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Rebecca Solnit, Emerging From Darkness, the Edward Snowden Story

8:21 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 graffiti portrait

“Modern heroes endeavor to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.”

It’s true that, as Glenn Greenwald and others have written, the American media has focused attention on the supposed peccadillos of Edward Snowden so as not to have to spend too much time on the sweeping system of government surveillance he revealed. At least for now, the Obama administration has cornered the document-less whistleblower at Moscow’s international airport, leaving him nowhere on the planet to go, or at least no way to get there. As a result, the media can have a field day writing negative pieces about his relationship to Putin’s Russia.

So Greenwald certainly has a point, and yet it would be a mistake to ignore Snowden’s personal story.  After all, the unending spectacle of a superpower implacably tracking down a single man across the planet has its own educational value.  It’s been a little like watching one of those Transformers movies in which Megatron, the leader of the evil Decepticons, stomps around the globe smashing things, but somehow, time and again, misses his tiny human target.  In this strange drama, in a world in which few eyeball-gluing stories outlast the week in which they were born, almost alone and by a kind of miracle Snowden has managed to keep his story andthe story of the building of the first full-scale global surveillance state going and going.  He seems a little like the Energizer Bunny of whistleblowers.

No matter what’s written about him here in the mainstream, the spectacle of a single remarkably articulate and self-confident individual outwitting the last superpower has been, in its own way, uplifting.  Although the first global polls haven’t come in, I think it’s safe to assume that from Bolivia to Hong Kong, Germany to Japan, Washington is taking a remarkable licking in the global opinion wars.  Even at home, we know that, among the young in particular, opinion seems to be shifting on both Snowden’s acts and the surveillance state whose architecture he revealed.

Given its utter tone-deafness and its flurry of threats against various foreign governments, the downing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane, and ever more ham-handed moves against Snowden himself, Washington is clearly building up a store of global anger and resentment, including over the way it’s scooping up private communications worldwide.  In the end, this twenty-first-century spectacle may truly make a difference. As Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch regular and author of the new book The Faraway Nearby, writes today, it’s been a moving show so far. One man against the machine: if you’ve ever been to the local multiplex, given such a scenario you can’t for a second doubt where global sympathies lie. Tom

Prometheus Among the Cannibals 
A Letter to Edward Snowden
By Rebecca Solnit

Dear Edward Snowden,

Billions of us, from prime ministers to hackers, are watching a live espionage movie in which you are the protagonist and perhaps the sacrifice. Your way forward is clear to no one, least of all, I’m sure, you.

I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank. I imagine Hollywood movie magic in which a young lookalike would swap places with you and let you flee to safety — if there is any safety in this world of extreme rendition and extrajudicial execution by the government that you and I were born under and that you, until recently, served. I fear you may pay, if not with your death, with your life — with a life that can have no conventional outcome anytime soon, if ever. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” you told us, and they are trying to stop you instead.

I am moved by your choice of our future over yours, the world over yourself.  You know what few do nowadays: that the self is not the same as self-interest. You are someone who is smart enough, idealistic enough, bold enough to know that living with yourself in a system of utter corruption would destroy that self as an ideal, as something worth being.  Doing what you’ve done, on the other hand, would give you a self you could live with, even if it gave you nowhere to live or no life. Which is to say, you have become a hero.

Tom Engelhardt, The OED of the National Security State

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.

Dictionary

A Devil’s Dictionary for the Surveillance State?

In the months after September 11, 2001, it was regularly said that “everything” had changed.  It’s a claim long forgotten, buried in everyday American life.  Still, if you think about it, in the decade-plus that followed — the years of the PATRIOT Act, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites,” robot assassination campaigns, extraordinary renditions, the Abu Ghraib photos, the Global War on Terror, and the first cyberwar in history — much did change in ways that should still stun us.  Perhaps nothing changed more than the American national security state, which, spurred on by 9/11 and the open congressional purse strings that followed, grew in ways that would have been alien even at the height of the Cold War, when there was another giant, nuclear-armed imperial power on planet Earth.

Unfortunately, the language we use to describe the world of the national security state is still largely stuck in the pre-9/11 era.  No wonder, for example, it’s hard to begin to grasp the staggering size and changing nature of the world of secret surveillance that Edward Snowden’s recent revelations have allowed us a peek at.  If there are no words available to capture the world that is watching us, all of us, we’ve got a problem.

In ancient China, when a new dynasty came to power, it would perform a ceremony called “the rectification of names.”  The idea was that the previous dynasty had, in part, fallen because a gap, a chasm, an abyss, had opened between reality and the names available to describe it.  Consider this dispatch, then, a first attempt to “rectify” American names in the era of the ascendant national — morphing into global — security state.

Creating a new dictionary of terms is, of course, an awesome undertaking.  From the moment work began, it famously took 71 years for the full 10-volume Oxford English Dictionary to first appear!  So we at TomDispatch expect to be at work on our new project for years to come.  Here, however, is an initial glimpse at a modest selection of our newly rectified definitions.

The Dictionary of the Global War on You
(Preliminary version, July 2, 2013)

Secret: Anything of yours the government takes possession of and classifies.

Classification: The process of declaring just about any document produced by any branch of the U.S. government — 92 million of them in 2011 — unfit for unclassified eyes.  (This term may, in the near future, be retired once no documents produced within, or captured by, the government and its intelligence agencies can be seen or read by anyone not given special clearance.)

Surveillance: Here’s looking at you, kid.

Whistleblower: A homegrown terrorist.

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Engelhardt: Field of Nightmares

6:23 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.

Filling the Empty Battlefield 
Jeremy Scahill, Blowback Reporter 
By Tom Engelhardt

Cover of Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was published in March 2000 — and just about no one noticed.  Until then, blowback had been an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, which Johnson defined as “the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.”  In his prologue, the former consultant to the CIA and eminent scholar of both Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution and modern Japan labeled his Cold War self a “spear-carrier for empire.”

After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, he was surprised to discover that the essential global structure of that other Cold War colossus, the American superpower, with its vast panoply of military bases, remained obdurately in place as if nothing whatsoever had happened.  Almost a decade later, when the Evil Empire was barely a memory, Johnson surveyed the planet and found “an informal American empire” of immense reach and power.  He also became convinced that, in its global operations, Washington was laying the groundwork “all around the world… for future forms of blowback.”

Johnson noted “portents of a twenty-first century crisis” in the form of, among other things, “terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies.”  In the first chapter of Blowback, he focused in particular on a “former protégé of the United States” by the name of Osama bin Laden and on the Afghan War against the Soviets from which he and an organization called al-Qaeda had emerged.  It had been a war in which Washington backed to the hilt, and the CIA funded and armed, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists, paving the way years later for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan.

Talk about unintended consequences! The purpose of that war had been to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose, which it more than did. All of this laid the foundation for… well, in 1999 when Johnson was writing, no one knew what. But he, at least, had an inkling, which on September 12, 2001, made his book look prophetic indeed. He emphasized one other phenomenon: Americans, he believed, had “freed ourselves of… any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe.”

With Blowback, he aimed to rectify that, to paint a portrait of how that informal empire and its historically unprecedented garrisoning of the world looked to others, and so explain why animosity and blowback were building globally.  After September 11, 2001, his book leaped to the center of the 9/11 display tables in bookstores nationwide and became a bestseller, while “blowback” and that phrase “unintended consequences” made their way into our everyday language.

Chalmers Johnson was, you might say, our first blowback scholar.  Now, more than a decade later, we have a book from our first blowback reporter.  His name is Jeremy Scahill.  In 2007, he, too, produced a surprise bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It caught the mood of a moment in which the Bush administration, in service to its foreign wars, was working manically to “privatize” national security and the U.S. military by hiring rent-a-spiesrent-a-guns, and rent-a-corporations for its proliferating wars.

In the ensuing years, it was as if Scahill had taken Johnson’s observation to heart — that we Americans can’t see our world as it is.  And little wonder, since so much of the American way of war has plunged into the shadows.  As two administrations in Washington arrogated ever greater war-making and national security powers, they began to develop a new, off-the-books, undeclared style of war-making.  In the process, they transformed an increasingly militarized CIA, a hush-hush crew called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a shiny new “perfect weapon” and high-tech fantasy object, the drone, into the president’s own privatized military.

In these years, war and the path to it were becoming the private business and property of the White House and the national security state — and no one else.  Little of this, of course, was a secret to those on the receiving end.  It was only Americans who were not supposed to know much about what was being done in their name.  As a result, there was a secret history of twenty-first-century American war crying out to be written.  Now, we have it in the form of Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.

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Victoria Brittain: Fighting a Global War of Terror

7:25 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.

MI5 Gov't Building

British security forces have drawn the UK into the global war on terror -- and women & children.

The Global War on Terror has had many victims since it was launched by President George W. Bush soon after September 11, 2001.  In his “crusade,” a word he used publicly before he thought better of it (“This crusade,” he said, “this war on terrorism”), the history of kidnappings and renditions, torture and abuse, imprisonment without charges or trial, drone assassinations and the killing of civilians is by now well known (for those who care to know).  But there are other less noted kinds of “collateral damage” from more than a decade of such conflict, including damage to women on both sides — or perhaps ends — of the war.

The New York Times recently ran a two-part report on the toll that the war on terror era has taken on women in the U.S. military, and it makes for startling reading.  Back in January 2012, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta estimated that there could be as many as 19,000 sexual assaults in the U.S. military — not in the whole war on terror era, but in a year of it (only about 3,000 of which actually get reported).  Sexual assault and the threat of it, as the Times recounted, only adds to the pressures that, in these years, have been placed on American soldiers.  They have experienced striking rates of brain injuries (usually from roadside bombs), rising cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), soaring suicide rates among both on-duty service personnel and veterans, increased use of drugs (legal and illegal), and a striking rise among women veterans in homelessness — a phenomenon that itself, reports the Times, is often connected to being raped, to the Military Sexual Trauma (MST) that follows, and to the PTSD that can follow as well.

This, in other words, is one kind of “collateral damage” seldom thought of as such when the war on terror is brought up.  On the other end of that war, in a world where “terror suspects” have next to no recourse — and Washington’s record of doing terrible things to innocent men is daunting — are women and children connected to those suspects. As it happens, Victoria Brittain, a journalist and former editor at the British Guardian, has spent these last years with a group of such women.  She saw first-hand how, in her country as in the U.S. effort more generally, a global war on terror became a global war of terror, a war that, at least in part, turned out to be against innocent women and children.

Her book on the subject, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, has just been published. Through both of these worlds — the world of the woman warrior and of the woman connected to a suspect in the war — we get, as Noam Chomsky wrote in a comment on her book, “a revealing picture of what we have allowed ourselves to become.” Indeed. Tom

Shadow Lives
How the War on Terror in England Became a War on Women and Children
By Victoria Brittain

Once, as a reporter, I covered wars, conflicts, civil wars, and even a genocide in places like Vietnam, Angola, Eritrea, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, keeping away from official briefings and listening to the people who were living the war.  In the years since the Bush administration launched its Global War on Terror, I’ve done the same thing without ever leaving home.

In the last decade, I didn’t travel to distant refugee camps in Pakistan or destroyed villages in Afghanistan, nor did I spend time in besieged cities like Iraq’s Fallujah or Libya’s Misrata.  I stayed in Great Britain.  There, my government, in close conjunction with Washington, was pursuing its own version of what, whether anyone cared to say it or not, was essentially a war against Islam.  Somehow, by a series of chance events, I found myself inside it, spending time with families transformed into enemies.

I hadn’t planned to write about the war on terror, but driven by curiosity about lives most of us never see and a few lucky coincidences, I stumbled into a world of Muslim women in London, Manchester, and Birmingham.  Some of them were British, others from Arab and African countries, but their husbands or sons had been swept up in Washington’s war. Some were in Guantanamo, some were among the dozen Muslim foreigners who did not know each other, and who were surprised to find themselves imprisoned together in Britain on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda. Later, some of these families would find themselves under house arrest.

In the process, I came to know women and children who were living in almost complete isolation and with the stigma of a supposed link to terrorism. They had few friends, and were cut off from the wider world. Those with a husband under house arrest were allowed no visitors who had not been vetted for “security,” nor could they have computers, even for their children to do their homework.  Other lonely women had husbands or sons who had sometimes spent a decade or more in prison without charges in the United Kingdom, and were fighting deportation or extradition.

Gradually, they came to accept me into their isolated lives and talked to me about their children, their mothers, their childhoods — but seldom, at first, about the grim situations of their husbands, which seemed too intimate, too raw, too frightening, too unknowable to be put into words.

In the early years, it was a steep learning curve for me, spending time in homes where faith was the primary reality, Allah was constantly invoked, English was a second language, and privacy and reticence were givens. Facebook culture had not come to most of these families. The reticence faded over the years, especially when the children were not there, or in the face of the kind of desolation that came from a failed court appeal to lift the restrictions on their lives, an unexpected police raid on the house, a husband’s suicide attempt, or the coming of a new torture report from Washington’s then-expanding global gulag of black sites and, of course, Guantanamo.

In these years, I met some of their husbands and sons as well.  The first was a British man from Birmingham, Moazzam Begg. He had been held for three years in Washington’s notorious offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, only to be released without charges.  When he came home, through his lawyer, he asked me to help write his memoir, the first to come out of Guantanamo.  We worked long months on Enemy Combatant. It was hard for him to relive his nightmare days and nights in American custody in Kandahar and in the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then those limbo years in Cuba. It was even harder for him to visit the women whose absent husbands he had known in prison and who, unlike him, were still there.

Was My Husband Tortured?

Read the rest of this entry →

Karen Greenberg: A New Age of Enemies

6:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Afghan Boy at Mazar-e-Sharif (photo: United Nations Photo, flickr)

Afghan Boy at Mazar-e-Sharif (photo: United Nations Photo, flickr)

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

Just a couple of days after “Sergeant Massacre” left his base in southern Afghanistan and singlehandedly perpetrated the My Lai of the Afghan War, shooting and evidently in some cases stabbing to death 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, a district police chief in Kapisa Province reported that a NATO air strike had killed three civilians and injured two more. Mistaken for insurgents, two shopkeepers had, he claimed, died on the spot, as had an elderly man later. A NATO spokesman responded that the dead were, in fact, insurgents, though “additional information” on those deaths was being collected.

Since then, while the media has been filled with discussion of the until recently unidentified sergeant’s atrocity and what it means for America’s war in Afghanistan, those other dead Afghans have typically faded into obscurity. There have been no further reports on what happened to them, nor, as far as we know, has one of the scores of U.S. and NATO “investigations” so-thorough-they-never-manage-to-see-the-light-of-day been launched. But those three contested deaths, not the sergeant’s grim, up-close-and-personal slaughter, best catch the nature of America’s Afghan War, ever since in December 2001 a B-52 and two B-1B bombers took out 110 of 112 Afghan villagers celebrating a wedding. Though the sergeant’s acts have been headlined, Afghans have been dying, largely unnoticed here, for a long while now. The truth is this: from the air and on the ground, Americans have been profligate with Afghan lives.

Now, thanks to the Koran burnings and those 16 deaths that have refused to fade into obscurity, Washington faces its destiny in Afghanistan, long written in dead bodies. The Obama administration, which doubled down on “the right war” in 2009, confronts a situation that was guaranteed to end badly from the moment George W. Bush and his top advisors decided that taking out al-Qaeda wasn’t enough, that the U.S. was going to stay in Afghanistan and dominate the Greater Middle East for generations.

Sergeant Massacre, like those charred Korans, is simply a harbinger of the arrival of the predictable endpoint of that disastrous decision. Even Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta knows that if we stay in Afghanistan, so, after a fashion, will the staff sergeant. As he said recently, “These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place… in any war… and this is not the first of those events, and it probably will not be the last.” Yet the Obama administration seens incapable of stopping. Panetta finished his comments this way: “But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy.” That sums up the folly of Washington today. “These events” are, in reality, making a mockery of that strategy, but the momentum of these last years still carries them toward an Afghanistan forever policy, even when their eyes tell them otherwise and the panic sets in.

Not surprisingly, this leads to a striking set of inanities. A New York Times piece on the debate in Washington about speeding up the troop pullout, for instance, included these bizarre passages from an assortment of typically unnamed American and European “officials.” Speaking of an upcoming Afghan War meeting in Chicago, they claimed that “Mr. Obama and the NATO allies… must… present a picture of success that includes… a NATO withdrawal that is coming only after a job well done… A European official said… that it was imperative that the United States and its NATO partners project a public face to the Afghans that while NATO troops will be leaving Afghanistan, the West will not abandon the country. ‘The most important thing now is the messaging,’ the official said.” Read the rest of this entry →

Andrew Bacevich: Uncle Sam, Global Gangster

7:52 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

If all goes as planned, it will be the happiest of wartimes in the U.S.A.  Only the best of news, the killing of the baddest of the evildoers, will ever filter back to our world.

After all, American war is heading for the “shadows” in a big way.  As news articles have recently made clear, the tip of the Obama administration’s global spear will increasingly be shaped from the ever-growing ranks of U.S. special operations forces.  They are so secretive that they don’t like their operatives to be named, so covert that they instruct their members, as Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room blog notes, “not to write down important information, lest it be vulnerable to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.”  By now, they are also a force that, in any meaningful sense, is unaccountable for its actions.

Although the special ops crew (66,000 people in all) exist on our tax dollars, we’re really not supposed to know anything about what they’re doing — unless, of course, they choose the publicity venue themselves, whether in Pakistan knocking off Osama bin Laden or parachuting onto Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard to promote Act of Valor. In case you somehow missed the ads, that’s the new film about “real terrorist threats based on true stories starring actual Navy SEALs.” (No names in the credits please!)

Of course, those elite SEAL teams are johnnies-come-lately when compared to their no less secretive “teammates” in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia — our ever increasing armada of drones.  Those robotic warriors of the air (or at least their fantasy doppelgangers) were, of course, pre-celebrated — after a fashion — in the Terminator movies.  In Washington’s global battle zones, what’s called our “traditional combat role” — think big invasions, occupations, counterinsurgency — is going, going, gone with the wind, even evidently in Afghanistan by 2013.  War American-style is instead being inherited by secretive teams of men and machines, both hunter-killers who specialize in assassination operations, and both of whom, as presented to Americans, just couldn’t be sexier.

And we’ll all be just so happy — as a recent poll indicates we are — with our robotic warriors and their shadowy special ops teammates, if with nothing else in our fraying world.  They present such an alluring image of the no-pain, all-gain battlefield and are undoubtedly a relief for many Americans, distinctly tired — so the polls also tell us — of wars that aren’t covert and don’t work.  So who even notices that, as Andrew Bacevich, bestselling author and (most recently) editor of The Short American Century: A Postmortem, points out, we’re being plunged into a real-life war novel that has no plot and no end.  How post-modern!  How disastrous, if only we have the patience to wait!  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses the changing face of the Gobal War on Terror, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom Read the rest of this entry →

Lessons From the Dead in a No-Learning-Curve World, by Tom Engelhardt

7:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: theunquietlibrarian, flickr)

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: theunquietlibrarian, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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

He was 22, a corporal in the Marines from Preston, Iowa, a “city” incorporated in 1890 with a present population of 949.  He died in a hospital in Germany of “wounds received from an explosive device while on patrol in Helmand province [Afghanistan].”  Of him, his high school principal said, “He was a good kid.” He is survived by his parents.

He was 20, a private in the 10th Mountain Division from Boyne City, population 3,735 souls, which bills itself as “the fastest growing city in Northern Michigan.”  He died of “wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with small-arms fire” and is survived by his parents.

These were the last two of the 10 Americans whose deaths in Afghanistan were announced by the Pentagon Thanksgiving week.  The other eight came from Apache Junction, Arizona; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Greensboro, North Carolina; Navarre, Florida; Witchita, Kansas; San Jose, California; Moline, Illinois; and Danville, California.  Six of them died from improvised explosive devices (roadside bombs), assumedly without ever seeing the Afghan enemies who killed them.  One died of “indirect fire” and another “while conducting combat operations.”  On such things, Defense Department press releases are relatively tight-lipped, as was the Army, for instance, when it released news that same week of 17 “potential suicides” among active-duty soldiers in October.

These days, the names of the dead dribble directly onto the inside pages of newspapers, or simply into the ether, in a war now opposed by 63% of Americans, according to the latest CNN/ORC opinion poll, but in truth barely remembered by anyone in this country.  It’s a reality made easier by the fact that the dead of America’s All-Volunteer Army tend to come from forgettable places — small towns, obscure suburbs, third or fourth-rank cities — and a military that ever fewer Americans have any connection with.

Aside from those who love them, who pays much attention anymore to the deaths of American troops in distant lands? These deaths are, after all, largely dwarfed by local fatality counts like the 16 Americans who died in accidents on Ohio’s highways over the long Thanksgiving weekend of 2010 or the 32,788 Americans who died in road fatalities that same year? Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Tear Down the Freedom Tower

4:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

Let’s Cancel 9/11
Bury the War State’s Blank Check at Sea

By Tom Engelhardt

Let’s bag it.

I’m talking about the tenth anniversary ceremonies for 9/11, and everything that goes with them: the solemn reading of the names of the dead, the tolling of bells, the honoring of first responders, the gathering of presidents, the dedication of the new memorial, the moments of silence.  The works.

Let’s just can it all.  Shut down Ground Zero.  Lock out the tourists.  Close “Reflecting Absence,” the memorial built in the “footprints” of the former towers with its grove of trees, giant pools, and multiple waterfalls before it can be unveiled this Sunday.  Discontinue work on the underground National September 11 Museum due to open in 2012.  Tear down the Freedom Tower (redubbed 1 World Trade Center after our “freedom” wars went awry), 102 stories of “the most expensive skyscraper ever constructed in the United States.” (Estimated price tag: $3.3 billion.)  Eliminate that still-being-constructed, hubris-filled 1,776 feet of building, planned in the heyday of George W. Bush and soaring into the Manhattan sky like a nyaah-nyaah invitation to future terrorists.  Dismantle the other three office towers being built there as part of an $11 billion government-sponsored construction program.  Let’s get rid of it all.   If we had wanted a memorial to 9/11, it would have been more appropriate to leave one of the giant shards of broken tower there untouched.

Ask yourself this: ten years into the post-9/11 era, haven’t we had enough of ourselves?  If we have any respect for history or humanity or decency left, isn’t it time to rip the Band-Aid off the wound, to remove 9/11 from our collective consciousness?  No more invocations of those attacks to explain otherwise inexplicable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our oh-so-global war on terror.  No more invocations of 9/11 to keep the Pentagon and the national security state flooded with money.  No more invocations of 9/11 to justify every encroachment on liberty, every new step in the surveillance of Americans, every advance in pat-downs and wand-downs and strip downs that keeps fear high and the homeland security state afloat.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were in every sense abusive, horrific acts.  And the saddest thing is that the victims of those suicidal monstrosities have been misused here ever since under the guise of pious remembrance.  This country has become dependent on the dead of 9/11 — who have no way of defending themselves against how they have been used — as an all-purpose explanation for our own goodness and the horrors we’ve visited on others, for the many towers-worth of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere whose blood is on our hands.

Isn’t it finally time to go cold turkey?  To let go of the dead?  Why keep repeating our 9/11 mantra as if it were some kind of old-time religion, when we’ve proven that we, as a nation, can’t handle it — and worse yet, that we don’t deserve it?

We would have been better off consigning our memories of 9/11 to oblivion, forgetting it all if only we could.  We can’t, of course.  But we could stop the anniversary remembrances.  We could stop invoking 9/11 in every imaginable way so many years later.  We could stop using it to make ourselves feel like a far better country than we are.  We could, in short, leave the dead in peace and take a good, hard look at ourselves, the living, in the nearest mirror.

Ceremonies of Hubris

Within 24 hours of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the first newspaper had already labeled the site in New York as “Ground Zero.”  If anyone needed a sign that we were about to run off the rails, as a misassessment of what had actually occurred that should have been enough.  Previously, the phrase “ground zero” had only one meaning: it was the spot where a nuclear explosion had occurred.

The facts of 9/11 are, in this sense, simple enough.  It was not a nuclear attack.  It was not apocalyptic.  The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud.  It was not potentially civilization ending.  It did not endanger the existence of our country — or even of New York City.  Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives.

A second irreality went with the first.  Almost immediately, key Republicans like Senator John McCain, followed by George W. Bush, top figures in his administration, and soon after, in a drumbeat of agreement, the mainstream media declared that we were “at war.”  This was, Bush would say only three days after the attacks, “the first war of the twenty-first century.”  Only problem: it wasn’t.  Despite the screaming headlines, Ground Zero wasn’t Pearl Harbor.  Al-Qaeda wasn’t Japan, nor was it Nazi Germany.  It wasn’t the Soviet Union.  It had no army, nor finances to speak of, and possessed no state (though it had the minimalist protection of a hapless government in Afghanistan, one of the most backward, poverty-stricken lands on the planet).

And yet — another sign of where we were heading — anyone who suggested that this wasn’t war, that it was a criminal act and some sort of international police action was in order, was simply laughed (or derided or insulted) out of the American room.  And so the empire prepared to strike back (just as Osama bin Laden hoped it would) in an apocalyptic, planet-wide “war” for domination that masqueraded as a war for survival.

In the meantime, the populace was mustered through repetitive, nationwide 9/11 rites emphasizing that we Americans were the greatest victims, greatest survivors, and greatest dominators on planet Earth.  It was in this cause that the dead of 9/11 were turned into potent recruiting agents for a revitalized American way of war.

From all this, in the brief mission-accomplished months after Kabul and then Baghdad fell, American hubris seemed to know no bounds — and it was this moment, not 9/11 itself, from which the true inspiration for the gargantuan “Freedom Tower” and the then-billion-dollar project for a memorial on the site of the New York attacks would materialize.  It was this sense of hubris that those gargantuan projects were intended to memorialize.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, for an imperial power that is distinctly tattered, visibly in decline, teetering at the edge of financial disaster, and battered by never-ending wars, political paralysis, terrible economic times, disintegrating infrastructure, and weird weather, all of this should be simple and obvious.  That it’s not tells us much about the kind of shock therapy we still need.

Burying the Worst Urges in American Life

It’s commonplace, even today, to speak of Ground Zero as “hallowed ground.”  How untrue.  Ten years later, it is defiled ground and it’s we who have defiled it.  It could have been different.  The 9/11 attacks could have been like the Blitz in London in World War II.  Something to remember forever with grim pride, stiff upper lip and all.

And if it were only the reactions of those in New York City that we had to remember, both the dead and the living, the first responders and the last responders, the people who created impromptu memorials to the dead and message centers for the missing in Manhattan, we might recall 9/11 with similar pride.  Generally speaking, New Yorkers were respectful, heartfelt, thoughtful, and not vengeful.  They didn’t have prior plans that, on September 12, 2001, they were ready to rally those nearly 3,000 dead to support.  They weren’t prepared at the moment of the catastrophe to — as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so classically said — “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”

Unfortunately, they were not the measure of the moment.  As a result, the uses of 9/11 in the decade since have added up to a profile in cowardice, not courage, and if we let it be used that way in the next decade, we will go down in history as a nation of cowards.

There is little on this planet of the living more important, or more human, than the burial and remembrance of the dead.  Even Neanderthals buried their dead, possibly with flowers, and tens of thousands of years ago, the earliest humans, the Cro-Magnon, were already burying their dead elaborately, in one case in clothing onto which more than 3,000 ivory beads had been sewn, perhaps as objects of reverence and even remembrance.  Much of what we know of human prehistory and the earliest eras of our history comes from graves and tombs where the dead were provided for.

And surely it’s our duty in this world of loss to remember the dead, those close to us and those more removed who mattered in our national or even planetary lives.  Many of those who loved and were close to the victims of 9/11 are undoubtedly attached to the yearly ceremonies that surround their deceased wives, husbands, lovers, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.  For the nightmare of 9/11, they deserve a memorial.  But we don’t.

If September 11th was indeed a nightmare, 9/11 as a memorial and Ground Zero as a “consecrated” place have turned out to be a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell.  They have helped lead us into fields of carnage that put the dead of 9/11 to shame.

Every dead person will, of course, be forgotten sooner or later, no matter how tightly we clasp their memories or what memorials we build.  In my mind, I have a private memorial to my own dead parents.  Whenever I leaf through my mother’s childhood photo album and recognize just about no one but her among all the faces, however, I’m also aware that there is no one left on this planet to ask about any of them.  And when I die, my little memorial to them will go with me.

This will be the fate, sooner or later, of everyone who, on September 11, 2001, was murdered in those buildings in New York, in that field in Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon, as well as those who sacrificed their lives in rescue attempts, or may now be dying as a result.  Under such circumstances, who would not want to remember them all in a special way?

It’s a terrible thing to ask those still missing the dead of 9/11 to forgo the public spectacle that accompanies their memory, but worse is what we have: repeated solemn ceremonies to the ongoing health of the American war state and the wildest dreams of Osama bin Laden.

Memory is usually so important, but in this case we would have been better off with oblivion.  It’s time to truly inter not the dead, but the worst urges in American life since 9/11 and the ceremonies which, for a decade, have gone with them.  Better to bury all of that at sea with bin Laden and then mourn the dead, each in our own way, in silence and, above all, in peace.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s 100th Tomcast interview in which I discuss the role that the original 9/11 ceremonies played in the creation of TomDispatch.com click here, or download it to your iPod here.

[Note on further reading: I recommend two recent pieces that, amid the mountain of usual writing about 9/11 ten years later, have something out of the ordinary to say: Ariel Dorfman’s “Epitaph for Another September 11” in the Nation magazine on the two 9/11s and how differently two American nations reacted to their disasters, and Lawrence Weschler’s “Memory” in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the shame of a squandered decade.]

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Making Earth a Global Free-Fire Zone

6:50 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

Obama’s Bush-League World
Is the Obama National Security Team a Pilotless Drone?

By Tom Engelhardt

George W. who?  I mean, the guy is so over.  He turned the big six-five the other day and it was barely a footnote in the news.  And Dick Cheney, tick-tick-tick.  Condoleezza Rice?  She’s already onto her next memoir, and yet it’s as if she’s been wiped from history, too?  As for Donald Rumsfeld, he published his memoir in February and it hit the bestseller lists, but a few months later, where is he?

And can anyone be surprised?  They were wrong about Afghanistan.  They were wrong about Iraq.  They were wrong about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.  They were wrong about what the U.S. military was capable of doing.  The country imploded economically while they were at the helm.  Geopolitically speaking, they headed the car of state for the nearest cliff.  In fact, when it comes to pure wrongness, what weren’t they wrong about? 

Americans do seem to have turned the page on Bush and his cronies.  (President Obama called it looking forward, not backward.)  Still, glance over your shoulder and, if you’re being honest, you’ll have to admit that one thing didn’t happen: they didn’t turn the page on us.

They may have disappeared from our lives, but the post-9/11 world they had such a mad hand in creating hasn’t.  It’s not just the Department of Homeland Security or that un-American word “homeland,” both of which are undoubtedly embedded in our lives forever; or the Patriot Act, now as American as apple pie; or Guantanamo which, despite a presidential promise, may never close; or all the wild, overblown fears of terrorism and the new security world that goes with them, neither of which shows the slightest sign of abating; or the National Security Agency’s surveillance and spying on Americans which, as far as we can tell, is ongoing No, it’s scores of Bush policies and positions that will clearly be with us until hell freezes over.  Among them all, consider the Obama administration’s updated version of that signature Bush invention, the Global War on Terror.

Yes, Obama’s national security officials threw that term to the dogs back in 2009, and now pursue a no-name global strategy that’s meant not to remind you of the Bush era.  Recently, the White House released an unclassified summary of its 2011 “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” a 19-page document in prose only a giant bureaucracy with a desire to be impenetrable could produce.  (Don’t bother to read it.  I read it for you.)  If it makes a feeble attempt to put a little rhetorical space between Obama-style counterterrorism and what the Bush administration was doing, it still manages to send one overwhelming message: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., are still striding amongst us, carrying big sticks and with that same crazed look in their eyes.

The Global War on Terror (or GWOT in acronym-crazed Washington) was the bastard spawn of the disorientation and soaring hubris of the days after the 9/11 attacks, which set afire the delusional geopolitical dreams of Bush, Cheney, their top national security officials, and their neocon supporters.  And here’s the saddest thing: the Bush administration’s most extreme ideas when it comes to GWOT are now the humdrum norm of Obama administration policies — and hardly anyone thinks it’s worth a comment.

A History Lesson from Hell

It’s easy to forget just how quickly GWOT was upon us or how strange it really was.  On the night of September 11, 2001, addressing the nation, President Bush first spoke of winning “the war against terrorism.”  Nine days later, in an address to a joint session of Congress, the phrase “war on terror” was already being expanded.  “Our war on terror,” Bush said, “begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there.  It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” 

In those early days, there were already clues aplenty as to which way the wind was gusting in Washington.  Top administration officials immediately made it plain that a single yardstick was to measure planetary behavior from then on: Were you “with us or against us”?  From the Gulf of Guinea to Central Asia, that question would reveal everything worth knowing, and terror would be its measure.    

As the New York Times reported on September 14th, Bush’s top officials had “cast aside diplomatic niceties” and were giving Arab countries and “the nations of the world a stark choice: stand with us against terrorism or face the certain prospect of death and destruction.”  According to Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage took that message directly to his country’s intelligence director: either ally with Washington in the fight against al-Qaeda, or prepare to be bombed “back to the Stone Age,” as Armitage reportedly put it.

Global War on Terror?  They weren’t exaggerating.  These were people shocked by what had happened to iconic buildings in “the homeland” and overawed by what they imagined to be the all-conquering power of the U.S. military.  In their fever dreams, they thought that this was their moment and the apocalyptic winds of history were at their backs.  And they weren’t hiding where they wanted it to blow them either.  That was why they tried to come up with names to replace GWOT — World War IV (the third was the Cold War) and the Long War being two of them — that would be even blunter about their desire to plunge us into a situation from which none of us would emerge in our lifetimes.  But to the extent anything stuck, GWOT did.

And if everything is in a name, then the significance of that one wasn’t hard to grasp.  Bush’s national security folks focused on an area that they termed “the arc of instability.”  It stretched from North Africa to the Chinese border, conveniently sweeping through the major oil lands of the planet.  They would later dub it “The Greater Middle East.”  In that vast region, they were ready to declare hunting season open and they would be the ones to hand out the hunting licenses.

Within weeks of 9/11, top administration officials like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were speaking of this vast region as a global “swamp,” an earthly miasma that they were going to “drain” of terrorists.  As the U.S. military had declared whole areas of enemy-controled rural Vietnam “free fire zones” in the 1960s, so they were going to turn much of the planet into such a zone, a region where no national boundary, no claim of sovereignty would stop them from taking out whomever (or whatever government) they cared to.

Within days of 9/11, administration officials let it be known that, in their war, they were preparing to target terrorist groups in at least 60 countries.  And if they were that blunt in public, in private they were exuberantly extreme.  Top officials spoke with gusto about “taking off the gloves” or “the shackles” (the ones, as they saw it, that Congress had placed on the executive branch and the intelligence community in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair).

As journalist Ron Suskind reported in his book The One Percent Doctrine, in a “Presidential Finding” on September 17, 2011, only six days after the World Trade Center towers went down, Bush granted the CIA an unprecedented license to wage war globally.  By then, the CIA had presented him with a plan whose name was worthy of a sci-fi film: the “Worldwide Attack Matrix.”  According to Suskind, it already “detailed operations [to come] against terrorists in 80 countries.”

In other words, with less than 200 countries on the planet, the president had declared open season on nearly half of them.  Of course, the Pentagon wasn’t about to be left out while the CIA was given the run of the globe.  Soon enough, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld began building up an enormous CIA-style secret army of elite special operations forces within the military.  By the end of the Bush years, these had reportedly been deployed in — don’t be surprised — 60 countries. In the Obama era, that number expanded to 75 — mighty close to the 80 in the Worldwide Attack Matrix.

And one more thing, there was a new weapon in the world, the perfect weapon to make mincemeat of all boundaries and a mockery of national sovereignty and international law (with little obvious danger to us): the pilotless drone.  Surveillance drones already in existence were quickly armed with missiles and bombs and, in November 2002, one of these was sent out on the first CIA robot assassination mission — to Yemen, where six al-Qaeda suspects in a vehicle were obliterated without a by-your-leave to anyone.

CT to the Horizon

That CIA strike launched the drone wars, which are now a perfectly humdrum part of our American world of war.  Only recently, the Obama administration leaked news that it was intensifying its military-run war against al-Qaeda in Yemen by bringing the CIA into the action.  The Agency is now to build a base for its drone air wing somewhere in the Middle East to hunt Yemeni terrorists (and assumedly those elsewhere in the region as well).  Yemen functionally has no government to cooperate with, but in pure Bushian fashion, who cares?

Similarly, as June ended, unnamed American officials leaked the news that, for the first time, a U.S. military drone had conducted a strike against al-Shabab militants in Somalia, with the implication that this was a “war” that would also be intensifying.  At about the same time, curious reports emerged from Pakistan, where the CIA has been conducting an escalating drone war since 2004 (strikes viewed “negatively” by 97% of Pakistanis, according to a recent Pew poll).  Top Pakistani officials were threatening to shut down the Agency’s drone operations at Shamsi air base in Baluchistan.  Shamsi is the biggest of the three borrowed Pakistani bases from which the CIA secretly launches its drones.  The Obama administration responded bluntly.  White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan insisted that, whatever happened, the U.S. would continue to “deliver precise and overwhelming force against al-Qaida” in the Pakistani tribal areas.

As Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room blog summed things up, “The harsh truth is that the Pakistanis can’t stop the drone war on their soil. But they can shift its launching points over the Afghan border. And the United States is already working on a backup plan for a long-term drone war, all without the Pakistanis’ help.” In other words, permission from a beleaguered local ally might be nice, but it isn’t a conceptual necessity.  (And in any case, CIA flights from Shamsi still evidently continue uninterrupted.)

In other words, if Bush’s crew is long gone, the world they willed us is alive and well.  After all, there are reasonable odds that, on the day you read this piece, somewhere in the free-fire zone of the Greater Middle East, a drone “piloted” from an air base in the western United States or perhaps a secret “suburban facility” near Langley, Virginia, will act as judge, jury, and executioner somewhere in the “arc of instability.”  It will take out a terrorist suspect or suspects, or a set of civilians mistaken for terrorists, or a “target” someone in Washington didn’t like, or that one of our allies-cum-intelligence-assets had it in for, or perhaps a mix of all of the above.  We can’t be sure how many countries American drones, military or CIA, are patrolling, but in at least six of them — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq — they have launched strikes in recent years that have killed more “suspects” than ever died in the 9/11 attacks.

And there is more — possibly much more — to come.  In late June, the Obama administration posted that unclassified summary of its 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism at the White House website.  It’s a document that carefully avoids using the the term “war on terror,” even though counterterrorism advisor Brennan did admit that the document “tracked closely with the goals” of the Bush administration.

The document tries to argue that, when it comes to counterterrorism (or CT), the Obama administration has actually pulled back somewhat from the expansiveness of Bush-era GWOT thinking.  We are now, it insists, only going after “al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents,” not every “terror group” on the planet.   But here’s the curious thing: when you check out its “areas of focus,” other than “the Homeland” (always capitalized as if our country were the United States of Homeland), what you find is an expanded version of the Bush global target zone, including the Maghreb and Sahel (northern Africa), East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, South Asia, Central Asia, and — thrown in for good measure — Southeast Asia.  In most of those areas, Bush-style hunting season is evidently still open.

If you consider deeds, not words, when it comes to drones the arc of instability is expanding; and based on the new counterterrorism document, the next place for our robotic assassins to cross borders in search of targets could be the Maghreb and Sahel.  There, we’re told, al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with roots in Algeria, but operatives in northern Mali, among other places, potentially threatens “U.S. citizens and interests in the region…”

Here’s how the document puts the matter in its classically bureaucratese version of English:

*****

“[W]e must therefore pursue near-term efforts and at times more targeted approaches that directly counter AQIM and its enabling elements.  We must work actively to contain, disrupt, degrade, and dismantle AQIM as logical steps on the path to defeating the group.  As appropriate, the United States will use its CT tools, weighing the costs and benefits of its approach in the context of regional dynamics and perceptions and the actions and capabilities of its partners in the region…&rdq

That may not sound so ominous, but best guess: the Global War on Terror is soon likely to be on the march across North Africa, heading south.  And recent Obama national security appointments only emphasize how much the drone wars are on Washington’s future agenda.  After all, Leon Panetta, the man who, since 2009, ran the CIA’s drone wars, has moved over to the Pentagon as secretary of defense; while Bush’s favorite general, David Petraeus, the war commander who loosed American air power (including drone power) in a massive way in Afghanistan, is moving on to the CIA.

On his first visit to South Asia as secretary of defense, Panetta made the claim that Washington was “within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”  Perhaps it won’t surprise you that such news signals not a winding down, but a ratcheting up, of the Global War on Terror.  Panetta, as Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reported, “hinted of more to come, saying he would redouble efforts by the military and the spy agency to work together on counterterrorism missions outside the traditional war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

More to come, as two men switching their “civilian” and military roles partner up.  Count on drone-factory assembly lines to rev up as well, and the military’s special operations forces to be in expansion mode.  And note that by the penultimate page of that CT strategy summary, the administration has left al-Qaeda behind and is muttering in bureau-speak about Hizballah and Hamas, Iran and Syria (“active sponsors of terrorism”), and even the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

On the Bush administration’s watch, the U.S. blew a gasket, American power went into decline, and the everyday security of everyday Americans took a major hit.  Still, give them credit.  They were successful on at least one count: they made sure that we’d never stop fighting their war on terror.  In this sense, Obama and his top officials are a drone national security team, carrying out the dreams and fantasies of their predecessors, while Bush and his men (and woman) give lucrative speeches and write books, hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: Stephan Salisbury, Plotting Terrorism

9:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Barack Obama may not have come into office pledging to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but he did pledge one thing: to close the Bush-era prison at Guantánamo within a year.  That couldn’t have been clearer.  And as I wrote back then, it was also a reasonable basis on which to judge whether a democratic administration could do anything significant to roll back our Bush-created Homeland Security Nation and alter American policy abroad.

Now, we have our answer — and it couldn’t be clearer either.  No, he can’t.  Or won’t. 

Just last week, under the dreary headline “Closing Guantánamo Fades as a Priority,” Charlie Savage reported in my hometown paper that “the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guantánamo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013.”  Admittedly, it would never have been an easy thing to do, not given domestic politics and the outsized fear of terrorism that goes with it.  It would, however, have been a lot easier than sweeping away much of the rest of the legacy of the Bush administration: the Global War on Terror, the Department of Homeland Security, the Fear Inc. that now rules our lives and somehow managed to convince us, even with unemployment through the roof and the Gulf of Mexico turning into a dead sea, that the main danger to this country is “terrorism.”

As it happens, the only thing the Obama administration seems to have swept away was the name, Global War on Terror.  The war itself, like Guantanamo, has proven as unstaunchable as that gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.  However named, that “war,” the Afghan war, and the CIA’s drone war in the Pakistani borderlands have all expanded, while the war in — or at least occupation of — Iraq has been shrinking ever so slowly on a schedule the Bush administration set up before it left office. 

Perhaps none of this is surprising, not with a holdover Secretary of Defense from the end of the Bush administration, the hawkish Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and a national security advisor who was a friend of John McCain’s, and might as easily have been chosen by him for the same post (had he won in 2008).  Minus a few speeches and a friendlier attitude toward Russia, it’s increasingly hard to tell the difference between Obama’s imperial policy abroad and the Bush version of the same.  

Meanwhile, at home, we remain scared to death by a fear machine that, 24/7, turns every inept doofus into public enemy number one.  The latest news from our $281 billion Afghan war is this: there are, according to CIA director Leon Panetta, 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and, according to Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, “more than 300” al-Qaeda leaders and operatives in the Pakistani tribal areas.  That’s the “other superpower.”  At home, too, as Stephan Salisbury, author of the invaluable Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, makes clear, we are largely fighting ghosts and phantasms, some helpfully conjured up by the government itself.  Too bad we can’t wake up from this nightmare.  (Check out Salisbury in Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview discussing how these cases are created via entrapment and informers by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, here.)  Tom

*****

Stage-Managing the War on Terror
Ensnaring Terrorists Demands Creativity

By Stephan Salisbury

Informers have by now become our first line of defense in our battles with the evildoers, the go-to guys in the never-ending domestic war on terror. They regularly do the dirty work — suggesting and encouraging the plots, laboring as bag men to move the money, fashioning the bombs, and eliciting the flamboyant dialogue, even while following the scripts of their handlers to the letter.  They have attended to all the little details that make for the successful and now familiar arrests, criminal complaints, trials, and (for the most part) convictions in the ever-distracting war against… what? Al-Qaeda? Terror? Muslims? The inept? The poor?

The Liberty City Seven, the Fort Dix Six, the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy, the Newburgh Four — each has had their fear-filled day in the sun.  None of these plots ever came close to happening.  How could they? All were bogus from the get-go: money to buy missiles or cell phones or shoes and fancy duds — provided by the authorities; plans for how to use the missiles and bombs and cell phones — provided by authorities; cars for transport and demolition — issued by the authorities; facilities for carrying out the transactions — leased by those same authorities. Played out on landscapes manufactured by federal imagineers, the climax of each drama was foreordained. The failure of the plots would then be touted as the success of the investigations and prosecutions.

A band of virtually homeless and penniless men in Florida, we were told, were planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.  They just needed the right combat boots to pull it off, and a little free money.

A cell of New Jersey roofers, handymen, and cab drivers was scheming to use a laminated pizza delivery map to guide them through a devastating attack on Fort Dix, the enormous military base in Burlington County, south of Trenton.

Ex-cons in Detroit, mostly known for patronizing a weekly soup kitchen to stave off hunger, were also planning to set up their own country in Michigan under Islamic law.

And a band of Orange County New York parolees and former drug peddlers placed bombs at two Bronx synagogues and was preparing to launch missile attacks on military cargo planes at Stewart National Guard Air Base in Newburgh.

In the Liberty City Seven case, which revolved around two informants paid in excess of $130,000 for their services, the government tried the hapless defendants three times before finally wresting a conviction from a jury. One defendant was acquitted at the first trial, another in the third, and five were eventually convicted of at least some terrorism-related charges. In the Fort Dix case, jurors were shown horrific films said to be on a computer owned by one of the defendants, who claimed an FBI informant demanded more and more videos for viewing.

Another defendant actually called the Philadelphia police, mid-plot, and said he was being pressured to commit radical acts by what turned out to be an FBI informer. Prosecutors dismissed this as an obvious decoy maneuver. The key informer in that case — the FBI eventually paid two people to spy on the group — an Egyptian on probation, received $236,000 for his services.

Most recently, this duplicitous landscape of war-on-terror “success” has been illuminated yet again by the case of four alleged Newburgh, New York, conspirators — the Newburgh Four — and in the botched arrest and fatal shooting (a first for federal authorities) of an African American imam in Detroit, leader of the so-called Ummah Conspiracy.  As the details have slowly emerged, these two cases offer vivid examples of how government-scripted many of the terror plots “uncovered” in the U.S. in recent years have turned out to be.  Each case, in fact, offers a window onto a stark world in which nothing is what it seems to be.

The “Un-Terrorism Case”

In the years following 9/11, when I was reporting my book, Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, many defense and immigration attorneys I interviewed insisted that the mere mention of “terrorism” has often been enough to knock down any and all defenses.  In the Newburgh conspiracy, however, the federal judge, Colleen McMahon, has shown a more questioning attitude toward what, in a May 28, 2010, pre-trial hearing, she took to calling the “un-terrorism case.”

After their May 2009 arrests, the four Newburgh conspirators were portrayed as Jew-hating Muslim converts who intended to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes based at Stewart Airport in Newburgh. “It’s hard to envision a more chilling plot,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder at the time, describing the defendants as “extremely violent.”

The men were indeed arrested only after placing bogus bombs (courtesy of the FBI) near two Bronx synagogues. New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly said the plotters believed “it would be alright” to kill Jews. The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement noting that the uncovered plot cooked up by “the jihadist terrorists” showed “that the dangers from such fanaticism have not passed and that American Jews must maintain their vigilance.” New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated that vigilance remains a necessity for all concerned.

With their anti-Semitic bona fides established and the men caught in the act, all that seemed left was a perfunctory trial, followed by life in prison for James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen. A decade earlier, Cromitie had been arrested for dealing drugs behind a school. Payen, a Haitian immigrant, is a crack addict and certified paranoid schizophrenic, often found living on the street; his earlier deportation had been on hold due to his mental instability. Onta and David Williams, not related, had pasts pocked by drug busts and spotty work at minimum wage jobs scrounged from Newburgh’s depressed economy. All four men were black.

Almost immediately, however, questions about the conspiracy began to arise.  For one thing, the FBI informer who broke the case was a Pakistani named Shaheed Hussain, who arrived in Newburgh in the summer of 2008 driving a flashy Mercedes, showing lots of money, and promising jobs to down-and-out African American hangers-on at Masjid al-Ikhlas, Newburgh’s main mosque.  Convicted in a fraudulent driver’s license scheme in 2002, he agreed to work undercover for the FBI shortly afterward to avoid deportation and turned out to have been an informer in a previous terrorism case in Albany in 2004.

The Albany case, in which an imam and a pizza shop owner were convicted of money laundering as part of a phantasmagorical scheme to kill a Pakistani diplomat with a missile, was bitterly contested by defense attorneys.  They claimed that the elaborate plan had been concocted by Hussain himself. The jury didn’t buy it, convicting both imam and pizza shop owner.

The Newburgh case shares much with the Albany case, especially a fondness for baroque plotting, the flashing of great wads of money in front of needy people, and the aggressive use of an informant by the FBI in a house of worship, in this case Masjid al-Ikhlas. The intricate plotting and the use of an informer made it into the criminal complaint, but all that flashing money didn’t. There was no mention of the enticing job offers made by the seemingly well-to-do informer.  Nothing about his offer of a $250,000 payment for carrying out the plot. Nothing about the BMW he pushed on Cromitie, who didn’t even have a driver’s license. Nothing about the $25,000 he was ready to pay anyone willing to act as a “lookout.”

Maybe Cromitie wasn’t the brightest hustler in town, but he was quite capable of grasping the significance of such sums of money in distressed Newburgh. He assured Hussain that dangling cash would lure participants, no matter what. “They will do it for the money,” he said. “They’re not even thinking about the cause.”

Nor did the complaint mention, as the defense now maintains, that even the anti-Semitic talk was triggered by the informant.  He baited the defendants, telling them that Jews were responsible for the U.S. wars in the Middle East and for other acts of violence against Muslims. Cromitie had an unexpected reaction during one of these conversations, according to government transcripts. “I’m not gonna hurt anybody,” he said, after being badgered about possible attacks. “The plane thing… is out of the question.”

On the streets of Newburgh, relatives and neighbors say that they have never heard the four men even mention Jews or jihad, let alone link the two together in murderous rants. Lord McWilliams, the severely ill brother of David Williams, called such a characterization “crazy.” Hussain, he insisted, had promised his brother so much money that he would have been able to pay for the liver transplant that Lord desperately needed.

In fact, more substantial members of the mosque had pegged Shaheed Hussain as an informer almost the moment he arrived, but had no idea what to do about him. “Maybe the mistake we made was that we didn’t report him,” Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, imam at Masjid al-Ikhlas, told congregants shortly after the May 2009 arrests. “But how are we going to report the government agent to the government?”

The Ummah and the Death of an Imam

Money also played a role in the deadly Detroit case involving 53-year-old Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, born Christopher Thomas, and gunned down during a sting operation run by the FBI in a Dearborn, Michigan, warehouse on October 28th of last year. For at least three years, FBI informants had filed copious reports on the conversations and activities of Abdullah, as he ministered to his largely indigent congregation at Masjid al-Haqq, a mosque so poor it could not even pay property taxes in disintegrating Detroit. Al-Haqq was evicted from its long-time home on Michigan Avenue early in 2009 and moved its operation — a soup kitchen and religious services regularly attended by several dozen largely African American families, ex-convicts, former addicts and alcoholics, and homeless men and women — into a house on Clairmount Street on Detroit’s west side.

It is from this pathetic building, surrounded by an increasingly vacant and collapsing neighborhood, that the FBI contends Abdullah was plotting rebellion, hiding weapons, and planning efforts to move stolen goods. A 43-page criminal complaint describes Abdullah as “a highly placed leader of a nationwide radical fundamentalist Sunni group consisting primarily of African Americans” whose “primary mission is to establish a separate, sovereign Islamic state (‘The Ummah’) within the borders of the United States, governed by Shariah law.”

The complaint opens with page after page of over-the-top political trash talk, provided by three informants listening to (and sometimes recording) Abdullah’s sermons and conversations, tying the imam to H. Rap Brown, a 1960s radical and a former leader in the Black Panther Party now serving life in prison for the shooting deaths of two Georgia state troopers. According to the complaint, Abdullah was rarely without a gun or knife. He daydreamed about cop killing, engaged in elaborate revolutionary plotting, and enthusiastically told anecdotes about past violent encounters, largely with police. In effect, the complaint conjures up an old-time boogeyman: the angry, gun-toting Black Panther given over to “anti-government and anti-law enforcement rhetoric” — now dressed up with sympathy for Osama bin Laden. 

But in its efforts to be all-inclusive, the complaint also features an extraordinary section that describes an FBI informant offering Abdullah $5,000 “to pay to have someone ‘do something’ during the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit.” The imam rejected the offer. “Abdullah said he would not be involved in injuring innocent people for no reason,” the complaint blandly states. So much for entrapment on the political front.

Despite page after page of braggadocio from Abdullah, following the rebuff over Super Bowl violence, no further effort was apparently mounted to entice him into a terrorist “plot.” The complaint outlines no grounds for charges of treason, none for terrorism, and nothing even for a charge of material support for terrorism (that reliable catch-all used to ensnare dozens of American Muslims and institutions and even human-rights groups). Despite the heavy emphasis on descriptions of violent radicalism, the criminal complaint ultimately accuses Abdullah and several congregants of the pettiest of fencing operations — 54 powertools, 46 TVs, and the like — involving small amounts of money ($100, $200, $500).

FBI agents worked out a simple but comprehensive sting. Undercover operatives rented a warehouse and offered the imam and his congregants money for help in moving batches of furs and small electronic items. Money, goods, trucks, warehouse, and plans were all supplied by covert federal agents, and all activities were reported, virtually in real time, by informers close to Abdullah and inside the mosque.

Then, as the sting unfolded on October 28th, Abdullah was gunned down by FBI agents as they sought to round up the purported members of the fencing operation. No one else was harmed. The FBI claimed Abdullah fired first, killing a police dog, which was taken by helicopter to a veterinary hospital. After he was shot, the imam was handcuffed behind the back and dragged from the warehouse into a trailer full of TVs and other “stolen” goods.  Presumably, at this point he was dead, though no information has been released describing his condition or the circumstances of his removal from the warehouse. Abdullah’s body was photographed in the trailer and picked up by the Wayne County medical examiner, who then declined to release autopsy findings. The head of the local FBI office claimed that he was “comfortable with what our agents did” to protect themselves.

This whole murky incident with a still unfolding aftermath has caused deep anxiety and not a little anger in Detroit’s African American and Muslim communities. Why was the imam shot in the back? Why was the dog given emergency medical treatment and the imam handcuffed and dragged around? Was he dead when the shooting ended? Did he even have a gun?

Was Abdullah’s death an instance of score settling for his unrepentant association with Rap Brown, known as Jamil Abdullah al-Amin since the 1970s? In a conversation I had recently with a black leader in Philadelphia, he said that rumors are spreading on the street of nationwide interrogations of African American Muslims who, in the past, associated with al-Amin. (In Philadelphia, a mosque founded by civic-minded entrepreneur Kenny Gamble, well known for his efforts to assist the black community, has been attacked by anti-Islamic groups for its purported association with “The Ummah.”)

Members of Abdullah’s congregation and prominent Muslims in Detroit told me that Abdullah was indeed incensed by the poverty and racism he saw all around him and could indeed deliver harsh attacks on the government — but that hardly distinguished him in a city as ravaged and beaten down as Detroit. Moreover, those who knew Abdullah insist that they never heard him promote any violent separatist effort on behalf of any organization.

National Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance in North America, insist as well that “The Ummah” is nothing more than an association of largely African American mosques. (“Ummah” is an Arabic term that refers to the Muslim community.) The alliance calls the FBI description of the Ummah “an offensive mischaracterization.”  (Abdullah El-Amin, an imam at the largest African American Detroit mosque, told the New York Times that he had heard Abdullah discuss a separatism that would be “sort of like the Pennsylvania Dutch have their own communities and stuff.” There are similar comments from Abdullah in the criminal complaint.)

In any event, the indictment that followed Abdullah’s death, naming 11 of his congregants and associates, makes no mention of radical politics or the shadowy “Ummah” or “offensive jihad” — all highlighted in the earlier criminal complaint. The 11 were indicted as petty criminals, charged with selling and receiving stolen goods, tampering with vehicle identification numbers, and weapons offenses.

Many officials and organizations, including Congressman John Conyers, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, the local chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil-rights and advocacy organization, the ACLU, and the NAACP, have called for an investigation of the killing — calls unanswered so far by the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is reviewing the case. The state attorney general named a prosecutor to look into the matter after the FBI refused to hand over documents to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office because, the bureau said, the documents were “classified.”

In early June, Cyril Wecht, a well-known forensic pathologist asked by CAIR to review the autopsy findings (they were finally released in February), said Abdullah’s face was pierced by wounds and lacerations consistent with a dog attack. His jaw was fractured. Wecht also said there were two gunshot wounds in Abdullah’s back, not one. This prompted Wayne County Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt to defend his findings and accuse Wecht of emotionalism, according to a Detroit Free Press report. “We don’t always say what others would like us to say,” Schmidt commented. “We can only describe what we see.”

As the wait for reviews and investigations and answers drags on, the immediate area served by Abdullah’s mosque –  blighted, black, and destitute — frays further, and is in danger of losing a small but critical social and economic resource. Abdullah ran a well-attended soup kitchen for years, worked to rid the neighborhood of gang violence, and sought to provide support for the poor, the homeless, and ex-convicts. His family and his depleted mosque are now struggling to keep the house of worship and soup kitchen going. Mosque attendance has plummeted and contributions, never robust, have evaporated; law-enforcement investigators continue to fan out through the community.

“People are still scared,” said Omar Regan, one of Abdullah’s 13 children, who makes his living as an actor, comedian, and motivational speaker based in Los Angeles. “They are still interrogating people. The more people push about injustice, the more they harass Muslims in that area [of Detroit]. My father took care of all these people. They leaned on him. He was a reason a lot of them didn’t commit suicide. They came for food. For shelter.”

Regan is incensed that the FBI provided the money to acquire stolen goods, the actual goods as well, and even the warehouses to store them in, while working out plans for moving the goods through informants and undercover employees clustered around Luqman Abdullah and the Masjid al-Haqq mosque. And now Omar Regan’s father is dead.

“It’s the FBI setting the whole thing up,” he lamented. “How can that be legal?”  

It’s a question more and more people are asking as the war on terror grinds on, now directed by the Obama administration. If nothing else, the cases of the Newburgh Four and the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy show that street-smart accused conspirator James Cromitie knew what he was talking about when he said that chronically poor people will “do it for the money” and “don’t care about the cause.”

This simple fact underlies both the Detroit and Newburgh cases. The FBI contends that the Detroit sting was not about terror, but about mundane criminal activity. If that’s the case, why was the criminal complaint larded with characterizations of Luqman Abdullah’s supposed violent political views? What relevance does H. Rap Brown, now in prison, have to moving stolen goods in Dearborn?

Beyond that, what justification do federal authorities have for characterizing “the Ummah” as a threatening separatist movement? Many Muslim leaders argue that such a characterization is a fantasy akin to tales spun by the FBI’s most imaginative informers. Both Newburgh and Detroit are, indeed, instances of “unterrorism,” as the Newburgh judge said of the “plot” before her. Yet both are starkly framed by the on-going war on terror, both involve elaborate set-ups arranged by federal informers and covert agents, and both ensnared inept, virtually destitute black people scrambling to get by in post-racial America.

It remains to be asked: How expansive will the stage become for creative informers and their government directors now working the theater of the Great Recession?

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books).  Catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses how terror cases are created via entrapment and informers by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, click here.  

[Note on sources: The criminal complaint for the Detroit Ummah conspiracy can be found in pdf file format by clicking here.]

Copyright 2010 Stephan Salisbury