Will We Ever Close Guantánamo Bay Detention Center?

I’ve drifted away from blogging the last few months, but hoping to put up some original pieces soon. In the meantime, here’s a piece that I published over at Salon last month. Guantanamo has been on my mind ceaselessly, especially as I teach my Global War on Terror course this term.

I’ve been writing away, and so more pieces on other topics to be post over the next few weeks…

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January 11th marked the 12th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, which, according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is the “least worst place to house” men suspected by the U.S. government links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

But Rumsfeld’s statement reeks of incredulity. Beginning with the Bush administration, the U.S. has done more than merely house them. Through its military and medical personnel, it has inflicted physical brutality, extended torture, solitary confinement, force-feeding upon these men, all the while remaining publicly indifferent, even righteous, about the absence of charges, due process and legitimacy of the imprisonment.

Of the nearly 800 prisoners who have been confined there, 115 remain. Eleven were released in the last five months, twice as many as were released the previous three years.

Yet, as artist and writer Molly Crabapple pointed out in her recent Guardian column noting the prison’s anniversary, we also know — we have for some time — that over half of all the detainees who have been imprisoned there were handed over for U.S.-paid bounties, rather than because they were hostile or dangerous enemies of the U.S.

Crabapple is not asserting this as a fantasy of her own making. She cites an important but not widely known report written by Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, lawyer Joshua Denbeaux, and several Seton Hall law students. The Denbeaux are legal counsel to several of the detainees. In their report, the authors show extensive evidence that over half (55 percent) of the 517 prisoners that they profiled committed no hostile acts against the U.S. or its allies. Of those 517, only 41 (8 percent) are “characterized” as al-Qaida fighters. One hundred ninety prisoners had no connection to al-Qaida, and 86 had no links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. And of those 517, 445 were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.

Offering a large bounty doesn’t disprove the assertion that these men were a serious threat. But when a government creates these classifications without external accountability, and it is supported in this by a supine judiciary, the circumstances do present a serious — overwhelming, unmitigated — doubt about whether these prisoners are a danger to Americans. The Denbeaux have made evidence of this doubt available since 2006.

What should have amplified this doubt even further for all of the serious, fact-finding, mainstream media is that the Combatant Status Review Board – enacted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, and which has no incentive to be critical of the U.S. government — also made the same evidence of this doubt available as early as 2005.

As striking was a second report published by the Denbeaux group. This report pointed out that of the 72 groups recognized as terrorist organizations by the Department of Defense, 52 of them (72 percent) are not on any of the terrorist-watch lists maintained by the State Department. By this measure, the DoD keeps its own list of terrorist groups that are neither reviewed, confirmed nor double-checked by any other government office. As the Denbeaux report concludes,

This inconsistency leads to one of two equally alarming conclusions: either the State Department is allowing persons who are members of terrorist groups into the country or the Defense Department bases the continuing detention of the alleged enemy combatants on a false premise. (my emphasis)

Given that we have had few further terrorist acts committed within the confines of the United States by foreign nationals in the last decade, the second conclusion is more likely.

What is striking about this truth today is that it is possible to state it in print in established media such as the Guardian. Even as several more prisoners were released this past month, there appears to be a slight opening in the conversation, one enabling human rights advocates’ criticisms to echo for more than a few seconds.

This was not the case a decade ago, when early critics of the Bush administration’s policies tried to suggest that there was little proof that captives brought to Guantánamo were a danger to the U.S., and that the prison should not be treated as a “legal black hole.” Those critics’ voices included several U.N. high commissioners for human rights as well as Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, and American lawyers such as Michael Ratner, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Posner, the head of the Lawyers’ Committee. But their criticisms were drowned out by officials and polls indicating that Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of the prison and the inhumane treatment meted out to Afghan men.

Indeed, the original head of Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Mark Lehnert, recently confirmed his own early doubts. Writing forcefully, Lehnert insists that Guantánamo never should have been opened, and many of the detainees should have never been sent there.

As cynics will suggest, that is how politics works, as even a casual perusal of American history reveals to us.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were incarcerated across 10 prisons for little reason other than the fear shared by the U.S. government and non-Japanese populace alike. The fear, suspicion and contempt acted on by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was that these civilians, if allowed to live in the populace freely, might turn their freedom toward aiding the “enemy,” the Japanese government.  This fear was pursued, despite the Roosevelt administration’s knowledge that these civilians, many with American citizenship, had few ties to the country of their parents’ origin.

These same residents had been scapegoated by the U.S. for decades. In 1913, in California, a law stripping Asian non-citizens of their businesses had been passed. That law was a mere continuation of decades of policies designed to manage the “Japanese problem,” as historian Greg Robinson’s book, “By Order of the President,” informs us. By May 1942, many Asians, residents and citizens alike, were being ordered to board trains and buses to whichever “internment camp” they had been assigned, with only what they could carry with their own two hands. At that point, nearly any Japanese American families who still owned businesses had to forfeit them as they were dispatched to stark campsites, thousands of miles away from their towns, any towns where they might be in danger of talking to other non-Asians. (See here for a remarkable pictorial spread published by the Atlantic several years ago that show some moments from that period.)  The internment had the extended benefit of politically and socially ostracizing the internees. Friends, if any remained or wished to claim that mantle, would have found it prohibitive to visit them.

I visited one of those former camps about six years ago—Manzanar Camp, which sits at the foot of the Sierras, just outside of Death Valley. A U.S. park ranger, with a degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine, had painstakingly curated the camp, whose vast desolate grounds had been denuded of most traces of that shameful period (scroll down for photos of what Manzanar looked like in 1943). In the main auditorium — the only structure that was left standing — the ranger had retrieved or reconstructed several barracks in which these families lived. Each housed several families of four, five, seven, eight or more: grandparents, babies, young children, teenagers, newlyweds and others. According to accounts made by former inhabitants of other camps, such as Tule Lake in Northern California, the sheds would be marked by makeshift curtains to divide the rooms into smaller, closet-like sleeping areas, for some semblance of privacy in which occupants could retreat for a while. Other inhabitants remarked on the unceasing wind that threatened to drive them mad, along with the fine layer of sand that covered every possession, including tablecloths, beds, makeshift dressers or dry goods.

Outside the auditorium, the vast grounds were marked by signs indicating where the canteen had been erected, and the school for the children had been built. There were maps that indicated the order of other structures, including watchtowers to ensure that none of the civilian internees escaped. Also remaining were traces of some old Buddhist gardens, created by some of the internees in an effort to bring beauty and life in that desolate, dry place.

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Buddhist gardens in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

As well, there were several burial places, marked by stones. One was as small as 2 feet, marked by the usual ring of stones, and several toys, indicating that an infant was buried there.

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An infant’s grave in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

I remember that the map indicated a building marked as a fire station, which presumably held water to be deployed in the likely event that a blaze might decimate the brittle wood buildings that sat on the desiccated land.

Manzanar was one of 10 camps to which American citizens and residents of Japanese descent were incarcerated during the remainder of the war. There, as with the prisoners in Guantánamo, the internees attempted to challenge their resistance in a myriad of ways, procedurally and physically.

As well, there was another group, nearly forgotten, who were also victimized by the U.S. Several thousand Japanese Latin Americans were arrested by their own governments (mostly Peru) and shipped to U.S. camps, including one in Panama.  The U.S. had hoped to trade them to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war (it was unsuccessful). Many of these men and women, like their U.S. counterparts, had little actual connection to Japan. They had their passports confiscated. They remained in these camps for the duration of the war. After the war, betrayed by their home countries, both groups were essentially homeless, due to no fault of their own. They had no desire to return to Japan or the countries that had betrayed them, and the U.S. had revealed itself to be a hostile land.

Even though I had previously studied the historical and political aspects of the internment of Japanese Americans, thanks to the effort of this ranger, that trip to Manzanar foregrounded for me the extreme consequences of the unthinking panic legislated at the executive and congressional level little over 60 years ago.

It reminded me of the collective panic that recurred just over 12 years ago, a panic cynically exploited by U.S. leaders and representatives. Though these functionaries might have been zealous to protect their country, they could not see past their immediate interests to the moral stanchions of judicial procedures and habeas corpus, or to the effects of their short-sightedness: the ubiquitous ether of injustice that still mars this country’s reputation.

It appears that this is how politics has worked again and again. But such politics can only work when leaders and functionaries can savor the successes of their deal-making with immunity; when their decisions are not expected to be compelled by moral dictates, when they are affirmed and rewarded for their egregious human rights violations by being reelected; when military commanders and politicians prioritize “the masculine logic of the security state,” as the late philosopher Iris Marion Young called it.

This country and its leaders have never figured out how to redress wrongdoing. The U.S., beginning with President Ronald Reagan, paid out $1.6 billion to the 82,000 descendants of the Japanese internees, along with an apology. But these “reparations” can not make up for the damage done to an entire people; and it has little effect if no lessons are learned from such recent mistakes.

As Carol Rosenberg points out, in the intervening decade, the suspicions against these prisoners have diminished, perhaps because the panic has abated and many more have had time to reflect on the hasty actions that have led to Guantánamo. Many prisoners have been released, finally. The next remedy is obvious, but it will take a moment of courage by the current administration to enact it.

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A version of this article was published on Salon.com on Jan. 16, 2014

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Down the Rabbit Hole: The Obama Administration’s Version of Transparency

As soon as Judge Denise Lind’s ruling in the pre-trial punishment motion for Bradley Manning came out, the ironies began to pile up: It took nearly 2 hours to read her decision. She ruled that although Manning was mistreated at Quantico, she rejected the idea of “any unlawful command influence from superior officers that led the commanding officer of Quantico to keep Manning in restrictive conditions for no justifiable reason.”  For those reasons she refused to dismiss the charges against Manning, although she did give him 112 days’ credit for time already served. And even though it was apparently a long, detailed, decision, the ruling itself could not be released to the public. As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Nathan Fuller pointed out: this lack of transparency is in a case about a whistleblower making information available to the public.

This absence of transparency comes on the heels of a ruling by Judge Colleen McMahon denying FOIA requests for the reasoning behind Obama Administration’s targeted killings. In her ruling, she refers to the fact that relevant information on which she bases her ruling is classified.

And on the heels of the plea taken by ex-CIA official John Kiriakou, whose crime was—not to name—but merely to confirm a suspicion that a journalist already had about a CIA interrogator in the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Compare Kiriakou’s crime with that of Obama nominee John Brennan who (beyond his endorsement of torture and remarkable statement about there never having been any civilian casualties in drone attacks) is accused of being responsible for multiple high-security leaks. For Kiriakou, 3 years in jail. For Brennan—neither arrest, detention, or solitary confinement, but rather Deputy Chief of NSA, which moved him closer to POTUS’ long-held wish for him to become head of CIA.

The most remarkable irony (if that is the right word. Where is Alanis Morissette when I need to consult?) lies in a comparison of the above events to the 2 Presidential Memos that President Obama issued in the first 4 months of his Administration.

On the first day he took office, Jan. 21, 2009, POTUS bragged about the intention of his administrations to create transparency. The first “Transparency” memo (.pdf) was hailed by ProPublica as well as Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

To that end, Obama asserted that

government offices should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.

In his FOIA Memo, also issued the same day, the President loftily refers to Judge Louis Brandeis’ quote about sunlight and disinfectant. It continues on the same righteously lofty vein that was supposed to distinguish his Administration’s policies from the elusive, highfalutin, “we know better than you” tone of the previous Bush Administration:

Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

Mr. “Hope & Change” continues on in the same vein, urging offices not to wait for requests in order to disclose information, but to be proactive in disseminating information.

The last time I checked, the Department of Justice was a government office. So were the CIA, NSA, and DoD. Yet, the trend over the last four years is the continual expansion of secrecy, an ever-increasing breadth of classified information—so much so that as the Senate debated Sen Wyden’s oversight amendments to FISA on New Year’s Day, Senator Feinstein boasted about how she knew that there was important information that couldn’t be shared—because it was classified, but she promised to retrieve it from the room it was in, and to “wave it around” so that everyone would know that it existed and said…something that she knew was important but classified. What we also know, as a leaked memo shows, is that she was doing exactly the White House’s bidding.  See how cool the whole accountability thing works?  Leaking classified information allows us to know what our pols’ intentions really are.

This is part of the series of hypocrisies ironies piling up: as the US government insists on making more and more information confidential, private, and unavailable for oversight, it insists that its own citizens have no right to privacy—none—in their cyber or phone communications, cars, among other activities.  Moreover, by breaching or challenging the punitive rules coming out of the White House and Congress, the only outcome that citizens or non-citizens face is severe punishment ranging from arrest to indefinite detention to solitary confinement. The latter, regardless of Judge Lind’s ruling in Manning’s case yesterday, can only be defined as torture.  The rules are arbitrary—what else can we call them when we have no ability to call our representatives, DoJ lawyers, CIA officials, or President and his staff to account for their actions?

Former Guantanamo Chief Prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis suggested in his interview on Russian TV yesterday that the most severe crime that Bradley Manning committed was to embarrass the Administration and the Department of Justice (see at 1:55), rather than aiding the enemy or harming anyone.

At one point, Obama was thought to have the integrity that the Bush Administration did not, when his FOIA memo clarified that

In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.

The seeming transparency of that memo is augmented by this one on “Classified Information and Controlled Unclassified Information,” issued just four months later in May 2009.  It insists on the centralization of procedures for the public dissemination of information, also stating that

Effective measures to address the problem of over classification, including the possible restoration of the presumption against classification, which would preclude classification of information where there is significant doubt about the need for such classification, and the implementation of increased accountability for classification decisions;

Such a directive should have the beneficial effect of pushing previously presumptively classified information into the “disinfecting” sunlight.  Instead, the defining trend during the first Obama term was the very opposite.

That May 27 memo seems to be directly abnegated by the quiet passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enforcement Act. In effect, the WPEA explicitly re-envisions John Kiriakou’s actions as criminal even as it purports to reinforce protections for whistleblowers. As I wrote when it was quietly signed on the day after Thanksgiving last year, WPEA will criminalizes attempts to speak to agencies or journalists without permission from one’s supervisors.  This provision cuts off the ability to disseminate information informally and casually, and implicitly threatens severe punishments for those who have any sort of relationship with journalists.

Contrary to Samuel Rubenfeld’s bizarre article in the Wall Street Journal, the WPEA insists that email communications will not be protected under this act. Rubenfeld offers as proof of Obama’s whistleblower courage adoring quotations from Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, who claims that

He’s done more to affirmatively protect whistleblowers than any other president

and

Obama wants to encourage internal reporting of wrongdoing.”

“Obama believes that “if there are more protections for internal whistleblowers, there will be fewer leaks of national security information,” Canterbury said. “We share that belief, but that does not de-legitimize the need for external whistleblowers.”

“Sometimes information needs to be disclosed outside the government for there to be accountability,

It’s hard to know whether these are prevarications or the trite misty-eyed aspirations of liberal Obama voters. But whatever they are, the statements are blatantly inaccurate. Notwithstanding Canterbury’s official title, which apparently negates the need to crosscheck her claims with actual content, the bills and memos that purport to protect whistleblowers have increasingly done the opposite.

The “Alice in Wonderland” reference that Judge Colleen McMahon made in her ruling on drone strikes last week is an apt literary allusion to the craziness, the upside-downness, the inversion of meaning of all statements emerging from the White House and…its fore(wo)men?

Today, when a memo is prefaced with a statement about the need for transparency, one can be fairly certain that the purpose of the memo will be the opposite. When the POTUS’ allies insist that they are pushing for the renewal of FISA for the “safety” of the American people, what comes to mind are the Muslim men (who are known to be) in detention in the U.S. and the fear that non-whites have of being arrested, detained, or deported. It is clear that FISA is being used against the “safety” of Americans, and its absence of oversight is used to guard against detecting the misuse and abuse of secret surveillance privileges by government offices.

When Obama insists on nominating Brennan—a man who endorsed torture, denied civilian casualties, and was himself responsible for leaks—to be the next director of the CIA—literally biding his time for 4 years until the furor of Brennan’s notoriously unethical credentials inevitably died down (Feet! To the Fire!), I can only believe that Obama and his Administration are only interested in continuing—as Glenn Greenwald calls it—the never-ending War on Terror.

Perhaps it is hardly shocking that the POTUS–and our Senators and Congresspersons—continually refer to that ubiquitous, irrefutable, state of national security in order to invoke a continual state of emergency. But the unflinching, chest-strutting, arrogance with which they do so—while creating ever-growing secret kill lists and disposition matrixes, is in large part engendered by the voters who continue to rehire them on the grounds that torture, drones, renditions—are tastier, more flavorful, and absolutely more palatable when done by a liberal.

After all, would you rather have Romney?

The Whistleblower Protection Act: Which ‘Disinterested Observer’ Gets to Decide?*

Update (below).

Yesterday, POTUS signed a touted “Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act” which was passed unanimously by the Senate. Relatively short, it appears to strengthen protections against government-led retaliatory acts against government employees who report some evidence of wrongdoing.  On the face of it, it looks as if it leans in a positive direction towards creating space for raising complaints of ethical violations.

And indeed most media stories, from the New York Times to the WSJ blog reported it the same way. As the NYT described:

Capping a 13-year effort by supporters of whistle-blower rights, the new law closes loopholes created by court rulings, which removed protections for federal whistle-blowers. One loophole specified that whistle-blowers were only protected when they were the first to report misconduct.

Truthdig had a slightly more critical take, wondering how this would help Bradley Manning.

Really. A new bill to protect whistleblowers. Let’s take a look (pdf of bill here).

There is a curiously worded section that seems to speak to the same ambiguities that are under dispute in the situations of multiple whistleblowers—most notably Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou, among others.  In Section 102, after a series of clarifications about the range of evidence that an employee “disclosure” can include, there is a description what a disclosure “does not include.”

On the face of it, this exemption to protected disclosures sounds right. Administrators at any organization make discretionary judgments, and it is an obstacle to question discretionary policy decisions unless there is a compelling reason—like a violation of a rule or law or regulation—to object.  But the wording is interesting: it exempts communications of those disclosures. It exempts leaks unless there is a reason to believe that it evidences a violation of law.

So how are we supposed to know whether it does or doesn’t show a violation of law?

Section 103 tells us that the determination will be made by someone (a Senate Committee?) determining whether a disinterested observer who has access to all the facts would “reasonably conclude” that the disclosure evidenced a violation of a rule or law.

Again, in light of most urgent whistleblower prosecution underway, namely the military trial of Bradley Manning, it’s hard to know whether this bill creates new protective measures or assumes the very question that’s at stake:

Communications that show immoral conduct or unethical policies will be determined to be unlawful leaks—precisely because the gap between immorality and illegality is miles and miles long.

Judging from the last 11 years of US prosecutions of whistleblowers, communications regarding the torture of countless human beings who are assumed to be terrorists, or footage of dropping bombs on civilians who are trying to rescue their families from US attacks—will not show evidence of illegality—even when they show heinous, horrific, evidence of immorality.

The “ideal” disinterested observer, judging from the last 11 years of U.S policies, appears to be similar to the  Neoclassicals’ Homo Economicus: a rational agent who acts purely out of self-interest (which counts as objective action), doesn’t bring “ideology” into his calculations, and somehow often has near complete knowledge.

In other words, the ideal disinterested observer is close to impossible—unless it is someone who sides utterly with the official objectives of US national intelligence and foreign policy.

And sure enough, for the current Administration (and tragically, for any future “electable” Administration), only unmitigated hawks who have complete and uncritical faith in the way the lines of “national security” have been drawn—will count as disinterested observers. Seriously, does Congress want to tell us that it is likely that the US will view these communications through the lens of Medea Benjamin or Jameel Jaffer or Jeremy Scahill? Please. Much more likely, that it will be through the “disinterested” lens of Joshua Foust, Glen Beck, or Ann Coulter.

A disinterested observer who reasonably concludes, i.e. who would interpret that a communication evidences a violation of law qua the US Constitution, will NEVER–under this Administration–be the model for deciding that a classified email or memo or US national intelligence footage of bombs dropping on civilians—is immoral, and therefore constitutes a violation of (human rights) law.

The immediate objection that a Rightwinger or Obamabot will give (as disinterested observers) is that the Constitution can’t be the basis by which to determine that an email or memo or video footage violated a law or a rule—because the Constitution contains principles and not “rules” or “laws.” And therein lies the rub. The gap between immorality and illegality will be closed through the emphasis on rules. Rules. Convenient when persecuting whistleblowers. Not so much when organizing procedural trials, as Kevin Gosztola or Nathan Fuller will tell you.

So Congress and POTUS are probably feeling incredible jubilant and gratified.  Why not? They have managed to re-invent the same dreadful immoral wheel of persecuting whistleblowers while pretending that they’ve made advances in protecting them.

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Update: Also, here is Jesselyn Radack’s analysis of the WPEA. She is also quite critical of it, but on different grounds.

*Revised Title

Post-Election Day 2012: The Good Guys Won, but Did Progressives?

Update I & II & III: Below

Well, here we are. On the other side of that Great American (non)Test. The Democrats won that test: The first Black President was re-elected for a second term. The Democrats retained control of the Senate. The GOP retained control of the House.

The POTUS, re-elected, said in his acceptance speech last night:

Tonight you voted for action. Not politics as usual.

If that is the message, then Democrats have been validated by their victory last night. Unfortunately, many Americans are fine with a murderous foreign policy and heinous domestic policies that violate the US Constitution on multiple levels. Sadly, Democrats have received confirmation that it is a winning strategy to target vulnerable poor white, and black and brown men and women across the United States.  Blindly, Democratic voters have indicated that they believe Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe and David Axelrod were fine choices for Cabinet and advisory positions.

Unfortunately, that message is accurate.  But if it is the only message received by the Democrats, then we as a society have lost. The Democrats have not heard the message that some segment of the US voting population wants them to be accountable to their progressive voters.  Just because violations of the US Constitution and arbitrary assassination polices and secret kill lists play well to mob approval, that doesn’t mean that the Democrats should engage in it.

My fear in the aftermath of Election 2012: We will return to being as silent, complacent and passive in the face of unconstitutional practices and destructive policies over the next four years as we have been over the last four. This is because at some level, most Democrats believe that “the good guys” are in office.

It is much harder to challenge one’s “own” people. It is more difficult to voice dissent, to express protest, to resist evil when “ours” are in office. Some evidence is here and here and here and here and here and here. The list goes on, and has been repeatedly discussed by a number of us on the left who found these practices to be “dealbreakers” in the words of Conor Friedersdorf.

The POTUS and the Democratic Party have put in place the laws and policies that allow the current and future president the legalized power, immunity, and political repression of American voters—in order to continue the above, and to enact similar policies.  The passage of NDAA and H.R. 347, among a myriad of other policies, are guarantees of that. The Supreme Court and Appeals Court verdicts that enable many repressive policies to remain in place will also promise the immunity to POTUS and others to expand the war on terrorizing US men and women and foreign nationals—here and internationally.

Yes. A Romney Administration would have been “worse,” in that Romney and his GOP could have easily gotten down to the business of political, social, and economic repression. But it would have been able do so with the help of policies put in place by the Obama Administration as well as the Bush and Clinton Administrations. So will every future Administration, Democrat or Republican, if we don’t challenge the expansion of federal and executive authority to police, surveil, arrest, detain and incarcerate us without cause.

The goal of slashing Social Security and Medicare (now uncritically and ubiquitously referred to as “entitlements” rather than a forced savings program) will be, according to Robert Kuttner, Matt Stoller, Robert Prasch, and others, taken up immediately after this election—regardless of which party had won. Had the Republicans won, this agenda could—and would– have been vociferously challenged by a united Liberal/Democratic/Progressive coalition.

The same turn to the right, the same prevarications, the same murderous foreign policy, the same harassment of US and foreign nationals in the United States–under a Republican Presidency– did not go unchallenged under the last Republican Presidency, although they were facilitated by numerous obsequious Democrats in the House and Senate. But the POTUS has been excused from those challenges by those very same critics, who were—are–his supporters.

The President also said optimistically in his speech last night:

We are an American family that rises or falls together, as one nation and one people…We know that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.

Perhaps this is the most insidious and the most untrue logics of the Democratic Administration. In reality, we know that the success of both political parties—Democrat or Republican—has depended upon the strategy to divide and conquer.

That is to say, the Democratic Party has had a standard agenda of eviscerating a social safety net for all but the wealthiest—bankers, corporations, and millionaires. They have done so all the while boasting of and highlighting the scraps that poor whites and middle-class populations will receive from the state: The Democrats have distracted white and middle-class voters from the pernicious effects of mortgage foreclosures & crappy settlements, the financial crisis, and unemployment by showcasing the aggressive and punitive treatment of US minorities and foreign nationals through (to name only a few). As Matt Stoller has convincingly argued, the majority of the US population—including many whites as well as black and brown populations—is worse off today than the day that Obama came into office in 2009. Than the day the recession ended. The recovery has been bad for most Americans.

This brings me to the final and perhaps most difficult fear: American liberals and progressives have a fundamental difficulty in coming to terms with a problematic racial and gender politics that are waged by a Liberal Black President and his Liberal Multiracial Democratic Party.  It is much easier to attack and challenge a GOP full of Old White Guys. Such challenges confirm our pre-existing worldviews because they lead from a(n accurate) narrative that the gains of whites/Europeans were built on the genocide of indigenous populations, the enslavement and persecution of West Africans, the persecution of Latinos, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and other minorities throughout the history of the Newer World.

But we must confront a more difficult racial politics, and challenge this Administration to stop pitting the fates of vulnerable and poor minority populations against those of wealthier whites and more privileged minorities. We need to resist the mistaken view that the safety of Americans depends on droning, bombing, and murdering brown U.S. citizens or incarcerating Black Americans. We need to insist that the reproductive systems of wealthier women must not be posed against the evisceration of the reproductive systems and health of Muslim women, or decimating Muslim communities around the world.

My fear is that because the “nicer, kinder, wiser, more likeable guys” have won, we will glow in the supposed victory until the next time comes to vote for the” lesser of two evils.” Except that next time, we won’t be able to tell even the slightest difference.  But maybe my fears will be proven wrong over the next four years.

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Update I. Glenn Greenwald has an excellent column that also considers the impact of a second-term win for the Democrats.

Update II. An old column by Randy Fried, “Your Brain on Obama: Waiting for the Man,” previously published at Counterpunch, is up at Black Agenda Report. Long, important and relevant.

Update III. As we know, Obama was declared the victor by 11:15 last night. This morning, less than 12 hours later, reports of deaths by drones of several individuals in Yemen were reported. Strikes could only have been approved by the POTUS, as Joshua Hersh reports. No negotiations with Republicans are necessary to approve them. The second Democratic term has begun.

The Progressive Retreat from Obama: Who is to Blame?

As you may be aware, Matt Stoller’s most recent Salon column and other progressive critical perspectives, including my own, have met with some heavy outrage when they suggested the possibiity that the Democrats and POTUS weren’t exactly interested in addressing the demands or needs of those liberals and progressives who voted them in. TransEx blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the controversy.

By Robert E. Prasch

Those following the political blogosphere are, no doubt, aware of vitriol being directed at some long-respected progressive voices who have concluded that it is time to vote third party.  Fatigued by being again, as they were in 1996, 2000, and 2004, asked to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” they are tired of the “same old song and dance.”  And it is old.  Some readers may remember the bumper stickers beseeching us to vote for the Neo-liberal pro-Iraq War Senator John Kerry over the Neo-liberal pro-Iraq War George W. Bush: “Kerry Sucks Less.”

But I want to raise a related issue.  What, exactly, were these now-vociferous supporters of the President doing and saying in late 2008 and early 2009 when the administration was setting in place the personnel, policies, and decisions that laid the groundwork for today’s dispute?  Is it unreasonable to ask how it is even possible that a president, who garnered such fierce and passionate enthusiasm a few short years ago, could even be in such a close election?  After all, he is running against an individual who has spent almost the entirety of his adult life acting as the quintessential predatory capitalist.  Let’s remember that this is occurring even as most Americans outside of the top 10 to 20% tax bracket are continuing to suffer through the worse economic times in anyone’s living memory.  Can we at least agree, Richard Nixon excepted, that this precipitous drop in popularity, despite the “hot hand” he was dealt, represents one of the greatest failures in the history of postwar political leadership?

The reason underlying this monumental failure is not hard to find.  President-Elect Obama and his inner circle fundamentally misjudged the political moment.  The nation was clearly demanding significant change – so much so that they were willing to elect an unseasoned—Black—politician (remarkable given the U.S.’s unflinching history of racism).  Yet Obama and his inner circle somehow convinced themselves that recycling the tired old idea of “triangulation” from the Clinton first term would be their best play.  To that end, Barack Obama and his senior advisors immediately set about alienating their core supporters.  Within two weeks of election day, the Administration announced that Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner–the individuals whose previous records individually and collectively defined what it meant to be monumental failures as public servants–would be placed in charge of the economic recovery.  Their appointments indicated, and their performances amply confirmed, that whatever “hope and change” meant as a slogan, it would in no way apply to the president’s economic policies.  They have, without a doubt, restored Wall Street’s fortunes – what they have not done is restore the fortunes of anyone else.

On December 1st, 2008 the Obama Administration announced that Robert Gates would be retained as the Secretary of Defense.  Gates, let us recall, was more than simply the man George W. Bush appointed to direct his pointless, endless, and immoral wars along with extending them to the rest of the globe via the nascent drone program.  No, as the former Deputy Director of the CIA, Gates narrowly escaped prosecution over his role in the Iran-Contra Scandal.  Even if we allow that the 1991 investigations into his actions were above-board (a stretch), he was far too closely associated with the rampant criminality of the Reagan regime to warrant appointment to dogcatcher, much less to Secretary of Defense.  That he did not belong in a Democratic Administration goes without saying.

What about financial reform?  Did the appointment of Goldman Sachs and Citibank impresarios to innumerable offices at the CFTC, SEC, and elsewhere suggest to any of these die-hard Obama partisans that “hope and change” would play a fleeting role in the Administration’s governing agenda?  If so, when did they come to that realization?  Just to ground the point: Did any of them really think that Rahm Emanuel would lead progressive change within the Democratic Party?  We know that Emanuel spent his entire career as a Clinton-era operative fighting against progressives within the Party.  Did anyone expect that to change when he became the president’s Chief of Staff?  Anyone?  Let’s not even get started on Obama’s vigorous pursuit of Bush’s “free trade” agenda or his not-so-secret plans to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.

To repeat: all of the appointments listed above were announced before the inauguration.  They were announced before the president revealed that he had no intention of keeping a broad range of campaign promises.  Before he began to prosecute the brave whistle-blowers who reported upon Bush-era war crimes and unconstitutional surveillance.  Before he dropped charges against all of those who actually committed these crimes.  These latter inconsistencies, we now know, made sense because the Administration was on the cusp of doubling-down on the very worst – really grotesque — Constitutional abuses of the Bush era.  Let us be clear, no president has ever claimed the right to kill American citizens, at its own discretion, for reasons untold, and without any outside review of its decision.

My point is a simple one: a betrayal has indeed occurred.  It was not instigated by Glenn Greenwald, Matt Stoller, the Black Agenda Report, or any other progressive voice.  All these writers have done is put these betrayals before the public.  The people who betrayed the once-vibrant and hopeful 2008 coalition that elected Barack Obama president are lodged in the White House.  Their betrayal was not a consequence of circumstance.  It was the inevitable playing out of decisions taken before January 20th, 2009.  The above list of appointments amply affirms that Barack Obama and his leading advisors knew, at the moment that the oath of office was taken, that their priorities and agendas would be in many, if not most, instances antithetical to the priorities and agendas of its supporters.  There was to be, neither then nor later, a glass “half-full” or even a “quarter-full.”  If anyone tells you otherwise, just ask him or her to show you the glass.

The fact is that the Obama Administration, like the Clinton Administration before it, knowingly engaged in a cynical wager.  They bet that they could pursue a host of policies fundamentally odious to their core supporters and yet be reelected.  The calculation depended on the premise that rank-and-file Democrats would have no other option.  Unsurprisingly, the Obama Administration and its surrogates have invested considerable time and energy convincing its former supporters that there is no option.

Anyone who has ever gone shopping knows that their bargaining power depends ultimately upon his/her willingness to walk away.  The ability to walk away explains why the service we get from our local dry cleaner is significantly better than what most of us get from our local cable provider.  When you have a choice, and demonstrate a willing to take that choice, you become empowered as consumer (I might add that the same is true of labor markets, which explains why most employers prefer a higher level of unemployment than their employees).  Right now, a deeply cynical reelection campaign is betting that progressives will be too afraid of Romney to seek to empower themselves.  This, let us remember, has been the strategy pursued by an increasingly right-wing Democratic National Committee for close to thirty years.  Every four years we are asked to vote for the lesser evil.  In a couple of weeks we will all learn if this plea will pay off again.  The question is, will we learn?  Will we learn to bargain with a faithless leadership of the Democratic Party?  If not this election, then when?

But, let us be clear.  Win or lose, Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama will all be fine.  They win either way.  Lucrative lobbying, banking, and advising jobs await all of them.  “Speaker fees,” often six-figures, will be plentiful.  The gravy awaits, and it’s all good.  Of that we can all rest assured.  What of the economic fortunes of the vast majority of the American people?  Obama’s former supporters?  The unemployed?  Underwater homeowners?  The victims of fraudulent foreclosures?

Well, here’s some news: He’s just not that into you. We’re adults.  It is time to get over it.  You owe him nothing because he has done nothing for you and plans to do nothing for you – unless you count the positive harm of cutting Social Security and enacting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  If voting for such a person “rocks your boat,” feel free.  But surely it can be understood why more than a few people may feel differently.

Democratic Accomplishments At Home since 2008

Slightly updated version

In my earlier post on White Privilege (which you should read before reading this), I argue that it does us little good to distinguish between whether the Dems care about “civil rights” at home more than their attention to rights violations against foreign nations and foreign nationals.  Now, let’s talk about the charge that the Democrats are a safer bet on a number of issues that concern libs and progs. I am willing to entertain the argument—from a liberal or progressive viewpoint–that the POTUS/Dems are a better bet to protect the interests of citizens and folks of color. Here’s a just a brief review of his/Dems’ record on all non-War on Terror-related issues (I write about those all over this blog).

The Environment: Here’s what comes to mind immediately:

Fracking.  As the Boston Globe reports, POTUS hailed fracking as awarding thousands of new jobs. Great. But at what cost?

The process requires huge volumes of pressurized, chemical-laden water to break apart rock. Not only does it consume scarce water resources, a particular concern in the West, but it poses a threat of contamination if the fracking water is spilled or migrates into aquifers. The industry insists such risks are nearly nonexistent.
 
In the western part of Colorado, preservationists worry that scenic federal lands will be threatened by energy companies eager to take advantage of fracking technologies. On the east side of the Rockies, north of Denver, where there are more voters, entire suburban communities are rising against what they consider a potentially hazardous industrial activity in their backyards. The water used in fracking often contains chemicals known to cause cancer and other human health problems.
 

Clearly, if the industry insists that the threat of contamination is non-existent, then we should believe them. Right? Because what do they have at stake? They’re not in it for the money or anything like that.

By the way:

Environmentalists have been especially dismayed that Obama’s Department of the Interior, in new fracking regulations that apply to leases on federal lands, required drillers to publicly reveal the contents of fracking fluid only after drilling operations have taken place, not before.

Tar Sands Pipeline. POTUS has put off of a decision until after 2012 elections. In light of his other anti-environmental moves, I’m not confident about this major move to environmental degradation.

 British Petroleum. Obama was the biggest recipient of BP’s cash. After the initial disaster, it’s true that POTUS paid lip service to making BP accountable…and have we heard absolutely anything about BP since 2010?

Off-shore drilling. This is an area where Obama’s plan to drill (notice—Not NOT drilling) got overtaken by the House’s more ambitious plan to expand off-shore drilling. So, here’s what the POTUS’ compromise got us: Nothing. If one is going to go down fighting (and by the way, what exactly did the Dems get done under their solid majority until mid-term elections), why not just NOT give in at all?

Labor: 3 FTA bills, dead under the Bush Administration, revived and pushed through under the present Democratic administration. Notice that FOX news is crowing about this. POTUS/Dems are GOOD for the 1%. So apparently, “protecting labor” means passing a bunch of bills that enable US companies to move overseas, engage in “Free Trade” without labor protections—in China, and with the latest, the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and Brunei (Hot bed of labor protections there, huh?).
Notice also that our previous Democratic President, the oh-so-liberal Bill Clinton managed to one-up George Bush I by promoting and signing the 1991 NAFTA which spurred the impetus to push jobs to Mexico, forego labor and union rights, and approve sub-par wages for Mexican citizens. Oh, I forgot: we’re supposed to root for the Democrats because they protect labor. Sorry, I lost the script.

Perhaps I’m being paranoid about labor rights and protections being undermined by the TransPacific Partnership. But we can’t find out, can we, because it is one of the least transparent agreements to date.

Health-care: According to some progressive economists, Obamacare is hardly healthcare reform, but rather a subsidy that draws insurance companies squarely into the mix. Great for a bunch of folks who can generally afford health-care, but by and large, puts unemployed and poor folks of a certain income at risk of being penalized if they don’t buy health insurance. Some progressive economists suggest that while Obamacare is being touted as a victory, but it isn’t much of one for poor people and people of color who are already having trouble making ends meet.

Banking: Need we discuss the colossal failure of POTUS and the Dems to manage, scold, punish, fine the bankers?  Read anything, ANYTHING, by Matt Taibbi, Bill Black, Matt Stoller, Sheila Bair, and others, who have discussed this failure ad nauseum. Last time I checked, the banking failure is hurting tons of folks at “home” in the U.S. And I don’t see anyone pointing to POTUS’ courageous stance in resisting the banks.

Mortgage Settlement: Again, need we discuss the colossal failure on the part of Kamala Harris to negotiate an adequate compensation package? See here and here. Neil Barofsky has a new book about the futility of their demands for accountability.  Who is this hurting? Clearly, those families who were hoping to be rescued from losing their houses in the sub-prime mortgage fiasco.

Social Security: A number of progressive economists think that there is a plan to cut Social Security right after the election; and others such as Dean Baker believe that the idea that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme is a myth.

Incarceration. I’ve written about this over and over again. No win here for black and brown US citizens. No win here for migrants and foreign nationals. None.

Drug war: Again, no win here. According to Michelle Alexander, it’s expanded and contributed to the systematic mass incarceration of Black and brown Americans.

Same-Sex rights: Some progress here:

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: Yes, As POTUS and Dems were to be one-upped by a federal judge, they came out in favor of DADT. Very late in the game. And need I remind anyone that it was under Democratic President Clinton’s watch that DADT was instituted? The cycle of life.

Same-Sex Marriage: Yes, as of June of this year—the day AFTER a referendum banning it was passed in North Carolina. The POTUS had 3 years to come out in favor, and was notorious for not being in favor well before his election. The attention to timing is crucial here.

Reproductive Rights: Dem HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius managed to reject an initiative that approved the OTC birth-control pill, even after the bill had passed.

POTUS gave the Catholic Church an out from having to provide insurance for birth control to its employees.

POTUS did manage to include a co-pay free birth control provision.

Violence Against Women Act: Depends on which feminist you ask. Better for US women than for women migrants. Will come back to this in another post.

White Privilege, American Privilege: Does It Make Sense to Be More Concerned with Rights at “Home”?

Updated Version

I love how white folks are going around deploying “white privilege” pejoratively at this particular moment, 6 weeks from the elections. I think the term is useful and can be illuminating in demonstrating racial and political economic hierarchies   But if white folks are going to use it responsibly, the term should be placed up front, followed by a verb, object, and citation to someone—preferably a writer or activist of color– who explains and puts the term in context.

I wonder if they know that lobbing it against someone else doesn’t make them racially or morally superior, it doesn’t exculpate them from their own (white) privilege, and it doesn’t actually do the work of explaining their concerns.

I also don’t think “white privilege,” as deployed by whites, is a particularly illuminating term in pointing to some of the serious issues that trouble people like me.  After all, we know plenty of folks of color who have accepted the invitation into white supremacy, and helped design policies that induced the suffering of many folks of color—through the architecture of torture, justifying rendition practices, cementing the extra-legal category of enemy combatant, among other things: Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo—and that was under the Bush Administration. But plenty of folks of color are doing it today: Governors Nikki Haley & Bobby Jindal on eradicating social structures, reproductive choice, etc. Really, the privilege in question is American (whitish or liberal) privilege: the privilege of not having to know (or know about) foreign nationals or feel particularly obliged to them, or know about the harms done to them, simply because the wars, jingoism, and aggressive foreign policy of the US empire won’t affect you.

White supremacy. Pretty loaded word. As philosopher Charles Mills uses the term in his book, white supremacy is defined to talk about the system of power that is designed to keep whites in power. Mills uses it to talk about the Racial Contract—both as the counterpart of the Social Contract and its foundation. The Social Contract—the one that ensures that white folks will have access to equal and reciprocal rights, can only do so on the backs of black and brown folks, who are sub-persons, in Mills’ terms. And we’ve seen plenty of what this Racial Contract leads to–I write about it here and here and here. But it is certainly possible for brown and black folks to accept the invitation to move ranks—for plenty of good reasons—to escape vulnerability, persecution, harassment. But there are also less than compelling reasons, like doing the work of white supremacists for them: being the architect of torture, of rendition, leading the charge to invade other countries. It’s not unusual that folks of color are invited to do this—and may have some compelling self-interests to do so; but it doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticizing them, or constantly be subject to charges of racism.

In short, yes, there are some—debatable—improvements with regard to issues that affect mostly middle- and upper-class U.S. citizens. But this is hardly a proud record of accomplishments that should be touted as representing “Americans.”  I’m listing the differences on a new page—both to support my position, but also because I don’t want to distract from the argument here. See here if you are interested.

Really, the idea that we must look so hard to find substantive difference between the two parties suggests that at so many levels, empire has finally taken root.  Empire. White Supremacy. Gawd, such loaded words. And yet, really, this is where the U.S. is. Empire is deployed to justify actions and unite those at home against the Other overseas, who have been subject to conquest.

Hannah Arendt, wrote about the links of race and capitalism as embedded in empire in the Origins of Totalitarianism in 1948.  As she explored the roots of empire in the early 1900’s, she found the “inner contradiction between the nation’s body politic and conquest as a political device” an obvious one.” (1948, 128)  But the failure of this contradiction leads to one of two outcomes: either a fully united national consciousness of those who were conquered…or tyranny. Empire was meant to unite folks at home, to insist upon the moral good done abroad, and to expect their conquests to like it.

Arendt pointed out that the drive to expansion and conquest was fueled by the desire for money to make itself and for power (the state) to follow money (the bankers and capitalists). Imperialists wanted “to expand political power without the foundation of a body politic”—without having a political structure that managed and checked capital and secured rights.

Sound familiar? Here is Arendt again:

“The secret of the new happy fulfillment [of the bourgeoisie’s desire to have money beget money]  was precisely that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning classes. Money could finally beget money because power, with complete disregard for all laws—economic as well as ethical—could appropriate wealth. Only when exported money succeeded in stimulating the export of power could it accomplish its owners’ designs Only the unlimited accumulation of power could bring about the unlimited accumulation of capital. (Arendt 1948, 137)
 

History repeats itself at this moment. This is why it does us little good to separate out “our” obligations to “our own” from our obligations to “Others.” If we try, then we engage in a false disconnect. What happens internationally is intrinsically linked to what happens in the U.S.   Foreign policy influences domestic policy, by insisting that we have to band together against the Other—or it brings the same mentality—and similar policies abrogating rights protections back home—in the form of NDAA, the expansion of FISA, Indefinite detention, wiretapping, FBI databases and fusion centers. Capitalists influence foreign policy in line with their own interests–and consistently in line with domestic policy that lines up with their interests. This seems clear when looking at the list of accomplishments on the parts of the Democrats.

Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley, and numerous others, including myself, have been making this point repeatedly.  This is why I think the term “white privilege” deflects attention from what’s at stake: there is absolutely a privilege in being able to ignore what’s happening abroad, or to insist on our moral superiority or exceptionalism. As Sam Holloway points out:

It’s very revealing that the most consistent argument in favor of supporting Barack Obama (when better options are clearly available) is that the other corporate option (Romney) will be worse. Crystal ball access notwithstanding, this is a terrible justification. It’s a clear demonstration that millions of us are willing to allow atrocities to be visited upon others as long as our own privileges are left more or less intact. We don’t care how many foreign brown children Obama exterminates as long as the wealthier among us still has access to health care, abortions, etc. Let’s be clear– I’m not suggesting those are trivial issues. However, if you accept a situation where you have access and others don’t, then you are reducing these basic human rights to privileges. The same goes for your right to due process; if you tolerate Obama’s extrajudicial killings, then you are saying that life is a privilege that you deserve and that others do not. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this approach leaves you open to having your own privilege (to health, security, life, etc.) revoked at any time.
 

Isn’t this what we’ve been seeing? In the deportation of migrants, drone attacks, indefinite detention, NDAA 2012, H.R. 347, suppression of speech? These issues are inseparable—when they happen to others, they are used to justify “our” privilege—in this case, American privilege. But “our” privilege can be revoked using the same laws, same authority (or lack thereof) that were used to kill vilified U.S. citizens like Al-Aulaqi, to detain, harass, and confine U.S. citizens without fair trials—like Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Bradley Manning—these will be used against “us” too–starting with the most vulnerable, dark, and threatening first.

Having the right to have my contraception paid for won’t protect you or me against that immoral use of power to hurt, humiliate, torture, incarcerate—lawfully. The violations of bodies of Black and brown folks are intrinsically connected to the lack of respect for the bodies of black and brown women–in the US and elsewhere.  And Mitt Romney may be worse on some of these issues—but his ability to harm all of us will have been made much easier by the likes of our past 2 POTUSes—Democrat and Republican—and the current Administration. Not to worry. That is the devastating future of American –and not just white–privilege.