distinctions that the unitarians dismiss as distractions.

Cockburn now writes:

These days, there is a decreasing difference in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qa’ida central, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. An observer in southern Turkey discussing 9/11 with a range of Syrian jihadi rebels earlier this year found that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US”.

When a veteran reporter makes this kind of observation, even though he does not identify his source in any way at all, there will be many readers who treat Cockburn’s word (and thus that of an unidentified “observer”) as definitive. In so doing, they ignore the fact that this characterization of the Assad regime’s opponents perfectly mirrors the regime’s own propaganda.

One can treat Assad’s claim that he is fighting terrorists as a statement of fact. Or, one can treat it as a cynical and effective piece of political messaging — messaging one of whose purposes is to corral some sympathy from those in the West who, paradoxically, both vehemently reject the military adventurism that the neoconservatives initiated after 9/11 and yet also fully embrace a neoconservative view of unified terrorism.

When labels like jihadist and terrorist get used with sufficient frequency, the mere fact that the terms are used so frequently solidifies the sense that we know what they mean.

Any label applied to a person, however, calls out for a corrective: the voice of that person — a voice which may reinforce or undermine the stereotypes that repetition has created.

When it comes to the jihadists in Syria, we rarely hear what they have to say about themselves and if Cockburn is to be believed there’s little reason why we should be interested in hearing such individuals speak, since they all think alike and are all enemies of the West.

Earlier this year, a rare glimpse of foreign jihadists in Syria came in the form of an interview with a Dutch jihadist. Speaking in English, he provided a more nuanced picture of what has led young men like him to leave their families and join the fight against the Assad regime. Indeed, he spoke at length characterizing this more as a fight for Syrians than as one against their government.

His is just one voice. To what extent he can be taken as representative of others is open to question. Young men can easily be blinded by their own convictions or become servants of the agendas of others.

But while it’s perfectly reasonable to view with skepticism anyone’s claim that Islamic law would provide the panacea that can heal all of Syria’s wounds, the account that this former Dutch soldier gives of himself suggests to me that he knows his own mind.

He’s the kind of jihadist that both Patrick Cockburn and Bashar al-Assad would have you believe does not exist.

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U.S. still believes terrorism is more dangerous than authoritarian rule

Reuters reports: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday Washington was looking to increase its security assistance to Algeria to help it tackle militancy in the vast Sahel region to its south, home to one of the world’s most active branches of al Qaeda.

Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe, is already a key partner in Washington’s campaign against Islamist fighters who have tried to spread across the Maghreb after the French military drove them out of Mali last year.

Kerry was originally scheduled to visit Algeria late last year but arrived just weeks before President Abdelaziz Bouteflika runs for re-election in a vote in which he is widely expected to win a fourth term.

“We really want to work in a cooperative way, and we want to do this so that Algerian security services have the tools and the training needed in order to defeat al Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” Kerry told a news conference.

Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said the United States should give the region more access to its intelligence.

“What the U.S. can do, because nobody else can do it, is for instance, share electronic intelligence with the armed forces and security agencies in the region. This is a qualitative edge that only the US can provide,” he said.

Neighbouring Libya is struggling to curb the turmoil that has continued unabated since the 2011 revolt against Muammar Gaddafi. Islamist fighters have exploited the chaos, taking shelter in Libya’s southern deserts but also in remote mountains in Tunisia.

Attacks in Algeria are rare since the country ended an 11-year conflict with Islamists in 2002, but the risks are still high. Last year, al Qaeda fighters raided a gas plant in the Algerian southern desert, killing 40 oil workers, all but one of whom were foreigners.

Kerry also said the United States would do more to build stronger commercial and investment ties between the countries. He said large-scale youth unemployment in Algeria was troubling and greater investment would help bolster job creation.

He was due to meet later on Thursday with Bouteflika, the 77-year-old independence veteran who has governed Algeria for 15 years since helping to end the North African state’s war which killed around 200,000 people.

Bouteflika is expected to easily win another five-year term after 15 years in power in the vote on April 17, despite concerns over his health since suffering a stroke last year.

Some in the Algerian opposition described the timing of Kerry’s visit as odd, saying it was an indirect statement of support to Bouteflika’s election bid.

“We look forward to elections that are transparent and in line with international standards, and the United States will work with the president that the people of Algeria choose,” Kerry said.

Human Rights Watch: On April 15, 2011, after popular protests ousted authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and were challenging Libya’s, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised a package of political and legislative reforms. But the new law on associations, promulgated in January 2012, has in numerous ways proven more restrictive than the law it replaced, Human Rights Watch found.

The vacuity of Kerry’s pro forma endorsement of a democratic process becomes clear when you understand the powers of the Algerian presidency and the fact that Bouteflika has removed the obstacles to his holding such powers for the rest of his life.

Ahmad Shahine writes: The Algerian presidency has such importance because of the vast authority the constitution accords the post. The president of the republic is head of the executive branch, and he is assisted by the prime minister (head of government). The president also serves as the head of the judiciary, being the chief magistrate of the country. He appoints one-third of the members of parliament’s upper house, has the right to issue decrees between parliamentary sessions and can dissolve the parliament. These rights practically make him absolute ruler.

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