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Peter Van Buren: 10 NSA Myths Debunked

9:41 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.

Protest Sign: Thank you Mr. Snowden, you are a fucking HERO

Peter Van Buren busts the government’s NSA propaganda myths.

A new book, as well as the first account written by a participant, remind us that, in the world of the national security state, when it comes to pure and simple illegality in the monitoring of, spying on, and surveillance of American citizens, there really is nothing new under the sun.  In a late-night break-in and theft in March 1971, eight antiwar activists — the Edward Snowdens of their moment — made off with the files of an obscure FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.  These proved to contain documents incriminating the Bureau for operations designed to breed paranoia in the anti-Vietnam War movement and for what turned out to be illegal spying on Americans.

The activists, who remained anonymous and whom the FBI never found, sent relevant documents to journalists.  While some papers returned the documents under FBI pressure, the Washington Post began publishing pieces about them.  In this way, in what was then still an all-paper world, a distinctly non-digital, quite illegal break-in, an act of conscience aimed at pulling back the curtain on government illegality, began the unraveling of a massive, secret counterintelligence, or COINTELPRO, operation against Americans.  It had targeted both the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and involved the use of agents provocateurs and blackmail, among many other illegal acts.  Without that break-in by the Media 8, J. Edgar Hoover’s “shadow FBI,” a criminal conspiracy at the heart of a developing national security state, might never have been revealed.  (The CIA, officially banned from domestic spying on Americans, turned out to be involved in massive surveillance as well.)

As a reporter at the Washington Post, Betty Medsger received some of the stolen documents and helped break the story back in 1971.  Now, in her new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, several of those involved in the Media 8 break-in have finally identified themselves. In her personal account in the Guardian, one of the eight, Bonnie Raines, writes this of her modern counterpart: “Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot.”

In our own time, despite Snowden, count on one thing: we undoubtedly don’t yet know the worst or most illegal aspects of this era of “intelligence.”  After all, while Snowden “liberated” up to 1.7 million National Security Agency documents (many of them not yet looked at, analyzed, or written about), there have been no similar twenty-first-century break-ins at the FBI, the CIA, or other parts of the American intelligence community (or for that matter at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security).  Massive and shocking as the NSA revelations have been, the curtain has only been pulled back on a corner of the new Washington world that we, the people, continue to fund, even if we aren’t considered important enough to know anything about it.

In the meantime, the defenders of that world have been out in their legions reassuring us that we need know no more, that it’s all for our own good, that NSA surveillance stopped untold terror plots, and that it’s — really and truly! — not such a big deal.  Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren begs to differ and so takes us through the labyrinth of NSA defenses, point by point, showing just what our favorite Constitution-shredders have to say and why it doesn’t hold water. Tom

You Can’t Opt Out
10 NSA Myths Debunked
By Peter Van Buren

The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding — quite literally — Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.

It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.

1) NSA surveillance is legal.

True, if perhaps you put “legal” in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.

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A Ripley’s Believe It or Not National Security State

7:17 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.

American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt

White House Tilt Shift

What would aliens think of our national security state?

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.  These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list.  Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries — but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie at its heart.  Perhaps reimagining what has developed in these last decades as a faith-based system — a new national religion — would help.  This, at least, is the way I would explain the new Washington to that wayward Martian.

Holy Warriors

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion.  It has its holy orders.  It has its sacred texts (classified).  It has its dogma and its warrior priests.  It has its sanctified promised land, known as “the homeland.”  It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.  It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.  It is Manichaean in its view of the world.  As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

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Pratap Chatterjee: Big Bro Wants You

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.

Smartphone

NSA: Thanks for building our database.

Sometimes, the world sends you back to school. These last months have offered us a crash course — call it Surveillance 101 — in how Washington, enveloped in a penumbra of extreme secrecy, went to work creating a global surveillance state on a scale almost beyond the imagination. It was certainly beyond the imaginations, not to say the technological capabilities, of the grim totalitarian states of the previous century, whose efforts were overwhelmingly focused on surveiling and locking down their own citizens, not those outside their borders.

In this schooling process, an unknown 29-year-old, hired by a private contractor to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a global figure and most recently a nominee for the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov prize, that continent’s leading human rights award — and a rare European slap in the face to Washington. In the process, a journalist (Glenn Greenwald), a filmmaker (Laura Poitras), and the British Guardian, along with a host of bit players, created a global drama out of the documents Edward Snowden had liberated from the NSA’s secret universe. From Brazil to India, Belgium to China, the man chased implacably across the globe by the Obama administration has opened a genuine debate on the far-reaching nature of surveillance in our world and seems to be changing the mood of the planet.

Every few days now, yet more stories wash out of the crevasses of that secret world. Last week, there was the dramatic tale of Lavabit, a small email encryption site; a court made documents on the case public and so ungagged the owner, who had closed his own business rather than turn over the encryption keys to the kingdom to the government. Then there was Tor, a “tool designed to protect online anonymity” that most people (myself included) will never have heard of, but that the NSA targeted and attacked. And don’t forget that critique by the New York Times public editor: she took out after a front-page story in her own paper that accepted the unverified word of anonymous U.S. government sources on the significance of a piece the McClatchy news service had written about American “communications intercepts” of the online messages of al-Qaeda honchos.

And yet for all that we now know, and all that has been released but we have yet to absorb, it’s clear that we’re nowhere near fathoming the depths of the U.S. surveillance phenomenon. As Corpwatch’s Pratap Chatterjee shows today, for example, we still know remarkably little about the private surveillance outfits that are providing the NSA and other government agencies with the ability to know us far too well. Tom

The Data Hackers
Mining Your Information for Big Brother
By Pratap Chatterjee

Big Bro is watching you. Inside your mobile phone and hidden behind your web browser are little known software products marketed by contractors to the government that can follow you around anywhere. No longer the wide-eyed fantasies of conspiracy theorists, these technologies are routinely installed in all of our data devices by companies that sell them to Washington for a profit.

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How to Build a National Security Blowback Machine

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.

Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower 
How the Security State’s Mania for Secrecy Will Create You 
By Tom Engelhardt

Dear Whistleblower,

Protest against NSA surveillance

Protest against NSA surveillance

I don’t know who you are or what you do or how old you may be. I just know that you exist somewhere in our future as surely as does tomorrow or next year. You may be young and computer-savvy or a career federal employee well along in years. You might be someone who entered government service filled with idealism or who signed on to “the bureaucracy” just to make a living. You may be a libertarian, a closet left-winger, or as mainstream and down-the-center as it’s possible to be.

I don’t know much, but I know one thing that you may not yet know yourself. I know that you’re there. I know that, just as Edward Snowden and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning did, you will, for reasons of your own, feel compelled to take radical action, to put yourself in danger.  When the time comes, you will know that this is what you must do, that this is why you find yourself where you are, and then you’re going to tell us plenty that has been kept from us about how our government really operates. You are going to shock us to the core.

And how exactly do I know this? Because despite our striking inability to predict the future, it’s a no-brainer that the national security state is already building you into its labyrinthine systems.  In the urge of its officials to control all of us and every situation, in their mania for all-encompassing secrecy, in their classification not just of the millions of documents they generate, but essentially all their operations as “secret” or “top secret,” in their all-encompassing urge to shut off the most essential workings of the government from the eyes of its citizenry, in their escalating urge to punish anyone who would bring their secret activities to light, in their urge to see or read or listen in on or peer into the lives of you (every “you” on the planet), in their urge to build a global surveillance state and a military that will dominate everything in or out of its path, in their urge to drop bombs on Pakistan and fire missiles at Syria, in their urge to be able to assassinate just about anyone just about anywhere robotically, they are birthing you.

In every action, a reaction. So they say, no?

Give our national security managers credit, though: they may prove to be the master builders of the early twenty-first century. Their ambitions have been breathtaking and their ability to commandeer staggering amounts of our taxpayer dollars to pay for those projects hardly less so.  Their monuments to themselves, their version of pyramids and ziggurats — like the vast data storage center the National Security Agency is building for almost $2 billion in Bluffdale, Utah, to keep a yottabyte of private information about all of us, or the new post-9/11 headquarters the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency built, again for almost $2 billion, so that its 16,000 employees could monitor our system of satellites monitoring every square inch of the planet — are in their own way unique. In their urge to control everything, to see everything from your Facebook chatter to the emails of the Brazilian president, they are creating a system built to blowback, and not just from the outside or distant lands.

Chalmers Johnson, who took “blowback,” an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, and embedded it in our everyday language, would have instantly recognized what they’re doing: creating a blowback machine whose “unintended consequences” (another term of his) are guaranteed, like the effects of the Snowden revelations, to stun us all in a myriad of ways.

They have built their system so elaborately, so expansively, and their ambitions have been so grandiose that they have had no choice but to embed you in their developing global security state, deep in the entrails of their secret world — tens of thousands of possible you’s, in fact.  You’s galore, all of whom see some part, some corner, of the world that is curtained off from the rest of us.  And because they have built using the power of tomorrow, they have created a situation in which the prospective whistleblower, the leaker of tomorrow, has access not just to a few pieces of paper but to files beyond imagination.  They, not you, have prepared the way for future mass document dumps, for staggering releases, of a sort that once upon time in a far more modest system based largely on paper would have been inconceivable.

They have, that is, paved the way for everything that you are one day guaranteed to do.  They have created the means by which their mania for secrecy will repeatedly come a cropper.  They have created you.

Worse yet (for them), they have created a world populated with tens of thousands of people, often young, often nomadic in job terms, and often with remarkable computer skills who have access to parts of their vast system, to unknown numbers of secret programs and documents, and the many things from phone calls to emails to credit card transactions to social media interactions to biometric data that they so helpfully store away.
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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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Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

NSA HQ

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

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

1. The Urge to be Global

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Van Buren: If the Government Does It, It’s “Legal”

6:33 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.

Portrait of MacLean in uniform

The US government spends countless hours and dollars prosecuting whistleblowers like Robert MacLean.

Indefinite detention of the innocent and guilty alike, without any hope of charges, trial, or release: this is now the American way.  Most Americans, however, may not care to take that in, not even when the indefinitely detained go on a hunger strike.  That act has certainly gotten Washington’s and the media’s collective attention.  After all, could there be anything more extreme than striking against your own body to make a point?  Suicide by strike?  It’s the ultimate statement of protest and despair.  Certainly, the strikers have succeeded in pushing Guantanamo out of the netherworld of non-news and onto front pages, into presidential news conferences, and to the top of the TV newscasts.  That, in a word, is extraordinary.  But what exactly do those prisoners, many now being force-fed, want to highlight?  Here’s one thing: despite the promise he made on entering the Oval office, President Obama has obviously not made much of an effort to close the prison, which, as he said recently, “hurts us, in terms of our international standing… [and] is a recruitment tool for extremists.”

If Congress has been thoroughly recalcitrant when it comes to closing Guantanamo, the president’s idea of what shutting down that prison meant proved curious indeed.  His plan involved transferring many of the prisoners from Cuba, that crown jewel of the offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice that the Bush administration set up in January 2002, to a super-max-style prison in Illinois (“Gitmo North”).  That would mean, of course, transferring indefinite detention from the offshore world of extraordinary rendition, black sites, and torture directly into the heart of the American justice system.  Obama himself has indicated that at least 50 of the prisoners can, in his view, never be released or tried (in part because confessions were tortured out of some of them).  They would be kept in what he, in the past, politely termed “prolonged detention.”

Here’s a second thing the strikers undoubtedly wanted to highlight and it’s even harder to take in: Guantanamo now holds 86 prisoners (out of the 166 caged there) who have been carefully vetted by the U.S. military, the FBI, the CIA, and so on, and found to have done nothing for which they could be charged or should be imprisoned.  All 86 have been cleared for release — years late, often after brutal interrogation experiences sometimes involving torture.  The problem: there is nowhere to release them to, especially since the majority of them are Yemenis and President Obama has imposed a moratorium on transferring any prisoner to Yemen.

Then there are the prisoners who may indeed have done something criminal in regard to the U.S., but had confessions tortured out of them which won’t hold up in court.  They are among the ones who will never be brought to trial, but never cleared for release either.  In other words, indefinite detention, something anathema to the American justice system, will for the conceivable future be us.  The fact that relatively few Americans seem fazed by this should be startling.  No charges, no trials, but never getting out of prison: that would once have been associated with the practices of a totalitarian state.

We know one thing: no one, not George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, or other top officials involved in setting up such a global system of injustice, sweeping up the innocent with the guilty, and subjecting them to horrors without end (including now force-feeding) will ever be brought to justice in an American court, nor will anyone involved in the system of renditiontorture, or abuse.  In the Obama years, while indefinite detention remained a grim American reality, the government, as TomDispatch regular and former State Department officer Peter Van Buren himself experienced, honed other methods for punishing those it was unhappy with, especially whistleblowers of all sorts.

One of those methods might be called “indefinite suspension.”  Instead of not being charged, you are charged repeatedly and dragged endlessly — your life in a state of suspension — through various bureaucratic judicial processes, the actual courts, and endless appeals thereof, so that even if sooner or later you come out the other side exonerated, you will still have been punished for your “crimes.” Let Peter Van Buren explain this mockery of “justice.” Tom

Homeland Insecurity 
Seven Years, Untold Dollars to Silence One Man
By Peter Van Buren

What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing.  He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.

First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.

And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel.  Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.

The Whistle Is Blown

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Peter Van Buren: The Ultimate No-Fly List

7:24 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.

State Department building in Washington, DC

State Department building in Washington, DC (Photo: NCinDC / Flickr)

Last week, touching down in India on his way to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described reality as you seldom hear it in the confines of Washington and, while he was at it, put his stamp of approval on a new global doctrine for the United States.  Panetta is, of course, the man who, as director of the CIA, once called its drone air campaign in the Pakistani borderlands “the only game in town.”  (At the time, as now, it was a classified, “covert” set of air strikes that were a secret to no one in Washington, Islamabad, or anywhere else on Earth.)

In India, expressing his frustration over U.S. relations with Pakistan, he spoke the “W-word” aloud for the first time.  “We are,” he told his Indian hosts, “fighting a war in the FATA [the Pakistani tribal areas].”  How true.  Washington has indeed long been involved in a complex, confusing, escalating, and undoubtedly self-defeating partial war with Pakistan, never until now officially called by that name, even as the intensity of the drone air campaign in that country’s borderlands continues to ratchet up.  So give Panetta credit for rare bluntness.

In India, he said something else previously unspoken, acknowledging a breathtaking new reality: “We have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves. This is about our sovereignty as well.”  In other words, he claimed that, while the sovereignty of other countries might be eternally violable, U.S. sovereignty extends inviolably over Pakistani territory.  This is, in fact, the concept that underpins the use of drones there and elsewhere.  When it comes to its presidential version of war-making, only the U.S. has a claim to global sovereignty, against which the more traditional concept of national sovereignty doesn’t stand a chance.

In Washington, a controversy has now broken out over what are clearly administration leaks about our drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and our new cyberwar against Iran.  It’s clear enough that, in its urge to run a Republican-proof election campaign on the image of a tough-guy president, those in the Oval Office, themselves fierce anti-leakers in other circumstances, didn’t know when to stop leaking information they considered advantageous to the president and so badly overplayed their hand.  Now, as prosecutors from the Justice Department (one with a pedigree that should leave the administration shaking in its combat boots) are being appointed to look into the leaks, all bets should be off in the capital.  Hold onto your hats, tell your journalist friends that, as the investigations begin, they are the ones likely to find themselves in the hottest water, and expect almost anything in the coming months.

One thing won’t happen, though.  You’re not going to get tons more Panetta-style realism.  It’s clear that all of Washington’s players, however intensely they might argue with one another, will be pulling together to shut down those leaks and any others heading our way.  We at TomDispatch are convinced, on the other hand, that its time to open the faucets, turn those drips into a steady stream, and let the American people know just what is being done, what wars (even when not called wars) are being fought in their name, what new weapons are being released into the world with their imprimatur (if not their knowledge).

It’s with some pride, then, that TomDispatch turns to its whistleblower-in-residence, State Department official Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, to offer his take on what this controversy really means for us all and just how it looks to someone who has been on the other end of the Obama administration’s fierce crackdown on governmental truth-tellers, rather than image-padders. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses how Washington has changed when it comes to both leaking and stifling information, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Leaking War
How Obama’s Targeted Killings, Leaks, and the Everything-Is-Classified State Have Fused
By Peter Van Buren

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Peter Van Buren: Joining The Whistleblowers’ Club

6:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

The world can be a luckless place, but every now and then serendipity just knocks you off a cliff. In what passed for my real life before TomDispatch intervened, I was (and remain, on a part-time basis) a book editor in mainstream publishing. The “slush pile” in a publishing house is normally the equivalent of an elephant’s graveyard, the place prospective books go to die. It’s made up of proposals or manuscripts arriving over the transom from potential authors who have no literary agents, no contacts, and normally — whether they know it or not — no hope.

The odds for getting published that way these days must fall into the miracle category (which is why successful books from the slush pile often make the news). Peter Van Buren’s journey to publication — and so to whistleblower status — was among the more improbable slush-pile odysseys of our times.

In 2009-2010, he was a State Department official on a godforsaken forward operating base south of Baghdad, his mind boggled by what he was seeing of the grim farce of American “reconstruction” in Iraq. He was then sending emails home to his wife in the States that would, sooner or later, become part of his Iraq manuscript, and at night wandering the Web trying to learn more about the country and situation he had been plunged into. In that process, he stumbled upon TomDispatch, began following it, and noticed that, from time to time, authors writing for the site produced books that TD then highlighted.

In 2010, back in the States with a rough manuscript in hand, knowing no one in publishing nor anything about it, not even realizing I was a book editor, he sent an improbable email to the TomDispatch mail box that began: “I am a Foreign Service Officer just returned from a year in the field in Iraq (PRT leader) and I have a completed book draft. Would you be willing to read it as a possible title to publish, for a prepublication comment, and/or for a later excerpt on your site?”

As it happens, I do read everything that comes in to the TomDispatch “slush pile” (though sometimes, sadly, I’m too busy to answer), because I consider it the university of my later life. Along with much appreciated encouragement, and reasonable dollops of criticism and complaint, people from around the world write me about what matters to them or tell me about lives I might otherwise never have imagined. Who could resist?

Because of my busy life, I’ve nonetheless made TomDispatch a no-submissions site and normally I would simply have nixed Van Buren’s requests, but something stopped me, maybe only the fact that he had only recently returned from service in Iraq. I wouldn’t say I replied positively — “chances are always slim” was my discouraging phrase — but I did ask him to write me a description of his book and himself, and because I had no time just then, passed it on to Steve Fraser, my partner at our co-publishing venture at Metropolitan Books, the American Empire Project. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Steve, telling me that I really did need to read Van Buren’s manuscript, that he was a natural, and it was the real McCoy.

In other words, the wildest sort of online slush-pile luck turned Steve into his editor and Van Buren into a published author and so dispatched him willy-nilly into the strange, embattled world of Obama-era governmental whistleblowers. As a group, they are, after all, just about the only people inside the National Security Complex who ever get in trouble for their acts. In our era, the illegal surveillers, the torturers, the kidnappers, those who launch and pursue undeclared and aggressive wars, and those who squander taxpayer dollars all run free. Later, if they were important enough, they write their memoirs for millions of dollars, peddle their speeches for hundreds of thousands more, and live the good life. Read the rest of this entry →