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Pratap Chatterjee: The Jason Bourne Strategy

7:35 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.

[Note from Tom: A death can feel like an archive closing forever on some aspect of your life.  Such is the case for me with the death of Andre Schiffrin.  If you’ll all excuse me, I want to note his passing briefly here:

Secret Agent

Does the CIA think it’s in a Hollywood movie?

This won’t mean much to most of you, but Andre, publisher of Pantheon Books and my boss for 15 years, the person who, in 1976, hired me when there was really no obvious reason to do so and, more than anyone else, let me become what I am today, died last weekend. It’s a moment of genuine sadness for me, an indication that an era — my own in many ways, though he was nine years older than me — has ended. The world of books is unimaginable (to me) without him. Without him, Studs Terkel might never have done his oral histories and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the “first graphic novel,” might never have been published. (He let me do Spiegelman’s masterpiece when, in embryonic form, it had been turned down by every major publishing house in New York.)

I first spent time with Andre in 1971 after I had published an essay, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” in the single most obscure journal on the planet, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. He nonetheless read it and invited me to lunch to urge me to turn it into a book, something I couldn’t faintly imagine doing at the time. I did, however, finally come to agree with him and wrote that book, which was published in 1995 as The End of Victory Culture.  In other words, with my project as with so much else in the world of books, he was a man almost 25 years ahead of his time.

Ariel Dorfman, a writer whose work I published early on in my tenure at Pantheon, wrote me this after Andre’s death: “His existence changed our lives, just by giving you free rein at Pantheon to believe in a young exiled writer.” He couldn’t have been more on the mark. 
Andre’s New York Times obituary offered the gist of his life and the sense that he was a great one. It missed, however, his risk-taking nature and his radical view of what might matter to our world.  It also provided a less than satisfactory account of how the right-wing owner of the conglomerate that housed Pantheon made use of a politically inauspicious time for a small left-wing publishing outfit to push him out of his job (after which we, his loyal editors and employees, quit in protest). Still, no complaints here. The world and the man that made me are both history. What more is there to say at the moment?]

Someone should launch a feature somewhere on American foreign and war policy under the rubric: How could anything possibly go wrong?  Here are just two recent examples.

The Obama administration intervenes militarily in Libya, plays a significant role in overthrowing the autocrat who runs the country as a police state, and helps unleash chaos in its wake. The streets of Libyan cities fill with militias as the new government’s control of the situation fades to next to nil. Which brings us to our present moment, when a panicky Washington decides that what’s needed is yet another, different kind of intervention. The plan seems to be to compete with various local and Islamic militias by creating a government militia as the core of a new “national army.” Its members are to be drawn from already existing militias and they’ll be trained somewhere outside of Libya. What an idea! Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?

Or consider this: Washington begins to panic about heightening tensions between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  The problem, reports David Sanger of the New York Times, based on what Obama administration officials have told him, is that the conflict could escalate and so “derail their complex plan to manage China’s rise without overtly trying to contain it.”  Now, let’s get this straight: before things began to run off the rails in the East China Sea, the Obama administration was confidently planning to “manage” the rise of the next superpower on a planet already in such tumult that what being a new great power might even mean is open to question. And keep in mind that we’re talking about an administration that couldn’t manage the rollout of a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Both examples highlight the strange combination of hubris and panic that, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee points out today, seems to be the essence of so many of Washington’s plans and actions at the moment.  The urge to “manage” is invariably followed by shock at the unmanageability of this roiling globe of ours, followed by panic over plans gone desperately awry when things begin, utterly predictably, to happen unpredictably, followed of course by the next set of managerial plans.  Is there no learning curve in Washington? Tom

Hollywood Without the Happy Ending
How the CIA Bungled the War on Terror
By Pratap Chatterjee

Call it the Jason Bourne strategy.

Think of it as the CIA’s plunge into Hollywood — or into the absurd.  As recent revelations have made clear, that Agency’s moves couldn’t be have been more far-fetched or more real.  In its post-9/11 global shadow war, it has employed both private contractors and some of the world’s most notorious prisoners in ways that leave the latest episode of the Bourne films in the dust: hired gunmen trained to kill as well as former inmates who cashed in on the notoriety of having worn an orange jumpsuit in the world’s most infamous jail.

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Peter Van Buren, The Manning Trial Began on 9/11

7:11 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.

Bradley Manning - Caricature

Bradley Manning – Caricature

Close your eyes for a moment, think about recent events, and you could easily believe yourself in a Seinfeldian Bizarro World. Now, open them and, for a second, everything looks almost familiar… and then you notice that a dissident is fleeing a harsh and draconian power, known for its global surveillance practices, use of torture, assassination campaigns, and secret prisons, and has found a haven in a heartless world in… hmmm… Russia. That dissident, of course, is Edward Snowden, just granted a year’s temporary asylum in Russia, a.k.a. the defender of human rights and freedom 2013, and so has been released from a Washington-imposed imprisonment in Moscow’s international air terminal and the threat of far worse.

Now, close your eyes, open them again, and for just a moment, doesn’t the world look a little more orderly?  After all, a draconian imperial power has taken one of its own dissidents, who wanted to reveal the truth about its cruel war practices and global diplomatic maneuverings, thrown him in prison without charges, abused and mistreated him, brought him before a drumhead military court and, on essentially trumped up charges of “espionage,” convicted him of just what its leaders wanted to convict him of.  That power, of course, must be Russia and all’s right with the world… oops, I mean, that’s U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning and the “evil empire” that mistreated him is… gulp… the United States.

Think about it for a moment: if Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a place of asylum for American dissidents and the U.S. is doing a reasonable job of imitating aspects of the old USSR, we are on Bizarro Earth, aren’t we?

Today, former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, considers how America’s distant wars have come home and how, under that pressure, this country is morphing into something unrecognizable.  Worse yet, it’s quite possible that we’re only at the beginning of that transformation.  To give but a small example of what the future might hold, psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay, famous for his work with traumatized Vietnam veterans, suggested in Daedalus in 2011 that no one knows what it means for similarly traumatized employees of our Warrior corporations, the rent-a-gun “veterans” of our recent war zones to come home to no health care and no support system.  And he offered an eerie, if provocative, comparison to the footloose German veterans of World War I who, in the 1920s, joined the Freikorps and played their part in the radicalization and then Nazification of that country.

“I am not saying,” he wrote, “that I know that the Weimar Republic would still exist today, with all that implies about a different course to history, if Germany had had Vet Centers and VA Mental Health Clinics. But historians generally agree that the Freikorps contributed to the weakening of the new German political fabric in the immediate aftermath of World War I.”  His is a chilling reminder that, wherever we are now, it might just be a rest stop on some bizarro road to hell. Tom

Welcome to Post-Constitution America
What If Your Country Begins to Change and No One Notices?
By Peter Van Buren

On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”

Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”

Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.

The Weapons of War Come Home
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Tom Engelhardt, Luck Was a Lady Last Week

6:36 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.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
Living in a One-Superpower World (or Edward Snowden vs. Robert Seldon Lady)
By Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Snowden

Edward Snowden compared to CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

He came and he went: that was the joke that circulated in 1979 when 70-year-old former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had a heart attack and died in his Manhattan townhouse in the presence of his evening-gown-clad 25-year-old assistant.  In a sense, the same might be said of retired CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

Recently, Lady proved a one-day wonder. After years in absentia — poof! — he reappeared out of nowhere on the border between Panama and Costa Rica, and made the news when Panamanian officials took him into custody on an Interpol warrant.  The CIA’s station chief in Milan back in 2003, he had achieved brief notoriety for overseeing a la dolce vita version of extraordinary rendition as part of Washington’s Global War on Terror.  His colleagues kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Muslim cleric and terror suspect, off the streets of Milan, and rendered him via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to the torture chambers of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Lady evidently rode shotgun on that transfer.

His Agency associates proved to be the crew that couldn’t spook straight.  They left behind such a traceable trail of five-star-hotel and restaurant bills, charges on false credit cards, and unencrypted cell phone calls that the Italian government tracked them down, identified them, and charged 23 of them, Lady included, with kidnapping.

Lady fled Italy, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar villa near Turin meant for his retirement.  (It was later confiscated and sold to make restitution payments to Nasr.)  Convicted in absentia in 2009, Lady received a nine-year sentence (later reduced to six).  He had by then essentially vanished after admitting to an Italian newspaper, “Of course it was an illegal operation. But that’s our job. We’re at war against terrorism.”

Last week, the Panamanians picked him up.  It was the real world equivalent of a magician’s trick.  He was nowhere, then suddenly in custody and in the news, and then — poof again! — he wasn’t.  Just 24 hours after the retired CIA official found himself under lock and key, he was flown out of Panama, evidently under the protection of Washington, and in mid-air, heading back to the United States, vanished a second time.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on July 19th, “It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States.”  So there he was, possibly in mid-air heading for the homeland and, as far as we know, as far as reporting goes, nothing more.  Consider it the CIA version of a miracle.  Instead of landing, he just evaporated.

And that was that.  Not another news story here in the U.S.; no further information from government spokespeople on what happened to him, or why the administration decided to extricate him from Panama and protect him from Italian justice.  Nor, as far as I can tell, were there any further questions from the media.  When TomDispatch inquired of the State Department, all it got was this bit of stonewallese: “We understand that a U.S citizen was detained by Panamanian authorities, and that Panamanian immigration officials expelled him from Panama on July 19.  Panama’s actions are consistent with its rights to determine whether to admit or expel non-citizens from its territory.”

In other words, he came and he went.

Edward Snowden: The Opposite of a Magician’s Trick

When Lady was first detained, there was a little flurry of news stories and a little frisson of tension.  Would a retired CIA agent convicted of a serious crime involving kidnapping and torture be extradited to Italy to serve his sentence?  But that tension had no chance to build because (as anyone might have predicted) luck was a Lady that week.

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Peter Van Buren, Obama’s War on Whistleblowers Finds Another Target

6:43 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.

Snowden Street Portrait

A street portrait of Edward Snowden

Sometimes, it’s hard to grasp just how our world has been transformed since September 11, 2001. But here’s a little exchange at NBC Nightly News a few days back — just part of the humdrum flow of TV news-chat — that somehow caught my attention.  News anchor Brian Williams and Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell were discussing how the Obama administration was dealing with NSA leaker Edward Snowden, then reportedly somewhere in the bowels of Moscow’s international airport.  Here was the exchange:

Williams: The U.S. can say whatever it wishes and the press secretary can get angry and so on, what real power does the United States have here?

Mitchell:  It’s got a lot of leverage against Russia and China. They’re working behind the scenes, but short of rendition — and that’s not going to happen getting him out of Russia — there’s isn’t anything physical that they can do.  So they have to just exert the pressure and hope that diplomacy works, but Vladimir Putin is a tough customer.

It was that reference to “rendition” — to, that is, the kidnapping of terror suspects by American forces (usually the CIA) off global streets (or highways or backlands) and their “rendering” to the United States, or to U.S. Navy ships in global waters, or to the prisons of allied regimes willing to torture any “suspect” and share whatever information (or misinformation) might be extracted with Washington. For a while, this practice was called “extraordinary rendition,” but it’s now so deeply embedded in our American world that it’s become highly ordinary rendition.  In any case, the implication of Mitchell’s passing comment was that the U.S. wouldn’t “render” someone from an airport in the capital of a major power, but if that wasn’t “going to happen getting him out of Russia,” I think it’s hard not to complete Mitchell’s sentence with something like “it might be a perfectly reasonable option for Washington in, say, Ecuador.”

We are, in other words, in a new world where practices that once would have shocked have become the norm of news and pundit chitchat.  TomDispatch, however, refuses to consider any of this “normal.”  We have over these last years regularly focused on the way Washington’s most oppressive powers have been wildly enhanced and on people we now know as “whistleblowers,” people like Bradley Manning, who saw something truly, unnervingly different in our American world and decided they just had to do something about it. TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren is one of them and today he considers what Snowden might be going through. Tom

Edward Snowden’s Long Flight
What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought
By Peter Van Buren

As a State Department whistleblower, I think a lot about Edward Snowden. I can’t help myself. My friendships with other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, Jesslyn Radack, Daniel Ellsberg, and John Kiriakou lead me to believe that, however different we may be as individuals, our acts have given us much in common. I suspect that includes Snowden, though I’ve never had the slightest contact with him. Still, as he took his long flight from Hong Kong into the unknown, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking some of my thoughts, or I his. Here are five things that I imagine were on his mind (they would have been on mine) as that plane took off.

I Am Afraid

Whistleblowers act on conscience because they encounter something so horrifying, unconstitutional, wasteful, fraudulent, or mismanaged that they are overcome by the need to speak out. There is always a calculus of pain and gain (for others, if not oneself), but first thoughts are about what you’ve uncovered, the information you feel compelled to bring into the light, rather than your own circumstances.

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Nick Turse: The Hidden History of Water Torture

7:29 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.

Waterboarding at a protest

A demonstration of waterboarding at a protest. In this article, Nick Turse reveals the historic use of water torture by US forces.

Sometimes, the world can be such a simple, black-and-white sort of place.  Let me give you an example.  Imagine for a moment that the Iranians kidnap an American citizen from a third country.  (If you prefer, feel free to substitute al-Qaeda or the North Koreans or the Chinese for the Iranians.)  They accuse him of being a terrorist.  They throw him in jail without charges or a trial or a sentence and claim they suspect he might have crucial information (perhaps even of the “ticking bomb” sort — and the Iranians have had some genuine experience with ticking bombs). Over the weeks that follow, they waterboard him time and again. They strip him, put a dog collar and leash on him.  They hood him, loose dogs on him. They subject him to freezing cold water and leave him naked on cold nights. They hang him by his arms from the ceiling of his cell in the “strappado” position. I’m sure I really don’t have to go on.  Is there any question what we (or our leaders) would think or say?

We would call them barbarians. Beyond the bounds of civilization. Torturers. Monsters. Evil. No one in the U.S. government, on reading CIA intelligence reports about how that American had been treated, would wonder: Is it torture? No one in Washington would have the urge to call what the Iranians (al-Qaeda, the North Koreans, the Chinese) did “enhanced interrogation techniques.” If, on being asked at a Senate hearing whether he thought the Iranian acts were, in fact, “torture,” the prospective director of the CIA demurred, claimed he was no expert on the subject, no lawyer or legal scholar, and simply couldn’t label it as such, he would not be confirmed.  He would probably never have a job in Washington again. If asked whether the Iranians who committed such acts against that American and their superiors who ordered them to do so, should be brought before an American or international court and tried, the president would surely not suggest that this was the moment to “look forward, not backward,” nor would his justice department give them a free pass.

You see what I mean? When evil is evil, the world couldn’t be more cut-and-dried.  It’s only when, as Nick Turse, author of the bestselling book Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, writes today, the acts in question are committed by Americans on Evil Doers, under the orders or encouragement of their superiors, based on policies set at the highest levels in Washington, that such matters become complex, shaded in greys, open to interpretation, understandable in human terms, and explicable by citing ticking-bomb scenarios (however imaginary). Tom

“I Begged for Them to Stop”  
Waterboarding Americans and the Redefinition of Torture
By Nick Turse

Try to remain calm — even as you begin to feel your chest tighten and your heart race.  Try not to panic as water starts flowing into your nose and mouth, while you attempt to constrict your throat and slow your breathing and keep some air in your lungs and fight that growing feeling of suffocation.  Try not to think about dying, because there’s nothing you can do about it, because you’re tied down, because someone is pouring that water over your face, forcing it into you, drowning you slowly and deliberately.  You’re helpless.  You’re in agony.

In short, you’re a victim of “water torture.” Or the “water cure.”  Or the “water rag.”  Or the “water treatment.” Or “tormenta de toca.”  Or any of the other nicknames given to the particular form of brutality that today goes by the relatively innocuous term “waterboarding.”

The practice only became widely known in the United States after it was disclosed that the CIA had been subjecting suspected terrorists to it in the wake of 9/11.  More recently, cinematic depictions of waterboarding in the award-winning film Zero Dark Thirty and questions about it at the Senate confirmation hearing for incoming CIA chief John Brennan have sparked debate.  Water torture, however, has a surprisingly long history, dating back to at least the fourteenth century.  It has been a U.S. military staple since the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was employed by Americans fighting an independence movement in the Philippines.  American troops would continue to use the brutal tactic in the decades to come — and during the country’s repeated wars in Asia, they would be victims of it, too.

Water Torture in Vietnam

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Greg Grandin: Why Latin America Didn’t Join Washington’s Counterterrorism Posse

8:32 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.

Santiago Chile

US officials were rebuffed on a visit to Santiago, Chile and other attempts to recruit Latin America into their torture matrix.

There was a scarcely noted but classic moment in the Senate hearings on the nomination of John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism “tsar,” to become the next CIA director.  When Senator Carl Levin pressed him repeatedly on whether waterboarding was torture, he ended his reply this way: “I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and should not be done.  And again, I am not a lawyer, senator, and I can’t address that question.”

How modern, how twenty-first-century American!  How we’ve evolved since the dark days of Medieval Europe when waterboarding fell into a category known to all as “the water torture!”  Brennan even cited Attorney General Eric Holder as one lawyer who had described waterboarding as “torture,” but he himself begged off.  According to the man who was deputy executive director of the CIA and director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center in the years of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and knew much about them, the only people equipped to recognize torture definitively as “torture” are lawyers.  This might be more worrisome, if we weren’t a “nation of lawyers” (though it also means that plummeting law school application rates could, in the future, create a torture-definition crisis).

To look on the positive side, Brennan’s position should be seen as a distinct step forward from that of the Justice Department officials under the Bush administration who wrote the infamous “torture memos” and essentially left the definition of “torture” to the future testimony of the torturer. (“[I]f a defendant [interrogator] has a good faith belief that his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture.”)

And keep in mind that Brennan has good company for his position.  Recently, the Open Society Institute published the most comprehensive investigation yet of the offshore system of injustice that George W. Bush and his top officials set up to kidnap “terror suspects,” imprison them without charges or end, and torture and abuse them, or “render” them to other countries willing to do the same.  It turns out that 54 nations (other than the U.S.) took part in setting up, aiding, and maintaining this American global gulag.  It’s a roster of dishonor worth noting: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

Remarkably, according to the Open Society report, just one of those states evidently had a lawyer on hand who could actually recognize torture, even if well after the fact.  “Canada,” its authors write, “is the only country to issue an apology to an extraordinary rendition victim, Maher Arar, who was extraordinarily rendered to, and tortured in, Syria.”

Given this, Greg Grandin, TomDispatch regular and author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Lost Jungle City, explores a geographical miracle: of those 54 countries, only two, the U.S. and Canada, came from the Western Hemisphere! Tom

The Latin American Exception
How a Washington Global Torture Gulag Was Turned Into the Only Gulag-Free Zone on Earth
By Greg Grandin

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 

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Karen Greenberg: How Zero Dark Thirty Brought Back the Bush Administration

9:58 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.

Zero Dark Thirty movie poster

Controversy continues over the depiction of torturei n Zero Dark Thirty.

We got Osama bin Laden — and now, for millions of Americans, we’ll get him again onscreen as Zero Dark Thirty hits your neighborhood multiplex.  Lauded and criticized, the film’s the talk of the town.  But it’s hardly the only real-life CIA film that needed to be made.  Here, for the record, are five prospective films, all potentially suspenseful, all involving CIA daring-do, and all with plenty of opportunities for blood and torture, that are unlikely to make it into those same multiplexes in your lifetime.  Let’s start with the CIA’s 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, whose democratically elected government had nationalized the country’s oil industry.  What a story!  It couldn’t be oilier, involving BP in an earlier incarnation, the CIA, British intelligence, bribery, secretly funded street demonstrations, and (lest you think there’d be no torture in the film) the installation of an autocratic regime that would create a fearsome secret police and torture opponents for decades to come.  All of this was done in the name of what used to be called “the Free World.”  That “successful” coup was the point of origin for just about every disaster and bit of “blowback” — a term first used in the CIA’s secret history of the coup — in U.S.-Iranian relations to this day.  Many of the documents have been released and whatta story it turned out to be!  Hollywood, where are you?

Or here’s another superb candidate: the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam.  Boy, if you want a little torture porn, try that baby.  Meant to wipe out the Vietcong’s political infrastructure, it managed to knock off an estimated 20,000 Vietnamese, remarkably few of whom were classified as “senior NLF cadres.” (Reportedly, the program was regularly used by locals to settle grudges.)  It was knee — maybe waist — deep in blood, torture, assassination, and death.  It’s the Agency we’ve come to know and love.  But hold your breath waiting for Good Evening, Vietnam.

For a change of pace, how about a CIA-inspired torture comedy?  We’re talking about the rollicking secret kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in early 2003, his transport via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to Egypt, and there, evidently with the CIA station chief for Italy riding shotgun, directly into the hands of Egyptian torturers.  What makes this an enticing barrel of laughs was the way the CIA types involved in the covert operation rang up almost $150,000 in five-star hotel bills as they gallivanted around Italy, ate at five-star restaurants, vacationed in Venice after the kidnapping, ran up impressive tabs on forged credit cards for their fake identities, and were such bunglers that they were identified and charged for the abduction in absentia by the Italian government.  Most were convicted and given stiff jail sentences, again in absentia.  (No more Venetian holidays for them!)  It’s the CIA’s version of a La Dolce Vita torture caper and obviously screams for the Hollywood treatment.

Or how about a torture tragedy?  None can top the story of Khaled el-Masri, an unemployed car salesman from Germany on vacation in Macedonia, who, on New Year’s Eve 2003, was pulled off a bus and kidnapped by the CIA because his name was similar to that of an al-Qaeda suspect.  After spending five months under brutal conditions, in part in an “Afghan” prison called “the Salt Pit” (run by the CIA), he was left at the side of a road in Albania.  In between, his life was a catalogue of horrors, torture, and abuse.

Finally, who doesn’t like the idea of a torture biopic?  And the perfect subject’s out there.  He was just front-paged in a major profile in the New York Times.  Former CIA agent John Kiriakou was an al-Qaeda hunter, led the team that captured that outfit’s logistics specialist Abu Zubaydah, and is the only CIA agent in any way associated with the Agency’s torture activities who will go to jail.  And here’s the sort of twist that any moviemaker should love: he never tortured anyone.  He spoke out against it.  He just leaked information, including the name of an undercover agent, to journalists.  Russell Crowe would be perfect in the role.  Adventure, blood, torture, injustice, irony — what more could you ask for?

Instead, of course, what we’ve got this week is a bloody-minded nostalgia film, writes TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg.  Zero Dark Thirty, she says, is The Way We Were for those still in mourning over the departure of George W., Dick, Rummy, and the only national security advisor we’ve ever had who came into office with a double-hulled oil tanker named after her. And who should know more about what they did?  Greenberg, the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, has written, among other works, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days and The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib. Tom

Learning to Love Torture, Zero Dark Thirty-Style: Seven Easy, Onscreen Steps to Making U.S. Torture and Detention Policies Once Again Palatable

By Karen J. Greenberg

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Peter Van Buren: Torture Superpower

7:06 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.

Protester in a black hood & orange jumpsuit: CLOSE ALL USA TORTURE CAMPS From Guantanamo to all the BLACK SITES

A protester at the White House. Why does it seem so few Americans are concerned about torture?

On New Year’s Eve 2003, Khaled el-Masri, an unemployed car salesman from Germany on vacation in Macedonia, was removed from a bus and kidnapped by the CIA due to a confusion of names.  His evidently bore some similarity to an al-Qaeda suspect the Agency wanted to get its hands on.  Five months later, after spending time under brutal conditions in an “Afghan” prison called “the Salt Pit” (run by the CIA), he was left at the side of a road in Albania.  In between, his life was a catalogue of horrors, torture, and abuse.

Last week, the European Court of Human Rights finally rendered a judgment in his favor, confirming the accuracy of the story he’s told for years about his sufferings, fining the Macedonian government for its role in his case, and concluding for the first time in a court of law that “the CIA’s rendition techniques amounted to torture.”  El-Masri’s attempt to bring a case in the U.S. legal system against “George Tenet, the former director of the C.I.A., three private airline companies, and 20 individuals identified only as John Doe” for his mistreatment was long ago thrown out, thanks to the “state secrets privilege” — such a trial, so the government claimed, could compromise U.S. national security.  In this way, American courts, including the Supreme Court, typically avoided the subject of Bush administration and CIA torture tactics.

El-Masri was one of more than 9,000 individuals who were then being held in a globe-spanning archipelago of injustice, a series of “black sites” and borrowed prisons (as well as borrowed torturers in many cases).  Some of those prisoners were, like el-Masri, innocent of any crime whatsoever; some like him had been kidnapped by the CIA; most, whether reasonable suspects or not, were charged with nothing.  The crown jewel of this system was, of course, the U.S. prison built in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which the present president promised to close within a year of coming into office and which still couldn’t be more open.

If the former Soviet Union had built such an overseas gulag, run on the basis of torture and abuse, or if China did so today, there would be no question what Americans would have called it.  Official Washington, along with its attendant pundits and think tanks, would have made a professional living off denouncing it as typical of what to expect of such oppressive single-party states.  It would have been decried as a horror and a nightmare, an indefensible moral abomination, and a stain on humanity, no matter the information its torturers drew from the prisoners under their control.

And yet when Washington does it, the heated discussion in this country is largely about just how “effective” torture techniques are in eliciting “useful” information.  Our courts generally avoid the subject and no one has been prosecuted for its horrific acts.  In the meantime, a totally innocent man, whose name sounded like that of a terror suspect, was kidnapped, hooded, shackled, sodomized, flown to a prison in Afghanistan, held without recourse, beaten, tortured, slammed into walls, deprived of sleep, given inadequate food and water, endured total sensory deprivation, and then months later was released in a strange land without a helping hand of any sort.  No one in the U.S. government then or since has felt compelled to offer him an explanation, or recompense for what he went through, or an apology of any sort.  And with the exception of the usual suspects (like the American Civil Liberties Union), Americans seem to feel few regrets of any sort.

This, then, is what the United States became under George W. Bush and remains under Barack Obama — the sort of country your mother brought you up to avoid.  It’s shameful.  Former State Department official and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, who was hassled by his employer before his retirement for being an honest man and writing a tell-all book about his year on a forward operating base in Iraq, offers a look at just what kind of damage we’ve done to ourselves in the course of all this. Tom

An All-American Nightmare
Why Zero Dark Thirty Won’t Settle the Torture Question or Purge Torture From the American System
By Peter Van Buren

If you look backward you see a nightmare. If you look forward you become the nightmare.

There’s one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we’re going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won’t go away. It can’t be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us — that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.

The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America’s decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute a single torturer or any of those who helped cover up evidence of the torture practices.  But it did deliver a jail sentence to one ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.

At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what’s best for America and, as Barack Obama put it, “look forward, not backward,” with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by going shopping.

Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured

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Alfred McCoy: Perfecting Illegality

7:06 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.

Sign: Stop Supporting Torture

Code Pink Anti-torture protest (Photo: Code Pink HQ / Flickr)

Her white hair peeked out from under a brilliant cerulean blue headscarf. Her lips and teeth were stained red from chewing areca nut and betel leaf, a mild stimulant favored by older Vietnamese women.  She was missing her right eye.  She also appeared to be in danger of floating away had a stiff breeze swept along the roadside where we were talking.  Le Thi Xuan couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds.

But this 77-year-old whose height topped out at four-feet-and-change was a survivor.  That now-empty eye-socket took an elbow from an American Marine back in the 1960s.  That same day she survived a grenade attack that killed one of her sons and gravely wounded another.

Le Thi Xuan also survived torture.  When questioned about the guerrilla fighters that the Americans called “Viet Cong,” she told me, “I did not reveal anything, so they kept on beating me.  Once they tired of that, they used electricity to torture me.”

Le Thi Xuan’s ordeal was no anomaly.  Electrical torture by Americans and their South Vietnamese allies was a commonplace of the Vietnam War.  The prime method involved the use of hand-cranked field telephones to produce electricity and two wires that were generally affixed to sensitive areas of the anatomy: ears, fingers, nipples, genitals.  The use of “water torture” or the “water rag” technique — what we now know as waterboarding — was also widespread.

Some years ago, investigating a military intelligence unit that had routinely subjected Vietnamese to torture, I got in touch with former Staff Sergeant David Carmon.  When Army criminal investigators questioned Carmon in the early 1970s, he admitted using the water rag method on a detainee.  “I held the suspect down, placed a cloth over his face, and then poured water over the cloth, thus forcing water into his mouth,” he said, according to his sworn statement.  Once-classified military documents show that he also admitted using electrical shock on detainees.  Decades later, he was still unrepentant.  “I am not ashamed of anything I did, and I would most likely conduct myself in the same manner if placed in a Vietnam-type situation again,” he told me.  American torturers of the post-9/11 era are, as best we can tell, generally no less unrepentant.

Until this moment, Americans (other than those who abused her) could have known nothing of Le Thi Xuan’s torture.  Similarly, for decades almost no one knew of the rampant use of torture by Carmon’s unit.  (The wartime investigation of it was buried in military files in the National Archives and forgotten.)  But torture by U.S. military personnel has a long history, going back to the Indian Wars and to the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the last century, and its use has been no accident.  As TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy makes clear in his latest piece, there’s a secret post-World War II and post-9/11 history of torture that’s been covered up and covered over — a bipartisan effort that extends to the present.  It’s a sordid story that McCoy has been unraveling for years and brings up to date in his new book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation.  Knowing it can teach us a lot about America’s covert past, its present, and where the country may be headed in the years to come. Nick Turse

Impunity at Home, Rendition Abroad:
How Two Administrations and Both Parties Made Illegality the American Way of Life 
By Alfred W. McCoy

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Peter Van Buren: Thought Crime in Washington

7:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When I arrived at Zuccotti Prison one afternoon last week, the “park” was in its now-usual lockdown mode.  No more tents.  No library.  No kitchen.  No medical area.  Just about 30 leftover protesters and perhaps 100 of New York’s finest as well as private-security types in neon-green vests in or around a dead space enclosed by more movable police fencing than you can imagine. To the once open plaza, there were now only two small entrances in the fencing on the side streets, and to pass through either you had to run a gauntlet of police and private security types.

The park itself was bare of anything whatsoever and, that day, parts of it had been cordoned off, theoretically for yet more cleaning, with the kind of yellow police tape that would normally surround a crime scene, which was exactly how it seemed.  In fact, as I walked in, a young protestor was being arrested, evidently for the crime of lying down on a bench.  (No sleeping, or even prospective sleeping, allowed — except in jail!)

Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s police assault on the park, OWS has largely decamped for spaces unknown and for the future.  Left behind was a grim tableau of our distinctly up-armored, post-9/11 American world.  To take an obvious example, the “police” who so notoriously pepper-sprayed non-violent, seated students at UC Davis were just campus cops, who in my college years, the 1960s, still generally wore civvies, carried no weapons, and were tasked with seeing whether students had broken curfew or locked themselves out of their rooms.  Now, around the country, they are armed with chemical weapons, Tasers, tear gas, side arms, you name it.  Meanwhile, some police departments, militarizing at a rapid rate, have tank-like vehicles, and the first police surveillance drones are taking to the air in field tests and capable of being weaponized.

And keep in mind, when it comes to that pepper-spraying incident, we’re talking about sleepy Davis, California, and a campus once renowned for its agronomy school.  Al-Qaeda?  I don’t think so.

Still, terror is what now makes our American world work, the trains run more or less on time, and the money flow in.  So why should we be surprised that, having ripped Zuccotti Park apart, destroyed books, gotten a rep for pepper-spraying and roughing up protesters (and reporters, too), the NYPD should propitiously announce the arrest of yet another “lone wolf” terrorist.  And can anyone be shocked that we’re talking about a disturbed, moneyless individual — he couldn’t even pay his cell phone bill, no less rent a place to live — under surveillance for two years, and palling around with an NYPD “informant” who smoked marijuana with him and may have given him not only a place to build a bomb but encouragement in doing so.

It was a police-developed terror case that evidently so reeked of coaching even the FBI refused to get involved.  And yet this was Mayor Bloomberg’s shining moment of last week, as the NYPD declared his home a “frozen” zone, the equivalent of declaring martial law around his house.  And who was endangering him? An OWS “drum circle.”  In the United States, increasingly, those in power no longer observe the law.  Instead, they make it up to suit their needs.  In the process, the streets where you demonstrate, as (New York’s mayor keeps telling us) is our “right,” are regularly transformed into yet more fenced-in, heavily surveilled Zuccotti Prisons.

This may not be a traditional police state (yet), but it is an increasingly militarized policed state in which the blue coats, armed to the teeth, act with remarkable impunity — and all in the name of our safety from a bunch of doofuses or unhinged individuals that its “informants” often seem to fund, put through basic terror courses, and encourage in every way until they are arrested as “terrorists.”  This is essentially a scam on the basis of which rights are regularly abridged or tossed out the window.

In twenty-first-century America, “rights” are increasingly meant for those who behave themselves and don’t exercise them.  And if you happen to be part of a government in which no criminal act of state — torture, kidnapping, the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad, the launching of wars of aggression — will ever bring a miscreant to court, only two crimes evidently exist: blowing a whistle or expressing your opinion.  State Department official Peter Van Buren, whose new book about a disastrous year he spent in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, is a must read, learned that the hard way. So did Morris Davis. So may we all. Tom

No Free Speech at Mr. Jefferson’s Library
George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury Would Have Recognized Morris Davis’s Problem

By Peter Van Buren

Here’s the First Amendment, in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Those beautiful words, almost haiku-like, are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment.  The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism.  Go ahead, reread it aloud at this moment when the government seems to be carving out an exception to it large enough to drive a tank through.

As the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, like those pepper-sprayed at UC Davis or the Marine veteran shot in Oakland, recently found out, the government’s ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, to undercut the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on.  In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in.

Now, it also seems to be chipping away at the most basic American right of all, the right of free speech, starting with that of its own employees.  As is often said, the easiest book to stop is the one that is never written; the easiest voice to staunch is the one that is never raised.

It’s true that, over the years, government in its many forms has tried to claim that you lose your free speech rights when you, for example, work for a public school, or join the military. In dealing with school administrators who sought to silence a teacher for complaining publicly that not enough money was being spent on academics versus athletics, or generals who wanted to stop enlisted men and women from blogging, the courts have found that any loss of rights must be limited and specific. As Jim Webb wrote when still Secretary of the Navy, “A citizen does not give up his First Amendment right to free speech when he puts on a military uniform, with small exceptions.”

Free speech is considered so basic that the courts have been wary of imposing any limits at all. The famous warning by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about not falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater shows just how extreme a situation must be for the Supreme Court to limit speech.  As Holmes put it in his definition: “The question in every case is whether the words used… are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” That’s a high bar indeed.

The Government v. Morris Davis

Does a newspaper article from November 2009, a few hundred well-reasoned words that appeared in the conservative Wall Street Journal, concluding with these mild sentences, meet Justice Holmes’s high mark?

“Double standards don’t play well in Peoria. They won’t play well in Peshawar or Palembang either. We need to work to change the negative perceptions that exist about Guantanamo and our commitment to the law. Formally establishing a legal double standard will only reinforce them.”

Morris Davis got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing that article and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson’s library evidently escaped his bosses.)  With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back.  On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf.  In March 2011 a federal court ruled that the suit could go forward.

The case is being heard this month. Someday, it will likely define the free speech rights of federal employees and so determine the quality of people who will make up our government. We citizens vote for the big names, but it’s the millions of lower-ranked, unelected federal employees who decide by their actions how the laws are carried out (or ignored) and the Constitution upheld (or disregarded).

Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant.  Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than 25 years as an Air Force colonel.  He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis had stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture back in 2005.  When a torture advocate was named his boss in 2007, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.

In December 2008, Davis went to work as a researcher at the Library of Congress in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division.  None of his work was related to Guantanamo.  He was not a spokesperson for, or a public face of, the library.  He was respected at work.  Even the people who fired him do not contest that he did his “day job” as a researcher well.

On November 12, 2009, the day after his op-ed and letter appeared, Davis was told by his boss that the pieces had caused the library concern over his “poor judgment and suitability to serve… not consistent with ‘acceptable service’” — as the letter of admonishment he received put the matter.  It referred only to his op-ed and Washington Post letter, and said nothing about his work performance as a researcher.  One week later, Davis was fired.

But Shouldn’t He Have Known Better Than to Write Something Political?

The courts have consistently supported the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to use extreme and hateful words, of the burners of books, and of those who desecrate the American flag.  All of that is considered “protected speech.”  A commitment to real free speech means accepting the toughest cases, the most offensive things people can conceive of, as the price of a free society.

The Library of Congress does not restrict its employees from writing or speaking, so Davis broke no rules.  Nor, theoretically at least, do other government agencies like the CIA and the State Department restrict employees from writing or speaking, even on matters of official concern, although they do demand prior review for such things as the possible misuse of classified material.

Clearly, such agency review processes have sometimes been used as a de facto method of prior restraint.  The CIA, for example, has been accused of using indefinite security reviews to effectively prevent a book from being published. The Department of Defense has also wielded exaggerated claims of classified material to block books.

Since at least 1968, there has, however, been no broad prohibition against government employees writing about political matters or matters of public concern.  In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a seminal public employee First Amendment case, Pickering v. Board of Education.  It ruled that school officials had violated the First Amendment rights of teacher Marvin Pickering when they fired him for writing a letter to his local paper criticizing the allocation of money between academics and athletics.

A Thought Crime

Morris Davis was fired by the Library of Congress not because of his work performance, but because he wrote that Wall Street Journal op-ed on his own time, using his own computer, as a private citizen, never mentioning his (unrelated) federal job.  The government just did not like what he wrote.  Perhaps his bosses were embarrassed by his words, or felt offended by them.  Certainly, in the present atmosphere in Washington, they felt they had an open path to stopping their own employee from saying what he did, or at least for punishing him for doing so.

It’s not, of course, that federal employees don’t write and speak publicly.  As long as they don’t step on toes, they do, in startling numbers, on matters of official concern, on hobbies, on subjects of all sorts, through what must be an untold number of blogs, Facebook pages, Tweets, op-eds, and letters to the editor.  The government picked Davis out for selective, vindictive prosecution.

More significantly, Davis was fired prospectively — not for poor attendance, or too much time idling at the water cooler, but because his boss believed Davis’s writing showed that the quality of his judgment might make him an unsuitable employee at some future moment.  The simple act of speaking out on a subject at odds with an official government position was the real grounds for his firing.  That, and that alone, was enough for termination.

As any devoted fan of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, or Philip K. Dick would know, Davis committed a thought crime.

As some readers may also know, I evidently did the same thing.  Because of my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, about my experiences as a State Department official in Iraq, and the articles, op-eds, and blog posts I have written, I first had my security clearance suspended by the Department of State and then was suspended from my job there.  That job had nothing to do with Iraq or any of the subjects I have written about.  My performance reviews were good, and no one at State criticized me for my day-job work.  Because we have been working under different human resources systems, Davis, as a civil servant on new-hire probation, could be fired directly.  As a tenured Foreign Service Officer, I can’t, and so State has placed me on indefinite administrative leave status; that is, I’m without a job, pending action to terminate me formally through a more laborious process.

However, in removing me from my position, the document the State Department delivered to me darkly echoed what Davis’ boss at the Library of Congress said to him:

“The manner in which you have expressed yourself in some of your published material is inconsistent with the standards of behavior expected of the Foreign Service.  Some of your actions also raise questions about your overall judgment.  Both good judgment and the ability to represent the Foreign Service in a way that will make the Foreign Service attractive to candidates are key requirements.”

There follows a pattern of punishing federal employees for speaking out or whistle-blowing: look at Davis, or me, or Franz Gayl, or Thomas Drake.  In this way, a precedent is being set for an even deeper cloud of secrecy to surround the workings of government.  From Washington, in other words, no news, other than good or officially approved news, is to emerge.

The government’s statements at Davis’s trial, now underway in Washington D.C., do indeed indicate that he was fired for the act of speaking out itself, as much as the content of what he said.  The Justice Department lawyer representing the government said that Davis’s writings cast doubt on his discretion, judgment and ability to serve as a high-level official.  (She also added that Davis’s language in the op-ed was “intemperate.”  One judge on the three-member bench seemed to support the point, saying, “It’s one thing to speak at a law school or association, but it’s quite a different thing to be in The Washington Post.”  The case will likely end up at the Supreme Court.

Free Speech is for Iranians, not Government Employees

If Morris Davis loses his case, then a federal employee’s judgment and suitability may be termed insufficient for employment if he or she writes publicly in a way that offends or embarrasses the government. In other words, the very definition of good judgment, when it comes to freedom of speech, will then rest with the individual employer — that is, the U.S. government.

Simply put, even if you as a federal employee follow your agency’s rules on publication, you can still be fired for what you write if your bosses don’t like it.  If your speech offends them, then that’s bad judgment on your part and the First Amendment goes down the drain.  Free speech is increasingly coming at a price in Washington: for federal employees, conscience could cost them their jobs.

In this sense, Morris Davis represents a chilling precedent.  He raised his voice.  If we’re not careful, the next Morris Davis may not.  Federal employees are, at best, a skittish bunch, not known for their innovative, out-of-the-box thinking.  Actions like those in the Davis case will only further deter any thoughts of speaking out, and will likely deter some good people from seeking federal employment.

More broadly, the Davis case threatens to give the government free rein in selecting speech by its employees it does not like and punishing it.  It’s okay to blog about your fascination with knitting or to support official positions.  If you happen to be Iranian or Chinese or Syrian, and not terribly fond of your government, and express yourself on the subject, the U.S. government will support your right to do it 110% of the way.  However, as a federal employee, blog about your negative opinions on U.S. policies and you’ve got a problem.  In fact, we have a problem as a country if freedom of speech only holds as long as it does not offend the U.S. government.

Morris Davis’s problem is neither unique nor isolated.  Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Reporters without Borders, told me earlier this month, “Secrecy is taking over from free speech in the United States.  While we naively thought the Obama administration would be more transparent than the previous one, it is actually the first to sue five people for being sources and speaking publicly.”  Scary, especially since this is no longer an issue of one rogue administration.

Government is different than private business.  If you don’t like McDonald’s because of its policies, go to Burger King, or a soup kitchen, or eat at home.  You don’t get the choice of federal governments, and so the critical need for its employees to be able to speak informs the republic.  We are the only ones who can tell you what is happening inside your government.  It really is that important.  Ask Morris Davis.

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), has recently been published. To read about the grilling he’s gotten from the State Department for his truth-telling, click here.

[Note on further readings: You can check out the ACLU’s full-filing text on behalf of Davis by clicking here.]

[Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the U.S. Government. It should be quite obvious that the Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.]

Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren