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Matthew Harwood, Counterterrorism in the Twilight Zone

6:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

They went without saying a word.  In the dead of night, the last U.S. troops slipped out of Iraq and across the Kuwaiti border.  There was no victory parade.  No departure ceremony.  They never said goodbye. They didn’t even cancel scheduled meetings with their Iraqi counterparts. They just up and left, weeks before their departure deadline in December 2010.

The Americans took home their weapons and vehicles, of course.  They took much of their heavy equipment and electronics gear, too.  They also took something far more intimate, something you might assume belonged to the Iraqi people, something you probably never knew existed: “a massive database packed with retinal scans, thumb prints, and other biometric data identifying millions of Iraqis,” as Spencer Ackerman put it when he wrote about those digital records in 2011.

In the years after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the U.S. military collected biometric data on around three million Iraqis.  It’s done the same for millions of Afghans.  And it’s keeping this information in perpetuity.  Back in 2011, a spokesman for the Tampa, Florida-based U.S. Central Command told Ackerman, “We have this information, and rather than cull through it all and say ‘bad guy, good guy, bad guy, good guy,’ it’s better to just keep it.”  Just why may be unclear, but the capture and retention of this data fit a pattern: the U.S. drive to expand its national security state into a global security initiative.

This includes vacuuming up billions of pieces of intelligence from worldwide computer networks (13.5 billion from Pakistan in March of this year alone), spying on European allies, and hacking the computer and telecommunications systems of its largest foreign creditor, among other activities.  The goal is to possess the world’s data, then do who knows what with it.

Muslims using computers in Pakistan or those whose retinas were scanned by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan are not, of course, the only ones to fall under the gaze of U.S. surveillance.  Since 9/11, as Matt Harwood makes clear in his inaugural article for TomDispatch, American Muslims have been disproportionately targeted compared to right-wing Christian groups.  The roots of this discrimination stretch back hundreds of years, beyond the birth of this country, and reveal blind spots and shortcomings that no amount of data, computing power, or cyber-prowess can correct. Nick Turse

Political Violence and Privilege
Why Violent Right-wing Extremism Doesn’t Scare Americans
By Matthew Harwood

The evangelical Christians of Greenville County, South Carolina, are afraid.

There has been talk of informants and undercover agents luring young, conservative evangelicals across the South into sham terrorist plots. The feds and the area’s police want to eliminate a particularly extreme strain of evangelical Christianity opposed to abortion, homosexuality, and secularism, whose adherents sometimes use violent imagery and speech. They fear such extreme talk could convince lone wolves or small groups of Christian extremists to target abortion clinics, gay bars, or shopping malls for attack. As a result, law enforcement has flooded these communities with informants meant to provide an early warning system for any signs of such “radicalization.”

Converts, so important to the evangelical movement, are now looked upon with suspicion — the more fervent, the more suspicious. In local barbecue joints, diners, and watering holes, the proprietors are careful not to let FOX News linger onscreen too long, fearing political discussions that could be misconstrued.  After all, you can never be too sure who’s listening.

Come Sunday, the ministers who once railed against abortion, gay marriage, and Hollywood as sure signs that the U.S. is descending into godlessness will mute their messages. They will peer out at their congregations and fear that some faces aren’t interested in the Gospel, or maybe are a little too interested in every word. The once vibrant political clubs at Bob Jones University have become lifeless as students whisper about informants and fear a few misplaced words could leave them in a government database or worse.

Naturally, none of this is actually happening to evangelical Christians in South Carolina, across the South, or anywhere else. It would never be tolerated. Yet the equivalents of everything cited above did happen in and around the New York metropolitan area — just not to white, conservative, Christian Americans. But replace them with American Muslims in the New York area and you have a perfect fit, as documented by the recent report Mapping Muslims.  And New York is hardly alone.

Since 9/11, American law enforcement has taken a disproportionate interest in American Muslims across the country, seeing a whole community as a national security threat, particularly in California and New York City. But here’s the thing: the facts that have been piling up ever since that date don’t support such suspicion. Not at all.

The numbers couldn’t be clearer: right-wing extremists have committed far more acts of political violence since 1990 than American Muslims. That law enforcement across the country hasn’t felt similarly compelled to infiltrate and watch over conservative Christian communities in the hopes of disrupting violent right-wing extremism confirms what American Muslims know in their bones: to be different is to be suspect.

Conducting Suspicionless Surveillance

In the aftermath of 9/11, law enforcement has infiltrated Muslim American communities and spied on them in ways that would have outraged Americans, had such tactics been used against Christian communities after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, or after any of the other hate crimes or anti-abortion-based acts of violence committed since then by right-wing extremists.

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Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

NSA HQ

NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade. Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed much about what goes on in places like this.

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

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Michael Gould-Wartofsky: Class of 2012 Meet the Class of 1984

6:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(image: Chris Gionet via flickr)

(image: Chris Gionet via flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Graduating from high school soon? Looking for a job in a high-growth field? Like working outdoors and traveling to exotic locales? How does $103,269 a year strike you?

At myfuture.com, high-schoolers are encouraged “to explore all possibilities and gain insight into” possible futures through “unbiased, detailed information,” including data from the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Labor. “In addition to college admissions details, average salaries, and employment trends,” reads an explanation in that website’s fine print, “myfuture.com provides advice on everything from taking the SAT to interviewing for a first job to preparing for boot camp.” Did you catch that last part? Boot camp. Which brings us back to that $103,269 a year job.

Myfuture.com just happens to be run by the Department of Defense and that high-demand job is as a “Special Forces officer.” In 2006, the website notes, there were only 1,493 slots in that field; by 2010, 2,320. That it’s an American job-growth area shouldn’t surprise any of us. After all, in the last year, Special Forces officers starred in a box-office topping motion picture, gunned down pirates, carried out assassinations, and expanded their global war from 75 to 120 countries. No wonder it’s been boom times for special ops officers.

Myfuture.com is, however, far from the only Defense Department website making a play for a young audience. There’s BoostUp.org, with its “high school dropout prevention campaign,” sponsored by the Army. (Which makes sense because, as TomDispatch reported in 2005, the military has studied what makes college students drop out and how the armed services can capitalize on that urge.) At the other end of the educational spectrum, the Army sponsors eCYBERMISSION, “a free, web-based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics competition for students in grades six through nine where teams can compete for state, regional and national awards while working to solve problems in their community.” And then there’s TodaysMilitary.com.“Young people need support as they consider their life path,” reads its pitch. “This site aims to help them and their families understand service options and benefits so they can make informed choices.”

“Military service is not for everyone,” TodaysMilitary.com confides. “It requires self-discipline, intense physical work, and time away from family and friends while protecting America and its citizens at home and abroad. For some, these commitments impose too great a burden.” But here’s a surprise for those presumably too lazy, weak, or emotionally needy to do anything but go to college (what snobs!): they’ll find a complete line-up of government agencies and national security types waiting to teach them (or beat them) on the quad, as Michael Gould-Wartofsky explains in his latest report on the state of state repression on American college campuses.

It turns out myfuture.com may really be onto something. These days, given that you may have to brave batons, CS gas, and Tasers just to get to English 101 — and since officers in the Special Operations Forces need a degree anyway (what snobs!) — some military training might come in handy before you head for college. Nick Turse Read the rest of this entry →

Peter Van Buren: In Washington, Fear the Silence, Not the Noise

7:50 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Thomas Drake (Photo: Pam Rutter, Project On Government Oversight, flickr)

Thomas Drake, Whistleblower (Photo: Pam Rutter, Project On Government Oversight, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

One thing is obvious.  No one ever joins the government in order to be a whistleblower or leaker.  Whistleblowers are created, not born.  To offer an example, as Peter Van Buren is happy to admit, before he spent a year on two forward operating bases in Iraq running a State Department provincial reconstruction team, he was “a more or less content Foreign Service Officer.”  It is perhaps typical of whistleblowers and leakers that something they are privy to simply pushes them over the edge.

In Van Buren’s case, it was perhaps all those late nights on some desolate base thousands of miles from his family, thinking about the mad way your taxpayer money was being squandered — millions of dollars, for instance, going into the building of an all-Iraqi chicken-plucking factory that would never be used to pluck chickens.  It was the pure madness of the American occupation and “reconstruction” — more like deconstruction — of Iraq, seen up close and personal, that led him to start writing his own truth-telling book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (which just happens to be both unsettling and often bizarrely hilarious because, as a writer, he’s a natural).

He had the urge to offer you an insider’s view of your government in action in a distant land. Think of it — perhaps of any whistleblowing — as an act of personal “reconstruction,” as a method of occupying yourself in a new way, even as it may also be deconstructing your career.  Such acts are favors to the rest of us in what we still claim is a “democracy,” even if the money of the truly wealthy rules the day and your state, the national security one, has moved beyond all accountability into a post-legal era.

Though the Obama administration has, from its first days, talked the talk of governmental openness and “sunshine,” it’s walked a very different walk.  And while Van Buren hasn’t, like other whistleblowers, been brought to court or imprisoned, he has learned, once again in an up close and personal fashion, how little “our” government wants even a penlight shown on its inner workings.  Consider, then, Van Buren’s view from the eye of the national security storm. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses what it means to be a governmental whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Jonathan Schell, The War on the Word “War”

7:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Nobody seems to have noticed, but in the nearly two and a half years of the Obama administration at least three commonplace phrases of the George W. Bush era have slipped into oblivion: “regime change,” “shock and awe,” and “imperial presidency.”  The war in Libya should remind us of just how appropriate they remain.

By now, it’s obvious that, despite much talk about a limited mission to protect Libyan civilians, Obama and his NATO allies are as clearly on a course of “regime change” in Libya as Bush was in Iraq.  If you loved it then (and you haven’t learned a thing since), you should love it now.  If you were disturbed by it then, you should still be disturbed by it. 

No question, Saddam Hussein was one nasty guy, as is Muammar Gaddafi, and the Bush administration was certainly blunter about what it was trying to do to Saddam.  The initial air assault aimed at him and other regime heavyweights (which killed dozens of Iraqi civilians, but not a single significant or even insignificant figure) was repeatedly described as a decapitation attack.”  This time around, the attacks on Gaddafi’s “compound” and other locations the Libyan leader is suspected of using have been accompanied by denials that assassination was intended or his removal the point.  But reality is reality, and attempted regime change is attempted regime change, whatever officials care to call it.

When the U.S. and NATO struck with their might against Gaddafi, using jets, drones, and later Apache helicopters, they were visibly engaging in a modified version of the “shock and awe” campaign that launched the invasion of Iraq: massive air power meant to crack a regime open, leave it stunned and potentially leaderless, and take it down.  As air power, for all its destructiveness, has disappointed in the past, so it has done here.  All the Obama administration’s problems with Congress and with the War Powers Resolution come from a belief — similar to the Bush administration’s — that, given our awesome might, this would end quickly.  It hasn’t. 

Faced with the need to endlessly claim “progress” (amid endless frustration) in a war that has once again inspired something less than awe and submission, the Obama administration has, like previous administrations, resorted to the powers of the imperial presidency, which only grow fiercer with time.  It seems that even a former constitutional law professor, on entering the White House, can’t resist enhancing the powers of the executive office.  And if that’s not imperial, what is?  (Ironically, if the Obama administration had gone to Congress for support weeks ago, as the War Powers Act calls for, it would undoubtedly have gotten that support.)  In the meantime, in its attempt to explain away the powers invested in Congress, it has launched a war on words, as Jonathan Schell makes clear.  Schell first began writing about imperial presidents back in the days of Richard Nixon, and his prescient 2003 book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People made pre-sense of our Arab Spring planet. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Schell discusses war and the imperial presidency, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

*****

Attacking Libya — and the Dictionary
If Americans Don’t Get Hurt, War Is No Longer War

By Jonathan Schell

The Obama administration has come up with a remarkable justification for going to war against Libya without the congressional approval required by the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973. 

American planes are taking off, they are entering Libyan air space, they are locating targets, they are dropping bombs, and the bombs are killing and injuring people and destroying things. It is war. Some say it is a good war and some say it is a bad war, but surely it is a war.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration insists it is not a war. Why?  Because, according to “United States Activities in Libya,” a 32-page report that the administration released last week, “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors.” 

In other words, the balance of forces is so lopsided in favor of the United States that no Americans are dying or are threatened with dying. War is only war, it seems, when Americans are dying, when we die.  When only they, the Libyans, die, it is something else for which there is as yet apparently no name. When they attack, it is war. When we attack, it is not.

This cannot be classified as anything but strange thinking and it depends, in turn, on a strange fact: that, in our day, it is indeed possible for some countries (or maybe only our own), for the first time in history, to wage war without receiving a scratch in return. This was nearly accomplished in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, in which only one American plane was shot down (and the pilot rescued).

The epitome of this new warfare is the predator drone, which has become an emblem of the Obama administration. Its human operators can sit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada or in Langley, Virginia, while the drone floats above Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen or Libya, pouring destruction down from the skies.  War waged in this way is without casualties for the wager because none of its soldiers are near the scene of battle — if that is even the right word for what is going on.

Some strange conclusions follow from this strange thinking and these strange facts. In the old scheme of things, an attack on a country was an act of war, no matter who launched it or what happened next.  Now, the Obama administration claims that if the adversary cannot fight back, there is no war.

It follows that adversaries of the United States have a new motive for, if not equaling us, then at least doing us some damage.  Only then will they be accorded the legal protections (such as they are) of authorized war.  Without that, they are at the mercy of the whim of the president.

The War Powers Resolution permits the president to initiate military operations only when the nation is directly attacked, when there is “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”  The Obama administration, however, justifies its actions in the Libyan intervention precisely on the grounds that there is no threat to the invading forces, much less the territories of the United States.

There is a parallel here with the administration of George W. Bush on the issue of torture (though not, needless to say, a parallel between the Libyan war itself, which I oppose but whose merits can be reasonably debated, and torture, which was wholly reprehensible).  President Bush wanted the torture he was ordering not to be considered torture, so he arranged to get lawyers in the Justice department to write legal-sounding opinions excluding certain forms of torture, such as waterboarding, from the definition of the word.  Those practices were thenceforward called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Now, Obama wants his Libyan war not to be a war and so has arranged to define a certain kind of war — the American-casualty-free kind — as not war (though without even the full support of his own lawyers). Along with Libya, a good English word — war — is under attack.

In these semantic operations of power upon language, a word is separated from its commonly accepted meaning. The meanings of words are one of the few common grounds that communities naturally share. When agreed meanings are challenged, no one can use the words in question without stirring up spurious “debates,” as happened with the word torture. For instance, mainstream news organizations, submissive to George Bush’s decisions on the meanings of words, stopped calling waterboarding torture and started calling it other things, including “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but also “harsh treatment,” “abusive practices,” and so on. 

Will the news media now stop calling the war against Libya a war?  No euphemism for war has yet caught on, though soon after launching its Libyan attacks, an administration official proposed the phrase “kinetic military action” and more recently, in that 32-page report, the term of choice was “limited military operations.” No doubt someone will come up with something catchier soon. 

How did the administration twist itself into this pretzel? An interview that Charlie Savage and Mark Landler of the New York Times held with State Department legal advisor Harold Koh sheds at least some light on the matter.  Many administrations and legislators have taken issue with the War Powers Resolution, claiming it challenges powers inherent in the presidency. Others, such as Bush administration Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, have argued that the Constitution’s plain declaration that Congress “shall declare war” does not mean what most readers think it means, and so leaves the president free to initiate all kinds of wars.

Koh has long opposed these interpretations — and in a way, even now, he remains consistent. Speaking for the administration, he still upholds Congress’s power to declare war and the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution. “We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” he told the Times. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”

In a curious way, then, a desire to avoid challenge to existing law has forced assault on the dictionary. For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of Congressional authorization, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give. 

It chose language.

Jonathan Schell is the Doris M. Shaffer Fellow at The Nation Institute, and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University.  He is the author of several books, including The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Schell discusses war and the imperial presidency, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Jonathan Schell