Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Constitution, War on Terror.
Tags: bowe bergdahl, close Guantanamo, congress, gitmo, glenn greenwald, Guantanamo, president obama, roger hollander, signing statement, war on terror
Roger’s note: One is reminded of Richard Nixon’s famous “if the president does it, it’s not illegal.”
Individuals and organizations like Witness Against Torture and the Center for Constitutional Rights have never wavered in their demand that Obama close the offshore prison in Guantanamo and put an end to the practice of indefinite detention. (Image: CCR)
The excuse-making on behalf of President Obama has always found its most extreme form when it came time to explain why he failed to fulfill his oft-stated 2008 election promise to close Guantanamo. As I’ve documented many times, even the promise itself was misleading, as it became quickly apparent that Obama — even in the absence of congressional obstruction — did not intend to “close GITMO” at all but rather to re-locate it, maintaining its defining injustice of indefinite detention.
But the events of the last three days have obliterated the last remaining excuse. In order to secure the release of American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration agreed to release from Guantanamo five detainees allegedly affiliated with the Taliban. But as even stalwart Obama defenders such as Jeffery Toobin admit, Obama “clearly broke the law” by releasing those detainees without providing Congress the 30-day notice required by the 2014 defense authorization statute (law professor Jonathan Turley similarly observed that Obama’s lawbreaking here was clear and virtually undebatable).
The only conceivable legal argument to justify this release is if the Obama White House argues that the law does not and cannot bind them. As documented by MSNBC’s Adam Serwer - who acknowledges that “when it comes to the legality of the decision [critics] have a point” – Obama has suggested in the past when issuing signing statements that he does not recognize the validity of congressional restrictions on his power to release Guantanamo detainees because these are decisions assigned by the Constitution solely to the commander-in-chief (sound familiar?). Obama’s last signing statement concluded with this cryptic vow: “In the event that the restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees in sections 1034 and 1035 operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”
Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief’s power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?
Both Serwer and a new Washington Post article this morning note the gross and obvious hypocrisy of Obama and his Democratic loyalists now using Article-II-über-alles signing statements to ignore congressionally enacted laws relating to the War on Terror. Quoting an expert on signing statements, the Post – referencing Obama’s Bush-era condemnation of signing statements — sums up much of the last six years of political events in the US: “Senator Obama had a very different view than President Obama.”
But the eagerness of many Democrats to radically change everything they claimed to believe as of January 20, 2009 is far too familiar and well-documented at this point to be worth spending much time on. Far more significant are the implications for Obama’s infamously unfulfilled pledge to close Guantanamo.
The sole excuse now offered by Democratic loyalists for this failure has been that Congress prevented him from closing the camp. But here, the Obama White House appears to be arguing that Congress lacks the authority to constrain the President’s power to release detainees when he wants. What other excuse is there for his clear violation of a law that requires 30-day notice to Congress before any detainees are released?
But once you take the position that Obama can override — i.e., ignore — Congressional restrictions on his power to release Guantanamo detainees, then what possible excuse is left for his failure to close the camp? As Jason Leopold notes in an astute article at Al Jazeera, this week’s episode “has led one human rights organization to question why the Obama administration has not acted to transfer dozens of other detainees who have been cleared for release for many years.” He added:
Raha Wala, an attorney with Human Rights First, told Al Jazeera if the administration can make the argument that the five Taliban detainees are transferrable “without any significant problems under the congressionally imposed transfer restrictions” then certainly “the same argument can be made for the detainees who have already been cleared for release.”
Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief’s power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?
© 2014 The Intercept / First Look Media
Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Imperialism, War, War on Terror.
Tags: blowback, delta force, drones, green berets, navy seals, nick turse, rangers, roger hollander, socom, special operations, special ops, war, war on terror
Roger’s note: Jeremy Scahill’s documentary, “Dirty Wars,” was has just been nominated for an academy award, outlines the length and bredth of the American secret war around the globe. For more information go to http://www.dirtywars.org.
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.
In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs. This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection. Conducted largely in the shadows by America’s most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
Formally established in 1987, Special Operations Command has grown steadily in the post-9/11 era. SOCOM is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 personnel in 2014, up from 33,000 in 2001. Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as its baseline budget, $2.3 billion in 2001, hit $6.9 billion in 2013 ($10.4 billion, if you add in supplemental funding). Personnel deployments abroad have skyrocketed, too, from 4,900 “man-years” in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013.
A recent investigation by TomDispatch, using open source government documents and news releases as well as press reports, found evidence that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world in 2012-2013. For more than a month during the preparation of that article, however, SOCOM failed to provide accurate statistics on the total number of countries to which special operators — Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos, specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, and civil affairs personnel — were deployed. “We don’t just keep it on hand,” SOCOM’s Bockholt explained in a telephone interview once the article had been filed. “We have to go searching through stuff. It takes a long time to do that.” Hours later, just prior to publication, he provided an answer to a question I first asked in November of last year. “SOF [Special Operations forces] were deployed to 134 countries” during fiscal year 2013, Bockholt explained in an email.
Globalized Special Ops
Last year, Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven explained his vision for special ops globalization. In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:
“USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate…”
While that “presence” may be small, the reach and influence of those Special Operations forces are another matter. The 12% jump in national deployments — from 120 to 134 — during McRaven’s tenure reflects his desire to put boots on the ground just about everywhere on Earth. SOCOM will not name the nations involved, citing host nation sensitivities and the safety of American personnel, but the deployments we do know about shed at least some light on the full range of missions being carried out by America’s secret military.
Last April and May, for instance, Special Ops personnel took part in training exercises in Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. In June, U.S. Navy SEALs joined Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, and other allied Mideast forces for irregular warfare simulations in Aqaba, Jordan. The next month, Green Berets traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to carry out small unit tactical exercises with local forces. In August, Green Berets conducted explosives training with Honduran sailors. In September, according to media reports, U.S. Special Operations forces joined elite troops from the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia — as well as their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded counterterrorism exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java.
In October, elite U.S. troops carried out commando raids in Libya and Somalia, kidnapping a terror suspect in the former nation while SEALs killed at least one militant in the latter before beingdriven off under fire. In November, Special Ops troops conducted humanitarian operations in the Philippines to aid survivors of Typhoon Haiyan. The next month, members of the 352nd Special Operations Group conducted a training exercise involving approximately 130 airmen and six aircraft at an airbase in England and Navy SEALs were wounded while undertaking an evacuation mission in South Sudan. Green Berets then rang in the new year with a January 1st combat mission alongside elite Afghan troops in Bahlozi village in Kandahar province.
Deployments in 134 countries, however, turn out not to be expansive enough for SOCOM. In November 2013, the command announced that it was seeking to identify industry partners who could, under SOCOM’s Trans Regional Web Initiative, potentially “develop new websites tailored to foreign audiences.” These would join an existing global network of 10 propaganda websites, run by various combatant commands and made to look like legitimate news outlets, including CentralAsiaOnline.com, Sabahi which targets the Horn of Africa; an effort aimed at the Middle East known as Al-Shorfa.com; and another targeting Latin America called Infosurhoy.com.
SOCOM’s push into cyberspace is mirrored by a concerted effort of the command to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway. “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. — from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” SOCOM chief Admiral McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center last year. Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of departments and agencies where SOCOM is now entrenched at 38.
134 Chances for Blowback
Although elected in 2008 by many who saw him as an antiwar candidate, President Obama has proved to be a decidedly hawkish commander-in-chief whose policies have already produced notable instances of what in CIA trade-speak has long been called blowback. While the Obama administration oversaw a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (negotiated by his predecessor), as well as adrawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (after a major military surge in that country), the president has presided over a ramping up of the U.S. military presence in Africa, a reinvigoration of efforts inLatin America, and tough talk about a rebalancing or “pivot to Asia” (even if it has amounted to little as of yet).
The White House has also overseen an exponential expansion of America’s drone war. While President Bush launched 51 such strikes, President Obama has presided over 330, according to research by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Last year, alone, the U.S. also engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Recent revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden have demonstrated the tremendous breadth and global reach of U.S. electronic surveillance during the Obama years. And deep in the shadows, Special Operations forces are now annually deployed to more than double the number of nations as at the end of Bush’s tenure.
In recent years, however, the unintended consequences of U.S. military operations have helped to sow outrage and discontent, setting whole regions aflame. More than 10 years after America’s “mission accomplished” moment, seven years after its much vaunted surge, the Iraq that America helped make is in flames. A country with no al-Qaeda presence before the U.S. invasion and a government opposed to America’s enemies in Tehran now has a central government aligned with Iran and two cities flying al-Qaeda flags.
A more recent U.S. military intervention to aid the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, saw a coup there carried out by a U.S.-trained officer, ultimately led to a bloody terror attack on an Algerian gas plant, and helped to unleash nothing short of a terror diaspora in the region.
And today South Sudan — a nation the U.S. shepherded into being, has supported economicallyand militarily (despite its reliance on child soldiers), and has used as a hush-hush base for Special Operations forces — is being torn apart by violence and sliding toward civil war.
The Obama presidency has seen the U.S. military’s elite tactical forces increasingly used in an attempt to achieve strategic goals. But with Special Operations missions kept under tight wraps, Americans have little understanding of where their troops are deployed, what exactly they are doing, or what the consequences might be down the road. As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, has noted, the utilization of Special Operations forces during the Obama years has decreased military accountability, strengthened the “imperial presidency,” and set the stage for a war without end. “In short,” he wrote at TomDispatch, “handing war to the special operators severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake.”
Secret ops by secret forces have a nasty tendency to produce unintended, unforeseen, and completely disastrous consequences. New Yorkers will remember well the end result ofclandestine U.S. support for Islamic militants against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s: 9/11. Strangely enough, those at the other primary attack site that day, the Pentagon, seem not to have learned the obvious lessons from this lethal blowback. Even today in Afghanistan and Pakistan, more than 12 years after the U.S. invaded the former and almost 10 years after it began conducting covert attacks in the latter, the U.S. is still dealing with that Cold War-era fallout: with, for instance, CIA drones conducting missile strikes against an organization (the Haqqani network) that, in the 1980s, the Agency supplied with missiles.
Without a clear picture of where the military’s covert forces are operating and what they are doing, Americans may not even recognize the consequences of and blowback from our expanding secret wars as they wash over the world. But if history is any guide, they will be felt — from Southwest Asia to the Mahgreb, the Middle East to Central Africa, and, perhaps eventually, in the United States as well.
In his blueprint for the future, SOCOM 2020, Admiral McRaven has touted the globalization of U.S. special ops as a means to “project power, promote stability, and prevent conflict.” Last year, SOCOM may have done just the opposite in 134 places.
© 2014 Nick Turse
Nick Turse is the associate editor ofTomDispatch.com. His latest book is Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. He is the author/editor of several other books, including The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyber Warfare,Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt), The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives and The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His website is Nick Turse.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, orFacebook.
Posted by rogerhollander in Peace, War, War on Terror.
Tags: gallup poll, peace, roger hollander, sarah lazare, war, war on terror, world peace
Roger’s note: Wouldn’t it be interesting and enlightening if a similar poll had been taken in the 1930s so that we could compare the U.S. numbers here with those of Nazi Germany then? If this article interests you, you may want to go to the original and read the comments at the end, most of which are informative and right on (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/12/31-6).
U.S. soldiers stop traffic on the road to the governor’s compound in Kandahar, scene of a deadly battle on April 28, 2012 (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)
Over 12 years into the so-called “Global War on Terror,” the United States appears to be striking terror into the hearts of the rest of the world.
In their annual End of Year survey, Win/Gallup International found that the United States is considered the number one “greatest threat to peace in the world today” by people across the globe.
The poll of 67,806 respondents from 65 countries found that the U.S. won this dubious distinction by a landslide, as revealed in the chart below.
The BBC explains that the U.S. was deemed a threat by geopolitical allies as well as foes, including a significant portion of U.S. society.
Predictable in some areas (the Middle East and North Africa) but less so in others. Eastern Europe’s 32% figure may be heavily influenced by Russia and Ukraine, but across most of Western Europe there are also lots of figures in the high teens.
In the Americas themselves, decades of US meddling have left an awkward legacy. Its neighbours, Mexico (37%) and Canada (17%), clearly have issues. Even 13% of Americans see their own country as a danger.
Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, War on Terror.
Tags: Criminal Justice, John Ashcroft, john koeltl, lynne stewart, michael steven smith, ralph poynter, roger hollander, Sheik Abdel Rahman, war on terror
June 25th, 2013
Lynne Stewart’ husband Ralph Poynter was informed by Lynne this morning that she received a three-paragraph letter from Kathleen Kenney, General Counsel for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C.:
Compassionate Release has been denied on the grounds that Lynne’s “health is improving.”
This claim is at once cynical and false. Lynne Stewart’s cancer continues to spread in her lungs. She remains in isolation as her white blood cell count remains so low that she is at risk for generalized infection. She weakens daily.
A message from Lynne will be released imminently.
We call upon all committed to the effort to secure Lynne Stewart’s release and to save her life to stand by for further notice of the response from Lynne, her husband Ralph Poynter, and her family and her lawyers – announcing the next actions that we, her supporters, will launch in response to this appalling betrayal of compassion and justice.
The Sentencing of Lynne Stewart by Michael Steven Smith
“At all times throughout history the ideology of the ruling class is the ruling ideology.”—Karl Marx
Lynne Stewart is a friend. She used to practice law in New York City. I still do. I was in the courtroom with my wife Debby the afternoon of July 19th for her re-sentencing. Judge John Koeltl buried her alive.
We should have seen it coming when he told her to take all the time she needed at the start when she spoke before the sentence was read. It didn’t matter what she said. He had already written his decision, which he read out loud to a courtroom packed with supporters. It was well crafted. Bulletproof on appeal. He is smart and cautious.
After about an hour into his pronouncement, he came to the buried alive part. He prefaced it by citing the unprecedented 400 letters of support people had sent him, all of which he said he read. He noted Lynne’s three decades of service to the poor and the outcast. He stressed that she is a seventy-year-old breast cancer survivor with high blood pressure and other serious health problems. And then he laid it on her: 120 months.
Everyone in the courthouse divided 120 by 12. He had given her a death sentence, we all thought. She’ll never get out. He almost quadrupled the 28 month sentence he had originally pronounced. She had told him that 28 months was a horizon, that she had hope. But no more.
Lynne’s granddaughter gasped. Then started sobbing. She kept crying even as Judge John Koeltl kept reading. And reading. And reading. It was awful. The sentence was pitiless and cruel. How to understand it?
Lynne’s lawyer Jill Shellow Levine rose after the judge finished. She asked him why. He was candid. He was told to do it by his supervisors, the judges on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. This court is an institution of the elite. It is considered the second highest court in America next to the Supreme Court because it presides over the financial center of the empire, not its capital, that is in D.C., but its real capital. This court makes policy and Lynne Stewart was to be made an example of in “the war against terrorism” just as a half a century before, in the same court, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were condemned to death in the war against communism, told that they had caused the deaths of 50,000 U.S. soldiers in the Korean War, and found guilty of the ridiculous charge of “stealing the secret” of the atomic bomb, when there was no secret, it was only a matter of technology. The sentencing Judge Kaufman knew they would leave behind two orphan children, Robert and Michael, ages six and three.
In 1947 George Kennan, the ideological father of the cold war, wrote that the United States had but six per cent of the world’s population and fifty per cent of its wealth. The problem was to keep it. Anti-communism served as the ideological cover the U.S. ruling classes used. But communism ceased to exist after capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union in 1991. A new ideological cover has been constructed in the wake of the September 11th criminal attack on the World Tread Center and the Pentagon: the War against Terror. Nationalist opposition to U.S. economic and foreign policy in parts of the Arab world is no longer led by communists but by fundamentalist Muslims.
Lynne Stewart represented one of them, Sheik Abdel Rahman, who was the leading oppositionist to the U.S.-sponsored Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, which gets more money from America than any other country in the world except Israel. In 1993, at the behest of the Egyptian government, Sheik Rahman was criminally indicted and later convicted of the crime of “sedition” for suggesting to a government informer that rather than blow up New York City landmarks he choose “a military target.” It was on the occasion of a post-conviction prison visit that Lynne helped her client. She released his statement to Reuters press service announcing his withdrawal of support for a ceasefire between his group and the Egyptian government. This was in violation of a Special Administrative Measure (SAMs) that Lynne had agreed to with the U.S. Government. She wasn’t supposed to be a medium for communication between her client and the outside world. She should have challenged the constitutionality of the SAMs, she now realizes, and not just have violated them.
She wasn’t prosecuted for what she did, not under the Clinton administration, nor during the first years of George W. Bush. Then came 9.11. Bush’s Attorney General John Ashcroft flew into New York City in 2003 and announced Lynne’s indictment on the David Letterman show. The crime? A novel one. Conspiracy to provide material aid to a terrorist organization. What was the material aid? Her client. When Ashcroft did that, as the nation’s highest law enforcement officer, he committed an ethical violation for which any other attorney would have been sanctioned. He made sure that from the very beginning of her ordeal Lynne Stewart never had a chance. Not with the level of fear the government was able to generate and the scare they put into her jury.
In 2006 she was convicted and sentenced. The maximum was 30 years, but thanks to the superb legal work of National Lawyers Guild attorneys Elizabeth Fink and Sarah Kunstler and the outpouring of public support Judge Koeltl gave her 28 months. The government appealed the sentence to their U.S. Court of Appeals. Game over. The selective prosecution of Lynne Stewart was accomplished.
Judge John Walker, George W. Bush’s first cousin, sits on that court. His family made their fortune selling munitions during WWI. He wrote that the 28 months was “shockingly low.” Judge Koeltl was given his orders. The seemingly kindly boyish-looking jurist about whom it was said that he walks to work and looks after an elderly mother—not exactly a sadistic old lady killer—then reversed himself and on the same evidence nearly quadruped the sentence, putting a seventy-year-old grandmother on chemotherapy away for ten years and two years’ probation after that for good measure. This is much more than meanness. It is ideology.
Michael Steven Smith is the co-host of the WBAI radio show Law and Disorder and sits on the Board of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Pakistan, War on Terror.
Tags: answer coalition, civilian casualties, drone missiles, forced feeding, Guantanamo, obama speech, pakistan, president obama, roger hollander, torture, war on terror
Roger’s note: “Further, the president made several statements that seem to be contradicted by his actions.” This is a genteel way of saying the president is a liar.
ANSWER responds to President Obama’s speech at the National Defense
May 23, 2013
President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University today was another
exercise in misdirection and illusion regarding the administration’s
unprecedented use of drone military strikes that have killed more than 5,000
people, the majority of whom were civilians, including a large number of
Under pressure from a growing international grassroots protest movement
demanding the end of drone strikes and the closure of the Guantanamo torture
center, Obama’s speech was crafted to address both issues.
He acknowledged that civilians were killed by his drone strikes and said that
he would be “haunted” by their deaths, but he made it clear that the strikes
Although he spoke far more eloquently than George W. Bush, the president used
the Bush-created legal architecture to permit the president to kill anyone,
anywhere if he labeled them as a terrorist. Obama said that his previously
secret “legal basis” for targeted killings was actually the Authorization of
Military Use Force (AMUF) that Bush rammed through Congress shortly after the
September 11, 2001 attacks.
Demagogically he called again for the closure of Guantanamo, which has been
labeled a torture center by the United Nations. He said that the failure to
close the facility was seen by the whole world as a “flouting [of] the rule of
law” by the United States. But he neglected to say that he has refused to use
the vast authority of the presidency to actually close Guantanamo. Rather he is
placing the blame on Congress rather than acting.
In addition to refusing to take immediate action to close Guantanamo,
President Obama stated that he would not end the policy of indefinite detention.
He in fact stated that he has tasked an official to find a place in the United
States where people can be held indefinitely without charges. He further
referenced America’s “supermax” prisons. These brutal facilities, in which
prisoners are kept in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, also meet most definitions
of torture, a practice Obama claims to have “banned.”
Old wine in a new bottle
For almost the entirety of his presidency, Obama has sought to shield his
“War on Terror” policies from even some of the most basic scrutiny. In fact,
information on many of these programs has only been released after significant
criticism has been raised. More than anything, President Obama’s May 23, 2013,
speech must be seen as a direct response to the individuals and organizations
who have consistently been challenging the actions of the administration on
these issues. It is unavoidably clear that the firestorm of criticism around
drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay Prison, and the extent of domestic surveillance
created a climate in which Obama was forced to defend his policies.
The president outlined a number of policies, many of which had already been
revealed in their broad outlines, and attempted to give them a new gloss.
Further, the president made several statements that seem to be contradicted by
his actions. In other words, despite all the hype, the president is attempting
to codify many of the “war-time” measures that erode our civil liberties and
perpetuate imperialist brutality abroad.
For instance, President Obama claimed that his administration has “banned
torture” despite the fact the force feedings being carried out by individuals
directly under his purview have been classified by the American Medical
Association as torture. The president also made several interesting admissions,
one being that in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater the U.S. government
reportedly only attacks leaders of Al-Qaeda. Whether that is true or not, it is
a clear admission that in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “signature strikes” – which
have been responsible for thousands of deaths, including many civilians – will
“Only 55 known militant leaders have been killed in Pakistan, representing
just 2 percent of the total deaths” caused by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan,
according to the New American Foundation.
President Obama, in response to major criticism, did state the need to close
Guantanamo; the president also stated that he wants to find a way to eliminate
the Authorization of the Use of Military Force as a justification for terror
policies. This is after he used the AUMF to conduct a mostly secret worldwide
conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. It seems highly convenient
that, after such a huge amount of damage and suffering were caused, in
retrospect the president criticizes the AUMF.
While there is much to dissect in his speech, the bottom line is that
President Obama is attempting to respond to criticism of his war on terror
policies while creating a new framework to institutionalize many of these same
Posted by rogerhollander in Britain, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Racism, Torture, Uncategorized, War on Terror, Women.
Tags: bagram, ben emmerson, desmond tutu, enemy combatant, england, Guantanamo, human rights, Moazzam Begg, muslim, racism, roger hollander, rumsfeld, torture, victoria brittain, war on terror, women
Published on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 by TomDispatch.com
Once, as a reporter, I covered wars, conflicts, civil wars, and even a genocide in places like Vietnam, Angola, Eritrea, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, keeping away from official briefings and listening to the people who were living the war. In the years since the Bush administration launched its Global War on Terror, I’ve done the same thing without ever leaving home.
In the last decade, I didn’t travel to distant refugee camps in Pakistan or destroyed villages in Afghanistan, nor did I spend time in besieged cities like Iraq’s Fallujah or Libya’s Misrata. I stayed in Great Britain. There, my government, in close conjunction with Washington, was pursuing its own version of what, whether anyone cared to say it or not, was essentially a war against Islam. Somehow, by a series of chance events, I found myself inside it, spending time with families transformed into enemies.
I hadn’t planned to write about the war on terror, but driven by curiosity about lives most of us never see and a few lucky coincidences, I stumbled into a world of Muslim women in London, Manchester, and Birmingham. Some of them were British, others from Arab and African countries, but their husbands or sons had been swept up in Washington’s war. Some were in Guantanamo, some were among the dozen Muslim foreigners who did not know each other, and who were surprised to find themselves imprisoned together in Britain on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda. Later, some of these families would find themselves under house arrest.
In the process, I came to know women and children who were living in almost complete isolation and with the stigma of a supposed link to terrorism. They had few friends, and were cut off from the wider world. Those with a husband under house arrest were allowed no visitors who had not been vetted for “security,” nor could they have computers, even for their children to do their homework. Other lonely women had husbands or sons who had sometimes spent a decade or more in prison without charges in the United Kingdom, and were fighting deportation or extradition.
Gradually, they came to accept me into their isolated lives and talked to me about their children, their mothers, their childhoods — but seldom, at first, about the grim situations of their husbands, which seemed too intimate, too raw, too frightening, too unknowable to be put into words.
In the early years, it was a steep learning curve for me, spending time in homes where faith was the primary reality, Allah was constantly invoked, English was a second language, and privacy and reticence were givens. Facebook culture had not come to most of these families. The reticence faded over the years, especially when the children were not there, or in the face of the kind of desolation that came from a failed court appeal to lift the restrictions on their lives, an unexpected police raid on the house, a husband’s suicide attempt, or the coming of a new torture report from Washington’s then-expanding global gulag of black sites and, of course, Guantanamo.
In these years, I met some of their husbands and sons as well. The first was a British man from Birmingham, Moazzam Begg. He had been held for three years in Washington’s notorious offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, only to be released without charges. When he came home, through his lawyer, he asked me to help write his memoir, the first to come out of Guantanamo. We worked long months on Enemy Combatant. It was hard for him to relive his nightmare days and nights in American custody in Kandahar and in the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then those limbo years in Cuba. It was even harder for him to visit the women whose absent husbands he had known in prison and who, unlike him, were still there.
Was My Husband Tortured?
In these homes he visited, there was always one great unspoken question: Was my husband or son tortured? It was the single question no one could bear to ask a survivor of that nightmare, even for reassurance. When working on his book, I deliberately left the chapter on his experiences in American hands in Bagram prison for last, as I sensed how difficult it would be for both of us to speak about the worst of the torture I knew he had experienced.
Through Moazzam, I met other men who had been swept up in the post-9/11 dragnet for Muslims in Great Britain, refugees who sought him out as an Arabic speaker and a British citizen to help them negotiate Britain’s newly hostile atmosphere in the post-9/11 years. Soon, I began to visit some of their wives, too.
In time, I found myself deep inside a world of civilian women who were being warred upon (after a fashion) in my own country, which was how I came upon a locked-down hospital ward with a man determined to starve himself to death unless he was given refugee documents to leave Britain, children who cried in terror in response to a knock on the door, wives faced with a husband changed beyond words by prison.
I found myself deep inside a world of civilian women who were being warred upon (after a fashion) in my own country, which was how I came upon a locked-down hospital ward with a man determined to starve himself to death, children who cried in terror in response to a knock on the door, wives faced with a husband changed beyond words by prison.
I was halfway through working on Moazzam’s book when London was struck by our 9/11, which we call 7/7. The July 7, 2005, suicide bombings, in three parts of the London underground and a bus, killed 52 civilians and injured more than 700. The four bombers were all young British men between 18 and 30, two of them married with children, and one of them a mentor at a primary school. In video statements left behind they described themselves as “soldiers” whose aim was to force the British government to pull its troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Just three weeks later, there were four more coordinated bomb attacks on the London subway system. (All failed to detonate.) The four men responsible, longterm British residents originally from the Horn of Africa, were captured, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In this way, the whole country was traumatised in 2005, and that particularly includes the various strands of the Muslim community in Great Britain.
The British security services quickly returned to a post-9/11 stance on overdrive. The same MI5 intelligence agents who had interrogated Moazzam while he was in U.S. custody asked to meet him again to get his thoughts on who might be behind the attacks. However, three years in U.S. custody and five months at home occupied with his family and his book had not made him a likely source of information on current strains of thought in the British Muslim community.
At the same time, the dozen foreign Muslim refugees detained in the aftermath of 9/11 and held without trial for two years before being released on the orders of the House of Lords were rearrested. In the summer of 2005, the government prepared to deport them to countries they had originally fled as refugees.
All of them had been made anonymous by court order and in legal documents were referred to as Mr. G, Mr. U, and so on. This was no doubt intended to safeguard their privacy, but in a sense it also condemned them. It made them faceless, inhuman, and their families experienced it just that way. “They even took my husband’s name away, why?” one wife asked me.
The women I was meeting in these years were mostly from this small group, as well as the relatives of a handful of British residents — Arabs — who were not initially returned from Guantanamo with the nine British citizens that the Americans finally released without charges in 2004 and 2005.
Perhaps no one in the country was, in the end, more terrorised than them, thanks to the various terror plots by British nationals that followed. And they were right to be fearful. The pressure on them was overwhelming. Some of them simply gave up and went home voluntarily because they could not bear house arrest, though they risked being sent to prison in their native lands; others went through years of house arrest and court appeals against deportation, all of which continues to this day.
Among the plots that unnerved them were one in 2006 against transatlantic aircraft, for which a total of 12 Britons were jailed for life in 2009, and the 2007 attempt to blow up a London nightclub and Glasgow International Airport, in which one bomber died and the second was jailed for 32 years. In the post-9/11 decade, 237 people were convicted of terror-related offences in Britain.
Though all of this was going on, much of it remained remote from the world of the refugee women I came to know who, in the larger world, were mainly preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, with Palestinian developments, filled their TV screens tuned only to Arabic stations.
These women did not tend to dwell on their own private nightmares, but for anyone in their company there was no mistaking them: a wife prevented from taking her baby into the hospital to visit her hunger-striking husband and get him to eat before he starved to death; another, with several small children, turned back from a prison visit, despite a long journey, because her husband was being punished that day; children whose toys were taken in a police raid and never given back; midnight visits from a private security company to check on a man already electronically tagged.
These women did not tend to dwell on their own private nightmares: a wife prevented from taking her baby into the hospital to visit her hunger-striking husband and get him to eat before he starved to death; another turned back from a prison visit because her husband was being punished that day; children whose toys were taken in a police raid and never given back; midnight visits from a private security company to check on a man already electronically tagged.
Here was the texture of a hidden war of continual harassment against a largely helpless population. This was how some of the most vulnerable people in British society — often already traumatised refugees and torture survivors — were made permanent scapegoats for our post-9/11, and then post-7/7 fears.
So powerful is the stigma of “terrorism” today that, in the name of “our security,” whether in Great Britain or the United States, just about anything now goes, and ever fewer people ask questions about what that “anything” might actually be. Here in London, repeated attempts to get influential religious or political figures simply to visit one of these officially locked-down families and see these lives for themselves have failed. In the present political climate, such a personal, fact-finding visit proved to be anything but a priority for such people.
A Legal System of Secret Evidence, House Arrest, and Financial Sanctions
Against this captive population, in such an anything-goes atmosphere, all sorts of experimental perversions of the legal system were tried out. As a result, the British system of post-9/11 justice contains many features which should frighten us all but are completely unfamiliar to the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom.
Key aspects for the families I have been concerned with include the use of secret evidence in cases involving deportation, bail conditions, and imprisonment without trial. In addition, most of their cases have been heard in a special court known as the Special Immigration Appeals Commission or SIAC, which is housed in an anonymous basement set of rooms in central London.
One of SIAC’s innovative features is the use of “special advocates,” senior barristers who have security clearance to see secret evidence on behalf of their clients, but without being allowed to disclose it or discuss it, even with the client or his or her own lawyer. The resignation on principle of a highly respected barrister, Ian Macdonald, as a special advocate in November 2004 exposed this process to the public for the first time — but almost no one took any interest.
And a sense of the injustice in this arcane system was never sufficiently sparked by such voices, which found little echo in the media. Nor was there a wide audience for reports from ateam of top psychiatrists about the devastating psychological impact on the men and their families of indefinite detention without trial, and of a house-arrest system framed by “control orders” that allow the government to place restrictions of almost any sort on the lives of those it designates.
An even less noted aspect of the anti-terror legal system brought into existence after 9/11 was the financial sanctions that could freeze the assets of designated individuals. First ordered by the United Nations, the financial-sanctions regime was consolidated here through a European Union list of designated people. The few lawyers who specialized in this area were scathing about the draconian measures involved and the utter lack of transparency when it came to which governments had put which names on which list.
The effect on the listed families was draconian. Marriages collapsed under the strain. The listed men were barred from working and only allowed £10 a week for personal expenses. Their wives — often from conservative cultures where all dealings with the outside world had been left to husbands — suddenly were the families’ faces to the world, responsible for everything from shopping to accounting monthly to the government’s Home Office for every item the family purchased, right down to a bottle of milk or a pencil for a child. It was humiliating for the men, who lost their family role overnight, and exhausting and frustrating for the women, while in some cases the rest of their families shunned them because of the taint of alleged terrorism. Almost no one except specialist lawyers even knew that such financial sanctions existed in Britain.
In the country’s High Court, the first judicial challenge to the financial-sanctions regime was brought in 2008 by five British Muslim men known only as G, K, A, M, and Q. In response, Justice Andrew Collins said he found it “totally unacceptable” that, to take an especially absurd example, a man should have to get a license for legal advice about the sanctions from the very body that was imposing them. The man in question had waited three months for a “basic expense” license permitting funds for food and rent, and six months for a license to obtain legal advice about the situation he found himself in.
In a related case before the judicial committee of the House of Lords, Justice Leonard Hoffman expressed incredulity at the “meanness and squalor” of a regime that “monitored who had what for lunch.” More recently, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court endorsed the comments of Lord Justice Stephen Sedley who described those subject to the regime as being akin to “prisoners of the state.”
Among senior lawyers concerned about this hidden world of punishment was Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. He devoted one of his official U.N. reports to the financial sanctions issue. His recommendations included significantly more transparency from governments who put people on such a list, the explicit exclusion of evidence obtained by torture, and the obligation of governments to give reasons when they refuse to remove individuals from the list. Of course, no one who mattered was paying the slightest attention.
Against ideological governments obsessed by terrorism on both sides of the Atlantic and a culture numbed by violent anti-terrorist tales like “24” and Zero Dark Thirty, such complicated and technical initiatives on behalf of individuals who have been given the tag, implicitly if not explicitly, of “terrorist” stand little chance of getting attention.
“Each Time It’s Worse”
Nearly a decade ago, at the New York opening night of Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, the play Gillian Slovo and I wrote using only the words of the relatives of prisoners in that jail, their lawyers, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, an elderly man approached Moazzam Begg’s father and me. He introduced himself as a former foreign policy adviser to President John Kennedy. “It could never have happened in our time,” he said.
When the Global War on Terror was still relatively new, it was common for audiences to react similarly and with shock to a play in which fathers and brothers describe their bewilderment over the way their relation had disappeared into the legal black hole of Guantanamo Bay. In the years since, we have become numb to the destruction of lives, livelihoods, futures, childhoods, legal systems, and trust by Washington’s and London’s never-ending war on terror.
In that time, I have seen children grow from toddlers to teenagers locked inside this particular war machine. What they say today should startle us out of such numbness. Here, for instance, are the words of two teenagers, a girl and a boy whose fathers had been imprisoned or under house arrest in Britain for 10 years and whose lives in those same years were filled with indignities and humiliations:
“People seem to think that we get used to things being how they are for us, so we don’t feel the injustices so much now. They are quite wrong: it was painful the first time, more painful the second, even more so the third. In fact, each time it’s worse, if you can believe that. There isn’t a limit on how much pain you can feel.”
The boy added this:
“There is never one day when I feel safe. It can be the authorities, it can be ordinary people, they can do something bad for us. Only like now when we are all in the house together can I stop worrying about my mum and my sisters, and even me, what might happen to us. On the tube [subway], in class at university, people look at my beard. I see them looking and I know they are thinking bad things about me. I would like to be a normal guy who no one looks at. You know, other boys, some of my friends, they cut corners, things like driving without a current license, everyone does it. But I can’t, I can’t ever, ever, take even a small risk. I have to always be cautious, be responsible… for my family.”
These children have been brought up by women who, against all odds, have often preserved their dignity and kept at least a modicum of joy in their families’ lives, and so, however despised, however unnoticed, however locked away, made themselves an inspiration to others. They are not victims to be pitied, but women our societies should embrace.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s response to recent proposals that Washington establish a secret court to oversee the targeting of terrorist suspects for death-by-drone and President Obama’s expanding executive power to kill, speak for the world beyond the West. They offer a different perspective on the war on terror that Washington and Great Britain continue to pursue with no end in sight:
“Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the nineteenth century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it. I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.”
© 2013 Victoria Brittain
Victoria Brittain, journalist and former editor at the Guardian, has authored or co-authored two plays and four books, including Enemy Combatant with Moazzam Begg. Her latest book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013) has just been published.
Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Human Rights, Torture, Uncategorized, War on Terror.
Tags: ben emmerson, bush/cheney, CIA torture, eric holder, human rights, International law, jon queally, nuremberg, rendition, roger hollander, rule of law, torture, War Crimes, war on terror
Roger’s note: “Under Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Department of Justice would not prosecute any official who acted in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance given by its Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush era on interrogation.” The mind boggles at this statement, which was the classic Nazi defense (not to mention the classic “Nixon Defense:” if the president does it, it is legal). It is as if Nuremberg never happened.
Published on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 by Common Dreams
‘Words are not enough. Platitudinous repetition of statements affirming opposition to torture ring hollow,’ says Ben Emmerson’
- Jon Queally, staff writer
If the US and UK governments truly want to rebuke the role that kidnapping, torture and prolonged detention without trial played—and in some cases continues to play—in their declared “war against terrorism” than they must go beyond words and release the still disclosed internal reports that document such abuses.
Ben Emmerson: failure to release intelligence reports shows seeming unwillingness by UK and US to face up to international crimes. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
That’s the argument of Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, who spoke out on Monday against the secrecy and denial that persists within both governments.
Perpetrators and architects of such programs should be held accountable and face justice, he declared in both an official report and in a speech delivered Monday.
“Despite this clear repudiation of the unlawful actions carried out by the Bush-era CIA, many of the facts remain classified, and no public official has so far been brought to justice in the United States,” Emmerson writes in the report written for the the U.N. Human Rights Council, which he will present Tuesday.
Prefacing the report in Geneva on Monday, Emmerson criticized “a policy of de facto immunity for public officials who engaged in acts of torture, rendition and secret detention, and their superiors and political masters who authorized these acts.”
Citing the hypocrisy of such secrecy and the damage done to the reputation of both countries abroad, Emmerson continued:
“Words are not enough. Platitudinous repetition of statements affirming opposition to torture ring hollow to many in those parts of the Middle East and North Africa that have undergone, or are undergoing, major upheaval, since they have first-hand experience of living under repressive regimes that used torture in private whilst making similar statements in public.”
“The scepticism of these communities can only be reinforced if western governments continue to demonstrate resolute indifference to the crimes committed by their predecessor administrations.”
Shortly before the speech in Geneva, Emmerson told the Guardian it was time for “a reckoning with the past”. He added:
“In South America it took up to 30 years before the officials responsible for crimes like these were held fully accountable. With the conspiracy organised by ther Bush-era CIA it has taken a decade, but the campaign for securing the right to truth has now reached a critical point.
“The British and American governments are sitting on reports that reveal the extent of the involvement of former governments in these crimes. If William Hague is serious about pursuing a policy of ethical counter-terrorism, as he says he is, then the first thing the British government needs to do is to release the interim report of the Gibson Inquiry immediately.”
And Reuters adds:
Emmerson, an international lawyer from Britain, has served since August 2011 in the independent post set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2005 to probe human rights violations committed during counter-terrorism operations worldwide.
The “war on terror” waged by Bush after al Qaeda attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 led to “gross or systematic” violations involving secret prisons for Islamic militant suspects, clandestine transfers and torture, Emmerson said.
Under Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Department of Justice would not prosecute any official who acted in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance given by its Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush era on interrogation.
But Emmerson said that using a “superior orders defense” and invoking secrecy on national security grounds was “perpetuating impunity for the public officials implicated in these crimes”.
Posted by rogerhollander in Brazil, Chile, Latin America, Torture, War on Terror.
Tags: 9/11, bagram, cia prisons, counterterrorism, donald rumsfeld, globalizing torture, greg grandin, Guantanamo, Hugo Chavez, Latin America, mahar arar, operation condor, pinochet, rendition, roger hollander, torture, war on terror, wikileaks
Published on Monday, February 18, 2013 by TomDispatch.com
The Latin American Exception
(Max Fisher — The Washington Post)
The map tells the story. To illustrate a damning new report, “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detentions and Extraordinary Rendition,” recently published by the Open Society Institute, the Washington Post put together an equally damning graphic: it’s soaked in red, as if with blood, showing that in the years after 9/11, the CIA turned just about the whole world into a gulag archipelago.
Back in the early twentieth century, a similar red-hued map was used to indicate the global reach of the British Empire, on which, it was said, the sun never set. It seems that, between 9/11 and the day George W. Bush left the White House, CIA-brokered torture never saw a sunset either.
All told, of the 190-odd countries on this planet, a staggering 54 participated in various ways in this American torture system, hosting CIA “black site” prisons, allowing their airspace and airports to be used for secret flights, providing intelligence, kidnapping foreign nationals or their own citizens and handing them over to U.S. agents to be “rendered” to third-party countries like Egypt and Syria. The hallmark of this network, Open Society writes, has been torture. Its report documents the names of 136 individuals swept up in what it says is an ongoing operation, though its authors make clear that the total number, implicitly far higher, “will remain unknown” because of the “extraordinary level of government secrecy associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition.”
No region escapes the stain. Not North America, home to the global gulag’s command center. Not Europe, the Middle East, Africa, or Asia. Not even social-democratic Scandinavia. Sweden turned over at least two people to the CIA, who were then rendered to Egypt, where they were subject to electric shocks, among other abuses. No region, that is, except Latin America.
What’s most striking about the Post’s map is that no part of its wine-dark horror touches Latin America; that is, not one country in what used to be called Washington’s “backyard” participated in rendition or Washington-directed or supported torture and abuse of “terror suspects.” Not even Colombia, which throughout the last two decades was as close to a U.S.-client state as existed in the area. It’s true that a fleck of red should show up on Cuba, but that would only underscore the point: Teddy Roosevelt took Guantánamo Bay Naval Base for the U.S. in 1903 “in perpetuity.”
Two, Three, Many CIAs
How did Latin America come to be territorio libre in this new dystopian world of black sites and midnight flights, the Zion of this militarist matrix (as fans of the Wachowskis’ movies might put it)? After all, it was in Latin America that an earlier generation of U.S. and U.S.-backed counterinsurgents put into place a prototype of Washington’s twenty-first century Global War on Terror.
Even before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, before Che Guevara urged revolutionaries to create “two, three, many Vietnams,” Washington had already set about establishing two, three, many centralized intelligence agencies in Latin America. As Michael McClintock shows in his indispensable book Instruments of Statecraft, in late 1954, a few months after the CIA’s infamous coup in Guatemala that overthrew a democratically elected government, the National Security Council first recommended strengthening “the internal security forces of friendly foreign countries.”
In the region, this meant three things. First, CIA agents and other U.S. officials set to work “professionalizing” the security forces of individual countries like Guatemala, Colombia, and Uruguay; that is, turning brutal but often clumsy and corrupt local intelligence apparatuses into efficient, “centralized,” still brutal agencies, capable of gathering information, analyzing it, and storing it. Most importantly, they were to coordinate different branches of each country’s security forces — the police, military, and paramilitary squads — to act on that information, often lethally and always ruthlessly.
Second, the U.S. greatly expanded the writ of these far more efficient and effective agencies, making it clear that their portfolio included not just national defense but international offense. They were to be the vanguard of a global war for “freedom” and of an anticommunist reign of terror in the hemisphere. Third, our men in Montevideo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Asunción, La Paz, Lima, Quito, San Salvador, Guatemala City, and Managua were to help synchronize the workings of individual national security forces.
The result was state terror on a nearly continent-wide scale. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s Operation Condor, which linked together the intelligence services of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile, was the most infamous of Latin America’s transnational terror consortiums, reaching out to commit mayhem as far away as Washington D.C., Paris, and Rome. The U.S. had earlier helped put in place similar operations elsewhere in the Southern hemisphere, especially in Central America in the 1960s.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans had been tortured, killed, disappeared, or imprisoned without trial, thanks in significant part to U.S. organizational skills and support. Latin America was, by then, Washington’s backyard gulag. Three of the region’s current presidents — Uruguay’s José Mujica, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega — were victims of this reign of terror.
When the Cold War ended, human rights groups began the herculean task of dismantling the deeply embedded, continent-wide network of intelligence operatives, secret prisons, and torture techniques — and of pushing militaries throughout the region out of governments and back into their barracks. In the 1990s, Washington not only didn’t stand in the way of this process, but actually lent a hand in depoliticizing Latin America’s armed forces. Many believed that, with the Soviet Union dispatched, Washington could now project its power in its own “backyard” through softer means like international trade agreements and other forms of economic leverage. Then 9/11 happened.
“Oh My Goodness”
In late November 2002, just as the basic outlines of the CIA’s secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs were coming into shape elsewhere in the world, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flew 5,000 miles to Santiago, Chile, to attend a hemispheric meeting of defense ministers. “Needless to say,” Rumsfeld nonetheless said, “I would not be going all this distance if I did not think this was extremely important.” Indeed.
This was after the invasion of Afghanistan but before the invasion of Iraq and Rumsfeld was riding high, as well as dropping the phrase “September 11th” every chance he got. Maybe he didn’t know of the special significance that date had in Latin America, but 29 years earlier on the first 9/11, a CIA-backed coup by General Pinochet and his military led to the death of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende. Or did he, in fact, know just what it meant and was that the point? After all, a new global fight for freedom, a proclaimed Global War on Terror, was underway and Rumsfeld had arrived to round up recruits.
There, in Santiago, the city out of which Pinochet had run Operation Condor, Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials tried to sell what they were now terming the “integration” of “various specialized capabilities into larger regional capabilities” — an insipid way of describing the kidnapping, torturing, and death-dealing already underway elsewhere. “Events around the world before and after September 11th suggest the advantages,” Rumsfeld said, of nations working together to confront the terror threat.
“Oh my goodness,” Rumsfeld told a Chilean reporter, “the kinds of threats we face are global.” Latin America was at peace, he admitted, but he had a warning for its leaders: they shouldn’t lull themselves into believing that the continent was safe from the clouds gathering elsewhere. Dangers exist, “old threats, such as drugs, organized crime, illegal arms trafficking, hostage taking, piracy, and money laundering; new threats, such as cyber-crime; and unknown threats, which can emerge without warning.”
“These new threats,” he added ominously, “must be countered with new capabilities.” Thanks to the Open Society report, we can see exactly what Rumsfeld meant by those “new capabilities.”
A few weeks prior to Rumsfeld’s arrival in Santiago, for example, the U.S., acting on false information supplied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, detained Maher Arar, who holds dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship, at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport and then handed him over to a “Special Removal Unit.” He was flown first to Jordan, where he was beaten, and then to Syria, a country in a time zone five hours ahead of Chile, where he was turned over to local torturers. On November 18th, when Rumsfeld was giving his noon speech in Santiago, it was five in the afternoon in Arar’s “grave-like” cell in a Syrian prison, where he would spend the next year being abused.
Ghairat Baheer was captured in Pakistan about three weeks before Rumsfeld’s Chile trip, and thrown into a CIA-run prison in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit. As the secretary of defense praised Latin America’s return to the rule of law after the dark days of the Cold War, Baheer may well have been in the middle of one of his torture sessions, “hung naked for hours on end.”
Taken a month before Rumsfeld’s visit to Santiago, the Saudi national Abd al Rahim al Nashiri was transported to the Salt Pit, after which he was transferred “to another black site in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was waterboarded.” After that, he was passed on to Poland, Morocco, Guantánamo, Romania, and back to Guantánamo, where he remains. Along the way, he was subjected to a “mock execution with a power drill as he stood naked and hooded,” had U.S. interrogators rack a “semi-automatic handgun close to his head as he sat shackled before them.” His interrogators also “threatened to bring in his mother and sexually abuse her in front of him.”
Likewise a month before the Santiago meeting, the Yemini Bashi Nasir Ali Al Marwalah was flown to Camp X-Ray in Cuba, where he remains to this day.
Less than two weeks after Rumsfeld swore that the U.S. and Latin America shared “common values,” Mullah Habibullah, an Afghan national, died “after severe mistreatment” in CIA custody at something called the “Bagram Collection Point.” A U.S. military investigation “concluded that the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation combined with other mistreatment… caused, or were direct contributing factors in, his death.”
Two days after the secretary’s Santiago speech, a CIA case officer in the Salt Pit had Gul Rahma stripped naked and chained to a concrete floor without blankets. Rahma froze to death.
And so the Open Society report goes… on and on and on.
Rumsfeld left Santiago without firm commitments. Some of the region’s militaries were tempted by the supposed opportunities offered by the secretary’s vision of fusing crime fighting into an ideological campaign against radical Islam, a unified war in which all was to be subordinated to U.S. command. As political scientist Brian Loveman has noted, around the time of Rumsfeld’s Santiago visit, the head of the Argentine army picked up Washington’s latest set of themes, insisting that “defense must be treated as an integral matter,” without a false divide separating internal and external security.
But history was not on Rumsfeld’s side. His trip to Santiago coincided with Argentina’s epic financial meltdown, among the worst in recorded history. It signaled a broader collapse of the economic model — think of it as Reaganism on steroids — that Washington had been promoting in Latin America since the late Cold War years. Soon, a new generation of leftists would be in power across much of the continent, committed to the idea of national sovereignty and limiting Washington’s influence in the region in a way that their predecessors hadn’t been.
Hugo Chávez was already president of Venezuela. Just a month before Rumsfeld’s Santiago trip, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidency of Brazil. A few months later, in early 2003, Argentines elected Néstor Kirchner, who shortly thereafter ended his country’s joint military exercises with the U.S. In the years that followed, the U.S. experienced one setback after another. In 2008, for instance, Ecuador evicted the U.S. military from Manta Air Base.
In that same period, the Bush administration’s rush to invade Iraq, an act most Latin American countries opposed, helped squander whatever was left of the post-9/11 goodwill the U.S. had in the region. Iraq seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of the continent’s new leaders: that what Rumsfeld was trying to peddle as an international “peacekeeping” force would be little more than a bid to use Latin American soldiers as Gurkhas in a revived unilateral imperial war.
Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show the degree to which Brazil rebuffed efforts to paint the region red on Washington’s new global gulag map.
A May 2005 U.S. State Department cable, for instance, reveals that Lula’s government refused “multiple requests” by Washington to take in released Guantánamo prisoners, particularly a group of about 15 Uighurs the U.S. had been holding since 2002, who could not be sent back to China.
“[Brazil’s] position regarding this issue has not changed since 2003 and will likely not change in the foreseeable future,” the cable said. It went on to report that Lula’s government considered the whole system Washington had set up at Guantánamo (and around the world) to be a mockery of international law. “All attempts to discuss this issue” with Brazilian officials, the cable concluded, “were flatly refused or accepted begrudgingly.”
In addition, Brazil refused to cooperate with the Bush administration’s efforts to create a Western Hemisphere-wide version of the Patriot Act. It stonewalled, for example, about agreeing to revise its legal code in a way that would lower the standard of evidence needed to prove conspiracy, while widening the definition of what criminal conspiracy entailed.
Lula stalled for years on the initiative, but it seems that the State Department didn’t realize he was doing so until April 2008, when one of its diplomats wrote a memo calling Brazil’s supposed interest in reforming its legal code to suit Washington a “smokescreen.” The Brazilian government, another Wikileaked cable complained, was afraid that a more expansive definition of terrorism would be used to target “members of what they consider to be legitimate social movements fighting for a more just society.” Apparently, there was no way to “write an anti-terrorism legislation that excludes the actions” of Lula’s left-wing social base.
One U.S. diplomat complained that this “mindset” — that is, a mindset that actually valued civil liberties – “presents serious challenges to our efforts to enhance counterterrorism cooperation or promote passage of anti-terrorism legislation.” In addition, the Brazilian government worried that the legislation would be used to go after Arab-Brazilians, of which there are many. One can imagine that if Brazil and the rest of Latin America had signed up to participate in Washington’s rendition program, Open Society would have a lot more Middle Eastern-sounding names to add to its list.
Finally, cable after Wikileaked cable revealed that Brazil repeatedly brushed off efforts by Washington to isolate Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, which would have been a necessary step if the U.S. was going to marshal South America into its counterterrorism posse.
In February 2008, for example, U.S. ambassador to Brazil Clifford Sobell met with Lula’s Minister of Defense Nelson Jobin to complain about Chávez. Jobim told Sobell that Brazil shared his “concern about the possibility of Venezuela exporting instability.” But instead of “isolating Venezuela,” which might only “lead to further posturing,” Jobim instead indicated that his government “supports [the] creation of a ‘South American Defense Council’ to bring Chavez into the mainstream.”
There was only one catch here: that South American Defense Council was Chávez’s idea in the first place! It was part of his effort, in partnership with Lula, to create independent institutions parallel to those controlled by Washington. The memo concluded with the U.S. ambassador noting how curious it was that Brazil would use Chavez’s “idea for defense cooperation” as part of a “supposed containment strategy” of Chávez.
Monkey-Wrenching the Perfect Machine of Perpetual War
Unable to put in place its post-9/11 counterterrorism framework in all of Latin America, the Bush administration retrenched. It attempted instead to build a “perfect machine of perpetual war” in a corridor running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico. The process of militarizing that more limited region, often under the guise of fighting “the drug wars,” has, if anything, escalated in the Obama years. Central America has, in fact, become the only place Southcom — the Pentagon command that covers Central and South America — can operate more or less at will. A look at this other map, put together by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, makes the region look like one big landing strip for U.S. drones and drug-interdiction flights.
Washington does continue to push and probe further south, trying yet again to establish a firmer military foothold in the region and rope it into what is now a less ideological and more technocratic crusade, but one still global in its aspirations. U.S. military strategists, for instance, would very much like to have an airstrip in French Guyana or the part of Brazil that bulges out into the Atlantic. The Pentagon would use it as a stepping stone to its increasing presence in Africa, coordinating the work of Southcom with the newest global command, Africom.
But for now, South America has thrown a monkey wrench into the machine. Returning to that Washington Post map, it’s worth memorializing the simple fact that, in one part of the world, in this century at least, the sun never rose on US-choreographed torture.
© 2013 Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book, Fordlandia, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.
Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, George W. Bush, Human Rights, Torture, War on Terror.
Tags: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Abu Zubaydah, amy goodman, Anwar al-Awlak, assassination, Democracy Now, denis moynihan, hit list, indefinite detention, john brennan, john kiriakou, lawrence wilkerson, roger hollander, torture, war on terror, waterboarding
By Amy Goodman
John Brennan and John Kiriakou worked together years ago, but their careers have dramatically diverged. Brennan is now on track to head the CIA, while Kiriakou is headed off to prison. Each of their fates is tied to the so-called war on terror, which under President George W. Bush provoked worldwide condemnation. President Barack Obama rebranded the war on terror innocuously as “overseas contingency operations,” but, rather than retrench from the odious practices of his predecessor, Obama instead escalated. His promotion of Brennan, and his prosecution of Kiriakou, demonstrate how the recent excesses of U.S. presidential power are not transient aberrations, but the creation of a frightening new normal, where drone strikes, warrantless surveillance, assassination and indefinite detention are conducted with arrogance and impunity, shielded by secrecy and beyond the reach of law.
John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and a case officer. In 2002, he led the team that found Abu Zubaydah, alleged to be a high-ranking member of al-Qaida. Kiriakou was the first to publicly confirm the use of waterboarding by the CIA, in a 2007 interview with ABC’s Brian Ross. He told Ross: “At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do. … I think I’ve changed my mind, and I think that waterboarding is probably something that we shouldn’t be in the business of doing.” Kiriakou says he found the “enhanced interrogation techniques” immoral, and declined to be trained to use them.
Since the interview, it has become known that Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times, and that he provided no useful information as a result. He remains imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, without charge. Kiriakou will soon start serving his 30-month prison sentence, but not for disclosing anything about waterboarding. He pled guilty to disclosing the name of a former CIA interrogator to a journalist, with information that the interrogator himself had posted to a publicly available website.
Meanwhile, John Brennan, longtime counterterrorism advisor to Obama, is expected to receive Senate confirmation as the new director of central intelligence. I recently asked Kiriakou what he thought of Brennan:
“I’ve known John Brennan since 1990. I worked directly for John Brennan twice. I think that he is a terrible choice to lead the CIA. I think that it’s time for the CIA to move beyond the ugliness of the post-September 11th regime, and we need someone who is going to respect the Constitution and to not be bogged down by a legacy of torture. I think that President Obama’s appointment of John Brennan sends the wrong message to all Americans.”
Obama has once already considered Brennan for the top CIA job, back in 2008. Brennan withdrew his nomination then under a hail of criticism for supporting the Bush-era torture policies in his various top-level intelligence positions, including head of the National Counterterrorism Center.
What a difference four years makes. With the killing of Osama bin Laden notched in his belt, Obama seems immune from counterterror criticism. John Brennan is said to manage the notorious “kill list” of people that Obama believes he has the right to kill anytime, anywhere on the planet, as part of his “overseas contingency operations.” This includes the killing of U.S. citizens, without any charge, trial or due process whatsoever. Drone strikes are one way these assassinations are carried out. U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a drone strike, then, two weeks later, his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed the same way.
I asked Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005, what he thought of Brennan. He told me: “What’s happening with drone strikes around the world right now is, in my opinion, as bad a development as many of the things we now condemn so readily, with 20/20 hindsight, in the George W. Bush administration. We are creating more enemies than we’re killing. We are doing things that violate international law. We are even killing American citizens without due process and have an attorney general who has said that due process does not necessarily include the legal process. Those are really scary words.”
While Kiriakou goes to prison for revealing a name, the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is launching a project called “Naming the Dead,” hoping “to identify as many as possible of those killed in U.S. covert drone strikes in Pakistan, whether civilian or militant.” The BIJ reports a “minimum 2,629 people who appear to have so far died in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan.” John Brennan should be asked about each of them.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.
Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Constitution, Criminal Justice, Democracy, War on Terror.
Tags: Abdulrahman, aclu, anwar awlaki, assassination, constituion, Criminal Justice, democracy, doj, drone missiles, due process, eric holder, extrajudicial killings, glenn greenwald, global battlefield, john brennan, obama hit list, presidential assassination, roger hollander, samir khan, terrorism, war on terror
Roger’s note: OK, for the sake of argument, let’s give the benefit of doubt to the Obama supporters and say that he would never use this awesome power irresponsibly. But what about the next Reagan or Nixon or other future Republican wing nut — Bachman? Palin? In a democracy you just don’t give anyone, including the Chief Executive, the unlimited power of life and death, judge jury and executioner. This is such a no-brainer that one wonders about the collective lunacy that seems to have infected the Obama administration.
Published on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 by The Guardian
The president’s partisan lawyers purport to vest him with the most extreme power a political leader can seize
The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice. In September 2011, it killed US citizen Anwar Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen, along with US citizen Samir Khan, and then, in circumstances that are still unexplained, two weeks later killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman with a separate drone strike in Yemen.
Since then, senior Obama officials including Attorney General Eric Holder and John Brennan, Obama’s top terrorism adviser and his current nominee to lead the CIA, have explicitly argued that the president is and should be vested with this power. Meanwhile, a Washington Post article from October reported that the administration is formally institutionalizing this president’s power to decide who dies under the Orwellian title “disposition matrix”.
When the New York Times back in April, 2010 first confirmed the existence of Obama’s hit list, it made clear just what an extremist power this is, noting: “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” The NYT quoted a Bush intelligence official as saying “he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president”. When the existence of Obama’s hit list was first reported several months earlier by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest, she wrote that the “list includes three Americans”.
What has made these actions all the more radical is the absolute secrecy with which Obama has draped all of this. Not only is the entire process carried out solely within the Executive branch – with no checks or oversight of any kind – but there is zero transparency and zero accountability. The president’s underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president – at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as “Terror Tuesday” – then chooses from “baseball cards” and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.
In fact, The Most Transparent Administration Ever™ has been so fixated on secrecy that they have refused even to disclose the legal memoranda prepared by Obama lawyers setting forth their legal rationale for why the president has this power. During the Bush years, when Bush refused to disclose the memoranda from his Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that legally authorized torture, rendition, warrantless eavesdropping and the like, leading Democratic lawyers such as Dawn Johnsen (Obama’s first choice to lead the OLC) vehemently denounced this practice as a grave threat, warning that “the Bush Administration’s excessive reliance on ‘secret law’ threatens the effective functioning of American democracy” and “the withholding from Congress and the public of legal interpretations by the [OLC] upsets the system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government.”
But when it comes to Obama’s assassination power, this is exactly what his administration has done. It has repeatedly refused to disclose the principal legal memoranda prepared by Obama OLC lawyers that justified his kill list. It is, right now, vigorously resisting lawsuits from the New York Times and the ACLU to obtain that OLC memorandum. In sum, Obama not only claims he has the power to order US citizens killed with no transparency, but that even the documents explaining the legal rationale for this power are to be concealed. He’s maintaining secret law on the most extremist power he can assert.
Last night, NBC News’ Michael Isikoff released a 16-page “white paper” prepared by the Obama DOJ that purports to justify Obama’s power to target even Americans for assassination without due process (the memo is embedded in full below). This is not the primary OLC memo justifying Obama’s kill list – that is still concealed – but it appears to track the reasoning of that memo as anonymously described to the New York Times in October 2011.
This new memo is entitled: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force”. It claims its conclusion is “reached with recognition of the extraordinary seriousness of a lethal operation by the United States against a US citizen”. Yet it is every bit as chilling as the Bush OLC torture memos in how its clinical, legalistic tone completely sanitizes the radical and dangerous power it purports to authorize.
I’ve written many times at length about why the Obama assassination program is such an extreme and radical threat – see here for one of the most comprehensive discussions, with documentation of how completely all of this violates Obama and Holder’s statements before obtaining power – and won’t repeat those arguments here. Instead, there are numerous points that should be emphasized about the fundamentally misleading nature of this new memo:
1. Equating government accusations with guilt
The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to “terrorists” when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit.
Time and again, it emphasizes that the authorized assassinations are carried out “against a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces who poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Undoubtedly fearing that this document would one day be public, Obama lawyers made certain to incorporate this deceit into the title itself: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida or An Associated Force.”
This ensures that huge numbers of citizens – those who spend little time thinking about such things and/or authoritarians who assume all government claims are true – will instinctively justify what is being done here on the ground that we must kill the Terrorists or joining al-Qaida means you should be killed. That’s the “reasoning” process that has driven the War on Terror since it commenced: if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such – with indefinite imprisonment or death.
But of course, when this memo refers to “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida”, what it actually means is this: someone whom the President – in total secrecy and with no due process – has accused of being that. Indeed, the memo itself makes this clear, as it baldly states that presidential assassinations are justified when “an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US”.
This is the crucial point: the memo isn’t justifying the due-process-free execution of senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent threat to the US. It is justifying the due-process-free execution of people secretly accused by the president and his underlings, with no due process, of being that. The distinction between (a) government accusations and (b) proof of guilt is central to every free society, by definition, yet this memo – and those who defend Obama’s assassination power – willfully ignore it.
Those who justify all of this by arguing that Obama can and should kill al-Qaida leaders who are trying to kill Americans are engaged in supreme question-begging. Without any due process, transparency or oversight, there is no way to know who is a “senior al-Qaida leader” and who is posing an “imminent threat” to Americans. All that can be known is who Obama, in total secrecy, accuses of this.
(Indeed, membership in al-Qaida is not even required to be assassinated, as one can be a member of a group deemed to be an “associated force” of al-Qaida, whatever that might mean: a formulation so broad and ill-defined that, as Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller argues, it means the memo “authorizes the use of lethal force against individuals whose targeting is, without more, prohibited by international law”.)
The definition of an extreme authoritarian is one who is willing blindly to assume that government accusations are true without any evidence presented or opportunity to contest those accusations. This memo – and the entire theory justifying Obama’s kill list – centrally relies on this authoritarian conflation of government accusations and valid proof of guilt.
They are not the same and never have been. Political leaders who decree guilt in secret and with no oversight inevitably succumb to error and/or abuse of power. Such unchecked accusatory decrees are inherently untrustworthy (indeed, Yemen experts have vehemently contested the claim that Awlaki himself was a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat to the US). That’s why due process is guaranteed in the Constitution and why judicial review of government accusations has been a staple of western justice since the Magna Carta: because leaders can’t be trusted to decree guilt and punish citizens without evidence and an adversarial process. That is the age-old basic right on which this memo, and the Obama presidency, is waging war.
2. Creating a ceiling, not a floor
The most vital fact to note about this memorandum is that it is not purporting to impose requirements on the president’s power to assassinate US citizens. When it concludes that the president has the authority to assassinate “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US” where capture is “infeasible”, it is not concluding that assassinations are permissible only in those circumstances. To the contrary, the memo expressly makes clear that presidential assassinations may be permitted even when none of those circumstances prevail: “This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render such an operation lawful.” Instead, as the last line of the memo states: “it concludes only that the stated conditions would be sufficient to make lawful a lethal operation” – not that such conditions are necessary to find these assassinations legal. The memo explicitly leaves open the possibility that presidential assassinations of US citizens may be permissible even when the target is not a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat and/or when capture is feasible.
Critically, the rationale of the memo – that the US is engaged in a global war against al-Qaida and “associated forces” – can be easily used to justify presidential assassinations of US citizens in circumstances far beyond the ones described in this memo. If you believe the president has the power to execute US citizens based on the accusation that the citizen has joined al-Qaida, what possible limiting principle can you cite as to why that shouldn’t apply to a low-level al-Qaida member, including ones found in places where capture may be feasible (including US soil)? The purported limitations on this power set forth in this memo, aside from being incredibly vague, can be easily discarded once the central theory of presidential power is embraced.
3. Relies on the core Bush/Cheney theory of a global battlefield
The primary theory embraced by the Bush administration to justify its War on Terror policies was that the “battlefield” is no longer confined to identifiable geographical areas, but instead, the entire globe is now one big, unlimited “battlefield”. That theory is both radical and dangerous because a president’s powers are basically omnipotent on a “battlefield”. There, state power is shielded from law, from courts, from constitutional guarantees, from all forms of accountability: anyone on a battlefield can be killed or imprisoned without charges. Thus, to posit the world as a battlefield is, by definition, to create an imperial, omnipotent presidency. That is the radical theory that unleashed all the rest of the controversial and lawless Bush/Cheney policies.
This “world-is-a-battlefield” theory was once highly controversial among Democrats. John Kerry famously denounced it when running for president, arguing instead that the effort against terrorism is “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world”.
But this global-war theory is exactly what lies at heart of the Obama approach to Terrorism generally and this memo specifically. It is impossible to defend Obama’s assassination powers without embracing it (which is why key Obama officials have consistently done so). That’s because these assassinations are taking place in countries far from any war zone, such as Yemen and Somalia. You can’t defend the application of “war powers” in these countries without embracing the once-very-controversial Bush/Cheney view that the whole is now a “battlefield” and the president’s war powers thus exist without geographic limits.
This new memo makes clear that this Bush/Cheney worldview is at the heart of the Obama presidency. The president, it claims, “retains authority to use force against al-Qaida and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities“. In other words: there are, subject to the entirely optional “feasibility of capture” element, no geographic limits to the president’s authority to kill anyone he wants. This power applies not only to war zones, but everywhere in the world that he claims a member of al-Qaida is found. This memo embraces and institutionalizes the core Bush/Cheney theory that justified the entire panoply of policies Democrats back then pretended to find so objectionable.
4. Expanding the concept of “imminence” beyond recognition
The memo claims that the president’s assassination power applies to a senior al-Qaida member who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States”. That is designed to convince citizens to accept this power by leading them to believe it’s similar to common and familiar domestic uses of lethal force on US soil: if, for instance, an armed criminal is in the process of robbing a bank or is about to shoot hostages, then the “imminence” of the threat he poses justifies the use of lethal force against him by the police.
But this rhetorical tactic is totally misleading. The memo is authorizing assassinations against citizens in circumstances far beyond this understanding of “imminence”. Indeed, the memo expressly states that it is inventing “a broader concept of imminence” than is typically used in domestic law. Specifically, the president’s assassination power “does not require that the US have clear evidence that a specific attack . . . will take place in the immediate future“. The US routinely assassinates its targets not when they are engaged in or plotting attacks but when they are at home, with family members, riding in a car, at work, at funerals, rescuing other drone victims, etc.
Many of the early objections to this new memo have focused on this warped and incredibly broad definition of “imminence”. The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer told Isikoff that the memo “redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning”. Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller called Jaffer’s objection “an understatement”, noting that the memo’s understanding of “imminence” is “wildly overbroad” under international law.
Crucially, Heller points out what I noted above: once you accept the memo’s reasoning – that the US is engaged in a global war, that the world is a battlefield, and the president has the power to assassinate any member of al-Qaida or associated forces – then there is no way coherent way to limit this power to places where capture is infeasible or to persons posing an “imminent” threat. The legal framework adopted by the memo means the president can kill anyone he claims is a member of al-Qaida regardless of where they are found or what they are doing.
The only reason to add these limitations of “imminence” and “feasibility of capture” is, as Heller said, purely political: to make the theories more politically palatable. But the definitions for these terms are so vague and broad that they provide no real limits on the president’s assassination power. As the ACLU’s Jaffer says: “This is a chilling document” because “it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen” and the purported limits “are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”
5. Converting Obama underlings into objective courts
This memo is not a judicial opinion. It was not written by anyone independent of the president. To the contrary, it was written by life-long partisan lackeys: lawyers whose careerist interests depend upon staying in the good graces of Obama and the Democrats, almost certainly Marty Lederman and David Barron. Treating this document as though it confers any authority on Obama is like treating the statements of one’s lawyer as a judicial finding or jury verdict.
Indeed, recall the primary excuse used to shield Bush officials from prosecution for their crimes of torture and illegal eavesdropping: namely, they got Bush-appointed lawyers in the DOJ to say that their conduct was legal, and therefore, it should be treated as such. This tactic – getting partisan lawyers and underlings of the president to say that the president’s conduct is legal – was appropriately treated with scorn when invoked by Bush officials to justify their radical programs. As Digby wrote about Bush officials who pointed to the OLC memos it got its lawyers to issue about torture and eavesdropping, such a practice amounts to:
“validating the idea that obscure Justice Department officials can be granted the authority to essentially immunize officials at all levels of the government, from the president down to the lowest field officer, by issuing a secret memo. This is a very important new development in western jurisprudence and one that surely requires more study and consideration. If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had known about this, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.”
Life-long Democratic Party lawyers are not going to oppose the terrorism policies of the president who appointed them. A president can always find underlings and political appointees to endorse whatever he wants to do. That’s all this memo is: the by-product of obsequious lawyers telling their Party’s leader that he is (of course) free to do exactly that which he wants to do, in exactly the same way that Bush got John Yoo to tell him that torture was not torture, and that even it if were, it was legal.
That’s why courts, not the president’s partisan lawyers, should be making these determinations. But when the ACLU tried to obtain a judicial determination as to whether Obama is actually authorized to assassinate US citizens, the Obama DOJ went to extreme lengths to block the court from ruling on that question. They didn’t want independent judges to determine the law. They wanted their own lawyers to do so.
That’s all this memo is: Obama-loyal appointees telling their leader that he has the authority to do what he wants. But in the warped world of US politics, this – secret memos from partisan lackeys – has replaced judicial review as the means to determine the legality of the president’s conduct.
6. Making a mockery of “due process”
The core freedom most under attack by the War on Terror is the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. It provides that “no person shall be . . . deprived of life . . . without due process of law”. Like putting people in cages for life on island prisons with no trial, claiming that the president has the right to assassinate US citizens far from any battlefield without any charges or trial is the supreme evisceration of this right.
The memo pays lip service to the right it is destroying: “Under the traditional due process balancing analysis . . . . we recognize that there is no private interest more weighty than a person’s interest in his life.” But it nonetheless argues that a “balancing test” is necessary to determine the extent of the process that is due before the president can deprive someone of their life, and further argues that, as the New York Times put it when this theory was first unveiled: “while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”
Stephen Colbert perfectly mocked this theory when Eric Holder first unveiled it to defend the president’s assassination program. At the time, Holder actually said: “due process and judicial process are not one and the same.” Colbert interpreted that claim as follows:
“Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”
It is fitting indeed that the memo expressly embraces two core Bush/Cheney theories to justify this view of what “due process” requires. First, it cites the Bush DOJ’s core view, as enunciated by John Yoo, that courts have no role to play in what the president does in the War on Terror because judicial review constitutes “judicial encroachment” on the “judgments by the President and his national security advisers as to when and how to use force”. And then it cites the Bush DOJ’s mostly successful arguments in the 2004 Hamdi case that the president has the authority even to imprison US citizens without trial provided that he accuses them of being a terrorist.
The reason this is so fitting is because, as I’ve detailed many times, it was these same early Bush/Cheney theories that made me want to begin writing about politics, all driven by my perception that the US government was becoming extremist and dangerous. During the early Bush years, the very idea that the US government asserted the power to imprison US citizens without charges and due process (or to eavesdrop on them) was so radical that, at the time, I could hardly believe they were being asserted out in the open.
Yet here we are almost a full decade later. And we have the current president asserting the power not merely to imprison or eavesdrop on US citizens without charges or trial, but to order them executed – and to do so in total secrecy, with no checks or oversight. If you believe the president has the power to order US citizens executed far from any battlefield with no charges or trial, then it’s truly hard to conceive of any asserted power you would find objectionable.
DOJ White Paper
Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Q… by
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