Human Rights and Selective Amnesia: Gazans’ expulsion from humanity

In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: it was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places. Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 UN member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.

The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naïveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:

 

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.[1]

 

The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: these protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies—the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.

The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life”—the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.

The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.

We see this loss in US government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush Administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama Administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantanamo Bay; the tortuous force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the US; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America, the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to US prisons); the entrapment of Black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.

Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the US’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate on-line, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and op-eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Senator John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world—where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.

As of last night, the sixth UN school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The UN schools were supposed to be protected shelters—intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”

Let us assume for even a moment that despite many first-hand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct in that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinksmanship game, given that Israel has been—will be—barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors—all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.

Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is—the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the NSA (the National Security Agency), to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration. The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to DNI Director James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy—but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).

In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique, or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those that are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own”—even when the facts say otherwise.

The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coat-tails of American muscularity: the UK, India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.

This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: National Security versus Rights. For the US, the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: Freedom v. Security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights—to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us–especially Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor–residing in the US were never offered that choice.

Internationally, National Security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.

We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, UN schools, private residences, and massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”

Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home, or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders—not even accidentally—not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them—children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.

According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:

International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.

It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.

In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank: it is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the US and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry, and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.

Here is Arendt again:

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)

 

Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.

Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)

 

How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the US, and the rest of the West drops their convenient, selective, amnesia.

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[1] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1951). P. 293.

Children murdered, homes foreclosed: How the government makes “mistakes” with impunity

Anyone who’s been at the mercy of the DMV, the IRS, or a health insurance company knows that bureaucracies make mistakes. Most people are accustomed to bureaucracies making mistakes. And even presidential administrations and U.S. Armed Forces make mistakes.

Yet when considering U.S. national security policies, raising the question of mistakes that cost lives is chalked up as a minor issue: “We have to expect collateral damage in wars/drones/bombs/armed conflict.”

If we know that organizations make mistakes, then it’s not that hard to see that organizations without external oversight and accountability will be empowered to make mistakes with impunity.

Not rectifying mistakes, not allowing oversight, refusing to be accountable to an external judicial body is considered by many an abuse of power. But abuse can only be claimed when a state promises to be accountable. If the state claims that it can’t be accountable, can’t be reviewed for mistakes, can’t rectify mistakes because such practices would be dangerous (the reason isn’t really important here), then at most levels, it’s hard to name the state’s attitude as abuse.

Moreover, as journalist Margaret Kimberley points out, the Obama Adminstration has claimed the right to kill American citizens without charge or trial. That’s not an abuse of power. It’s a complete usurpation of power. There is no space by which to claim the Administration should have acted differently by its own lights.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this, not the abuse of, but the monopoly of power?

In 2005, Rahina Ibrahim was “cuffed, detained, and denied a flight” to Hawaii to deliver a conference paper about sustainable housing. She was allowed to return home to Malaysia, but because her name was on a U.S. government no-fly list, Ibrahim’s visa was subsequently revoked; she was prevented from returning to the U.S., thus effectively ending her doctoral studies at Stanford.  She eventually finished her dissertation in Malaysia, and sued the US government to have her name removed from the no-fly list. But the courts initially ruled that she had no legal standing to sue the US to change its policies because she is a non-citizen, and the US’s efforts to fight terrorism could not be challenged by a foreign national.

Ibrahim persisted, and at least in the most recent round, won.  Despite the US’s best efforts to the contrary, Ibrahim is the first to successfully force the US government to remove her name from the list. U.S. District Court William Alsup’s ruling points out that the US government had erred: an FBI agent confessed to having filled out the No-Fly list form for Rahina Ibrahim in exactly the opposite way as he should have. Alsup had suspected as early as December 2009 that Ibrahim had been the victim of a “monumental” government error.

Murtaza Hussain, in an excellent assessment, points out that Attorney General Eric Holder abused the state-secrets privilege in the Ibrahim case. In an affidavit from April 2013, Holder invoked the state secrets privilege as the reason that the Department of Justice could not turn over the records regarding why her name was put on the no-fly list. Referring to the 2009 State Secrets Policyy established under a young Obama Administration, Holder promised that he would not claim the state-secrets privilege to hide wrongdoing, incompetence, inefficiency, or embarrassment. Nor would he invoke it to “prevent or delay the release of information the release of which would not reasonably be expected to cause significant harm to national security.”

Clearly, Holder lied. The reason we know that Holder lied is because of what was revealed in Judge Alsup’s decision.  In this specific instance, we have clear evidence that the Obama Administration abused its power—on the view that the abuse of power is constituted when an government has promised to behave within certain procedural bounds and legal limits, but has stepped beyond them.

As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Marcy Wheeler demonstrate, the Obama Administration is completely indifferent to its own state-secrets policy, except as a subterfuge. They have invoked it time and time again, for horrendous ends. As Shahid Buttar, head of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, communicated to Gosztola back in 2012 about the invocation of state secrets privilege:

 

the ability of the FBI to “stand above the law” and not answer to any authority when they outright lie or make deliberate misrepresentations about what kind of operations they are or are not conducting. Also, it makes it possible for the Executive Branch to enjoy extraordinary immunity from punishment when incredible abuses of power are committed and cases on torture, warrantless wiretapping or spying are brought forward in court.

State secrets privilege is but one of multiple excuses that the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, has used to expand its own power without any accompanying review or oversight of it. Whether the continued renewal of FISA (which candidate Obama voted in favor of in 2008), the NDAA 2012, NDAA 2013, or a myriad of other laws, under the Obama Administration has endorsed the unchecked expansions of power claimed by the FBI, the CIA (often in collusion with the NYPD, the DOJ. Countless foreigners have been rendered from Somalia, Sweden, and elsewhere, and interrogated without defense lawyers; numerous men have been placed in solitary confinement in prisons around the country, still unaware of the charges against them, with sketchy trials at best. Some of these men have been rendered stateless with the help of the British Home Office, such that their kidnappings could not be contested. Muslim communities all over the United States–in Southern California, Oregon, Minnesota, NY, Pennsylvania, New Jersey—have been subject to spying and entrapment.

Let’s not forget Terror Tuesdays and the Disposition Matrix, where Obama Administration officials gather to determine which alleged terrorist to execute next—without evidence, without oversight, with impunity.

It’s also been recently discovered that the FBI—the agency whose agent made a mistake in placing Rahina Ibrahim on the no-fly list–holds the power to delay the citizenship applications of Muslims—a policy enacted under the Bush Administration but still in effect today.

Mistakes, shmistakes.

The targeting of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16year-old U.S.-born son of Anwar Al-Awlaki was a mistake.

Putting post-surgery, wheelchair-bound, Stanford doctoral student Rahina Ibrahim’s name on a federal No-Fly list in 2005 was a mistake.

Hundreds of thousands of people were subject to housing foreclosures due to mistakes.

The Obama mortgage settlement allows for a threshold error rate for mistaken foreclosures.

Killing scores of civilians by drones is a mistake.

Incarcerating innocent (but not guilty) men without charges or trials is a mistake.

Holder’s behavior and that of many of his colleagues in the Obama Administration, such as DNI James Clapper, indicates that they have no problems with mistakes, or with lying about government practices, evading demands for evidence, or concealing violations with law.  This may make them corrupt—on the view that there should be a higher standard of behavior from government officials, one that conforms to consistency and accountability.

To the extent that the Obama Administration has conceded to calls for oversight, it has facilitated pseudo-review boards, as when Obama appointed the DNI Clapper to review the NSA’s protocols. Even the name of the group, “Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies,” indicated no interest in external oversight.

On the view that lying, evading and concealing are the (counter)part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s approach to national security—the other part being that any and all strategies will be utilized without regard to accountability or oversight–because these are necessary actions to protect the public at all costs, then Holder’s and Clapper’s actions don’t reveal an abuse of power, but rather the precise and intended application of power.

 

If the Administration promises to behave within certain procedural bounds–along with the proviso that it will be the sole arbitrator on when and how to proceed to execute its power, whom it will delegate its power, and who will be subject to its power—then we should not name that the abuse of power, but the ultimate monopoly—indeed, the ultimate expression of power–and laud the Administration for resolutely carrying out its own promises and marvel at its own rare consistency!

In fact, as many have pointed out, the Obama Presidency is following in the footsteps of the Bush Administration. It might be more accurate to say that the current Administration is carving out even bigger footsteps for itself, what with its impressive record number of drone murders, solitary-confinement based incarcerations, domestic and global surveillance, deportations of migrants, and its pointed indifference to looting bankers. By claiming the right to wield power without apology in all areas of national security domestic and foreign, and on behalf of Wall Street, the Obama Administration is claiming the status of the Leviathan, as the sovereign authority in Thomas Hobbes’ 16th century treatise on politics is named.

The Leviathan claims both to be the actor and author of the collective will: once people have handed over their consent to the sovereign (demonstrated by abrogating each individual’s rights to kill), then the Leviathan claims that power in the name of the people completely. The Leviathan can do no wrong and admits to no wrong. What’s more, unless a person can find a stronger protector, they have no choice to but to submit to the Leviathan’s authority.

So, the Obama Administration—by refusing to admit that its policies are fraught with mistakes, by refusing to concede that its mistakes have hurt innocents needlessly, by refusing to correct those mistakes in the name of state security—and by resisting all attempts to make it accountable by resorting to incarceration (John Kiriakou), mock trials (e.g., Chelsea Manning) or no trials (Barrett Brown), rescinding passports (Edward Snowden), coercing other sovereign states to incarcerate challengers to its power (Yemen/Abdulelah Haider Shaye), and killing citizens and foreigners alike without review or impunity (whether by drones, financial starvation), it claims to be the ultimate sovereign authority—without challenge, dissent, or resistance. It makes the same claim as the Leviathan.

At some level, the question that needs to be addressed is not whether the Obama Administration is interested in holding itself accountable—it clearly does not—but whether we are interested.

If US citizens are interested in the accountability from an Administration that considers itself to be not only above the law, but is unilaterally creating law and (by extension) determining others’ criminality through its own (often secret) standards, then we have to decide how to wrest back power from an absolutist state. By an absolutist state, I mean an Administration that considers dissent, scrutiny, and criticism from any lowly individual unforgivable, while insisting that its own mistakes (real and contrived) are necessary to its self-awarded status as the ruler of the world.

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This piece was originally published at Salon.com.

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

Don’t Buy the Spin on Guantánamo: It doesn’t mean what you think it does

This article was originally published on Salon.com on November 18, 2013.

 

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Technically, President Obama appears to be making strides on his 2008 promise to close down Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. But despite Fox News’ takeaway, let’s not get confused: closing down the prison has little to do with releasing the remaining prisoners, some of whom have been held there for nearly 12 years—almost none of them ever charged with a crime.

In fact, closing down the prison doesn’t clear up the issue of what will happen to the 164 prisoners, all of whom are foreign nationals, except that they will be “transferred,” a term that can mean whatever the President wants it to mean: relocating prisoners to another prison, releasing them to the custody of their home governments, placing them in “rehabilitation” facilities, or just simply: get them off the base.

The ACLU, surprisingly, didn’t speak to that distinction when it showcased the costs of keeping Guantánamo open over the last decade. They pointed out the millions that could be allocated to other important programs by “transferring detainees” out of Guantanamo: keeping down healthcare costs for military families, fully funding assistance in transitioning U.S. veterans to civilian life, covering the military’s body armor budget, funding prosthetics research (presumably for vets who lost limbs).

To be fair, the confusion can be partly attributed to the President’s waffling on the issue. He has offered several renditions of  “closing down” Guantánamo: Shortly after he took office in his first term, he conceded that some of the prisoners, despite lack of sufficient evidence or due to “contaminated” evidence, could never be tried. By implication, they could never be released.  Sometime after that, he toyed with the idea of relocating them to a new prison in Illinois. That plan would have allowed him, technically, to keep his promise to close Gitmo. Protests from various corners of the U.S. quickly put a kibosh on that idea.

More recently, the Obama Administration has been in talks with the Yemeni government to transfer somewhere between 55 to 80 Yemeni prisoners to Sana’a, on the condition of a new Guantanamo prison rehabilitation facility of some sort being built there. It would be funded by anyone but the U.S. — most likely the Saudis, who according to the LA Times, have had a successful track record of “rehabilitating” terrorists, presumably so that they will not fight back (against governments who’ve done them harm). The U.S. has promised that the “rehab” would include “counseling, instruction in a peaceful form of Islam, and job training in Yemen before any decision on freeing them.”  Still, I shudder to think which other tactics will be used. See this recent clip, which shows torture being inflicted under the watchful eye of American military personnel in Afghanistan (warning: it is extremely violent). Is it unreasonable to anticipate that that the transfer of Yemeni detainees to Sana’a will be accompanied by the transfer of torture, death, and harm to their families?

Given its own track record, the Yemeni government hardly inspires confidence in the promise of ethical treatment: at times, it purports to represent the interests of the families of the Gitmo prisoners; in the same breath, it reveals itself to be a faithful servant of the U.S. by justifying or covering up U.S. drone attacks into Yemen. And now, it is engaging in negotiations with the U.S. to build a prison/halfway house to house the as-of-yet uncharged Yemenis, going so far as to offer to pay for it before rescinding its offer due to a tight government budget. It is noteworthy that the home-governments of other Gitmo prisoners have refused to imprison them again upon “transfer,” on the grounds that they have not been convicted of any crimes.

Like me, Sen. Saxby Chambliss also thinks transferring prisoners to a prison in Yemen is a bad idea, but for different reasons. Chambliss believes that the Yemenis, at least 20 of whom have been deemed “low-risk” detainees, would be a danger to the U.S. even if they were not released but transferred to a Yemeni prison. Chambliss’ logic makes sense, and could even construed be an implicit acknowledgment that the U.S. has treated these prisoners abominably. After all, if the agents of a foreign government kidnapped and tortured you, threatened to hurt your family, locked you up in a tiny cage for twelve years while guards disciplined and humiliated you, mashed up your Bible, periodically beat you for having the temerity to be unsatisfied with the arrangement, and challenged your ability to hunger strike by violently forcing a tube up your nose three times a day— all without ever charging you with a crime or showing evidence of wrongdoing — you’d be angry enough to dream of ways of getting back at that government and its officials if you were ever released.  Thomas Jefferson suspected as much back in 1781, when he suggested that after emancipation, ex-slaves should be expelled for fear of retaliation against their former owners for the inhuman treatment they had received.

But Chambliss’ fears are not substantiated. As Adam Hudson cites in a brilliant analysis of the supposedly concluded Gitmo hunger strikes, the “recidivism rate” for released Guantanamo prisoners is 4 percent. That low rate suggests that these men, if they ever were prone to violence (which we can’t determine, given the lack of evidence) are remarkably forgiving of those who have inflicted serious violence and other wrongdoing on them.

There are other reasons to oppose “transferring,” rather than releasing prisoners. Relocating human beings who’ve been caged for 11 or more years— despite any public evidence of wrongdoing–to a prison in another country is yet another feature of the quest for global hegemony by the U.S. empire.  The Post-Human Rights State, we might call it.

In this instance, U.S. imperial power, disguised as a liberal polity concerned with protecting the freedom and rights of all human beings, is revealed when it selectively showcases certain human rights that support the destructive actions planned by the state. WMD’s in Iraq.  Women’s rights in Afghanistan. Such “principles” are clearly exhorted almost exclusively to enable voters to support otherwise dubious or indefensible policies.

The issue here is one of principle as well as of realpolitik. Under the Bush Administration and its minions, heinous and unconstitutional actions were undertaken in the name of national security. Those minions, as we know, included plenty of Democrats, like Senators Feinstein, Kerry, and Clinton, who approved and supported those actions. Counter-terrorism, as we now understand it, is about exchanging sacrificing selling out human rights principles in the name of American security while chiseling away at the rights long claimed by American citizens and residents: free speech, privacy, dissent, knowing the charges that warrant my arrest, fair trials before an impartial judge, publicly shared evidence in order to convict.

The Obama Administration unabashedly continues the destruction that the Bush Administration began in 2001 in the name of national security.  Highlights include pushing for NDAA 2012; winning back on appeal (in the lawsuit filed by Chris Hedges, Alexa O’Brien and others) the right to detain people infinitely (sic) with impunity; wiretapping Americans, foreigners, the press, and heads of state alike; and persecutingwhistleblowers through dubious laws and the revocation of passports, and in collusion with foreign governments.

It is not possible to continue to violate the freedom and bodies of so many people — American or foreign, citizens or otherwise — without confronting the inevitability that those chickens will come home to roost. I don’t mean revenge. History has disproven Jefferson’s fears wrong, despite the continued persecution and mass imprisonment of Black Americans up to this day. I mean the disintegration of a society that claims to respect the bodily and psychic integrity of human beings to live and speak without fear of despotic retribution. Consequently, the United States can no longer credibly claim to be a beacon of democracy or protector of rights without hearing the loud, widespread, jeers of derision and contempt from the victims of the US’s unceasing violence: the families of droned Pakistanis and Yemenis as well as those of Gitmo detainees who have already ended their own lives; the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, as well as those of Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, John Kiriakou and many others. The list is long, too long.

In the face of this knowledge, closing Guantanamo and releasing its uncharged prisoners may be a trivial act. But it would constitute one step in the right direction — of trying to observe human rights principles while beginning to forge international relationships on a basis other than the force embodied in the long reach of destructive weapons and aggressive, unchecked, despotism. Perhaps then, we might be able to look forward to reclaiming the US’s integrity as a champion, rather than the destroyer, of human rights.

Loretta Lynch alleges Mahdi Hashi is a chemical weapons and countersurveillance expert!

One week ago, a little-noticed tweet announced that Mahdi Hashi, a British-Somali young man who disappeared from his home in Somalia in mid-2012 and suddenly appeared in a Brooklyn Federal Court last December on terrorism-related charges, had been on a hunger strike and hospitalized with jaundice and potential of liver damage.  Shortly before Hashi disappeared (and rendered, as it turns out), the British government stripped Hashi of his citizenship on the grounds that he was engaged in “Islamicist activities.” (See links below to read more about Hashi’s situation).

In a phone call, Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, indicated that Hashi’s strike is in protest of the extreme Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) imposed on him, including restricted contact with his family. According to Saghir Hussain, the lawyer for Hashi’s family,

“The information was provided by MH to his father over a short telephone conversation, which was interrupted by the authorities after “60 seconds or so.”

SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and with extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone, including family members.  SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. Laura Rovner and Jeanne Theoharris have written extensively about SAM’s here; Theoharis also describes the horrific details of SAM’s in relation to one of her former students, Fahad Hashmi.

Four days after news of Hashi’s hunger strike, CBS News reported that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and two others who had been indicted alongside hime, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files. The letter alleges that Hashi had substantial knowledge was chemical weapons expert and was helping Al-Qaeda build a chemical weapons factory. The story itself is a fascinating confirmation of the thesis that the press is the government’s helper. The document “alleges,” but the press believes the allegations unconditionally.

I can’t get the video to embed, so here’s the link:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57603620/court-document-references-al-qaeda-linked-chemical-weapons-program-in-somalia/

Notice the “critical” comments by CBS “This Morning” host, Charlie Rose, as he and Norah O’Donnell consult with CBS Senior Correspondent, former assistant CIA Direct, John Miller.

The last few weeks have been filled with reports about chemical weapons being used in Syria, but this morning a new filing in an obscure terrorism case is confirming something long feared: a chemical weapons program run by Al-Qaeda.

Miller, the canny investigative reporter that he is, notices that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into Mahdi Hashi’s, Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mohammed Yusuf’s files, which point to their expertise in helping Al-Qaeda develop a chemical weapons program!

The causal overdeterminations made in this short segment are fascinating: The letter, dated September 18, 2013, was written by US Attorney Loretta Lynch. According to Rose and Miller, it confirms the existence of a chemical weapons program by Al-Qaeda, which had been LONG FEARED.

In fact, the letter confirms nothing of the sort, except that this is what the US Government is claiming in order to restrict Hashi, Ahmed, and Yusuf from any access to the outside world, and perhaps other untold, more extreme, measures. Lynch’s letter also specifies that the SAM’s restrict their access to “each other” (presumably because they might conspire to…something(?). I suspect that Lynch’s phrase indicates that they also have no contact with anyone, i.e., they are each being held in solitary confinement, though I have found no explicit evidence of this yet.

Neither Rose, O’Donnell, nor Miller question the timing of the letter—nor do they explain the purpose of the letter–in making this causal connection.

Let’s consider the October and November superseding indictments of Hashi and his alleged co-terrorists, and Lynch’s letter. Up until today, all three had been indicted on fairly general charges: (1) a “conspiracy to give material support to terrorism,” which by most measures is an extremely weak charge, usually indicating little concrete evidence, if any, that can convincingly link a person to terrorist activity; (2) Material support to a foreign terrorist organization; and (3) Firearms.There is no mention of chemical weapons or counterterrorism intelligence expertise in initial indictment.

Now, the thrust of Lynch’s letter was to request separate appearances for all three defendants. Lynch does so presumably on the same grounds by which Special Administrative Measures were ordered for them (also mentioned in the letter), namely because

The Attorney General, in directing that such restrictions be implemented, previously found that “[b]ased upon information provided to me of [the defendants’] proclivity for terrorism . . . there is substantial risk that [the defendants’] communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons, or substantial damage to property that would entail the risk of serious bodily injury to persons.

Indeed in the last part of the letter, Lynch states that separate appearances are requested because of the above grounds and

To minimize the potential for violations of the defendants’ SAMs during their appearance in Court and for the safety of the defendants themselves.

The safety of the defendants themselves?? From whom? Each other? From Al-Qaeda? They, like the rest of us, are already aware that these three are in prison..

Even a vegan can recognize red herring when they see one. Consider the timing of this letter. It is filed

-after ten months of silence in Hashi’s et al’s cases, and only five days after word of his hunger strike.

– fewer than 2 months after the news about chemical weapons attack in Syria, which tempted the Administration to launch a military attack in Syria.

-fewer than 4 months since Edward Snowden leaked documents confirming extensive NSA surveillance of all American citizens, non-citizens, foreigners—EVERYONE. Those revelations prompted renewed calls for transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama Administration, which has been reeling defensively and searching for new ways to make the case that the US MUST spy on everyone for the purposes of national security.

Claiming “Al-Qaeda!” will surely remind us of the need for spying. And sure enough, CBS News responded appropriately about the “confirmation” of a chemical weapons program developed through “commercial” and widely available ingredients.

Nor does CBS question why, after extremely vague charges filed despite months of interrogations, there are suddenly such specific allegations such as,

(2) the defendants have extensive weapons and combat training and were formerly members of an elite al-Shabaab suicide bombing unit.

and

(4) the defendants are dangerous and influential foreign al-Shabaab fighters who have previously employed operational tradecraft and counter surveillance techniques to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities.

One wonders how sophisticated Hashi could have been in avoiding detection by law enforcement authorities if he was scooped up as easily as he was.

I could be mistaken, but I believe this is the first time that allegations associating Hashi with chemical weapons or countersurveillance expertise have ever been made.

The rhetorical use of “expert” is fascinating given that the chemicals that are being used are most likely elementary. Household bleach thrown at a group of people can be a chemical weapons attack. It doesn’t have to be sarin gas (as Charlie Rose evokes in the segment in connection to the subway sarin attacks in Japan).

Are Hashi et al chemical weapons experts? Or are they new faces to map on convenient chemical weapons and countersurveillance accusations in support of the general War on Terror?

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Other stories about Mahdi Hashi:

https://translationexercises.wordpress.com/tag/mahdi-hashi/

http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/01/04/the-disposition-of-informants-and-citizens/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/exclusive-how-mi5-blackmails-british-muslims-1688618.html

http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/blog/2013/02/26/medieval-exile-the-21-britons-stripped-of-their-citizenship/

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/14/obama-secret-kill-list-disposition-matrix

Edward Snowden: The Great Criminal

As Edward Snowden’s name is bandied about, with a debate emerging over whether he is a hero or a criminal, whistleblower or traitor, the words of philosopher Walter Benjamin come to mind.  In his 1921 essay, The Critique of Violence, Benjamin discusses the law’s goal to pursue the monopoly on violence:

The law’s interest in a monopoly of violence vis-a-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.

Here Benjamin restates one of the fundamental goals of classical liberal political philosophy, at least for philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, namely to eliminate the use of violence from everyone except the state and its duly appointed deputies. This is why in Locke, the state ‘agrees’ to protect the rights of individuals in exchange for individuals giving up their right of retribution and punishment. The right of violence becomes the sole provenance of the state, whether through the death penalty, prisons, or defense of the state itself.

However, as we also know, the state monopolizes and regulates the use of violence in the interests of those who have the most influence over the state: these wealthy men who decide the personification of the state. In the 1600’s English North America, this would have been white Englishmen. In the 1910’s, Benjamin was interested in the role of workers in challenging the monopoly of state violence.

Understood in this way, the right to strike constitutes in the view of labor, which is opposed to that of the state, the right to use force in attaining certain ends. The antithesis between the two conceptions emerges in all its bitterness in face of a revolutionary general strike. In this, labor will always appeal to its right to strike, and the state will call this appeal an abuse, since the right to strike was not “so intended,” and take emergency measures.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unions aroused a widespread secret admiration from a public that was weary of the state’s imposition.  Today, as Occupy and other movements point out, the most influential are still the 1%–though the colors, sexes, and sexualities of this privileged demographic have been somewhat expanded.

For example, Locke’s story of slavery is more accurately read as the story of colonialism –and eventually—imperialism. Strangers attack Englishmen. Englishmen fight back and win. They have the right to kill the strangers, but grant them their lives in exchange for their agreeing (at least implicitly) to be slaves. It is, an apologia for the conquest of American Indians. But in the modern moment, it is a story that is replicated by Samuel Huntington in the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Back to Benjamin, who is thought to have committed suicide in Southern France as he was trying to flee from the Nazis.  Here is another excerpt from the “Critique of Violence”:

The same may be more drastically suggested if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public. This cannot result from his deed, but only from the violence to which it bears witness.

How might this apply to Edward Snowden? Snowden’s ‘crime,’ if you will, was that he disrupted the state’s ability to protect its monopoly of violence by exposing its widespread surveillance activities.  He did this despite the widely claimed fears of interested parties that doing so would “undermine national security,’ and in the face of the state’s insistence that these activities are justified and justifiably secret. In this sense, the fact that he challenged the prerogatives of the state itself, makes his alleged ‘crime’ so much more transgressive than, for example, merely lying to Congress about weapons of mass destruction, starting a war with a random nation in which tens of thousands die, or torturing rendered persons. None of these latter crimes are a threat to the state itself, and for that reason may be readily forgiven and forgotten.  Manning and Snowden are, however, ‘great criminals’ in that their actions embarrassed and undermined state power.  They can never be forgiven or forgotten.

So, for a significant portion of the public, there seems to be an–open or perhaps grudging…admiration of Snowden because he has dared to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. He challenges the state even as he acknowledges that the state will use every resource at its disposal to exact its revenge. We know from the tragic example of Aaron Schwartz that challenging the Department of Justice will require endless resources, from millions of dollars of legal know-how and the filing of endless FOIA requests. We know from the example of John Kiriakou that even going through formal channels of whistleblowing—including being

 

“the first CIA officer to call waterboarding “torture”; to reveal that the CIA’s torture program was policy rather than a few rogue agents; and to say it was wrong”

 

will not stop the state, even a state led by a “transformative presidency,” from making sure that no one disturbs its monopoly on violence.

In this case, therefore, the violence of which present-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deprive the individual appears really threatening, and arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against law. By what function violence can with reason seem so threatening to law, and be so feared by it, must be especially evident where its application, even in the present legal system, is still permissible.

What makes Snowden so interesting is that it appears that he is an old-fashioned “believer” in the American project—someone who wanted to fight the good fight, to uphold American principles and ideals, as the US government has long professed is also its mission. He contracted to work for defense contractors who in turn worked with the NSA, and for that reason did not begin his (short-lived) post-military career with misgivings about the American imperial project. As he got to see the how its affairs were being misconducted, he continued to believe in “doing the right thing.”  What also makes Snowden remarkable is his awareness that

[T]he “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.

Whether or not one agrees with his actions, whether or not his politics and ideology mesh with the ideas of the right or the left–it will always be a remarkable sight to a see a lone person stand up to the Leviathan, composed as it is of its myriad eyes, all watching, waiting, to clamp down on any threat, no matter how trivial to it relentless monopolistic pursuit of violence—and power.

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This piece was republished in Salon on June 19, 2013 as “Edward Snowden’s real crime: Humiliating the state.”

On the NSA’s Surveillance Program: The Brown, Muslim, South Asian Elephant In the Room–or On the Phone

A frequent response of those untroubled by the revelations of the NSA program is “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Perhaps we need to translate that phrase, along with the relative colorblindness through which the entire series of revelations has been scrutinized, as “If your last name isn’t Khan, and you have no family in Pakistan/India/Iran, etc., you have nothing to fear.”

The revelations of NSA’s collection of “metadata,” as cybersecurity expert Susan Landau explained on Democracy Now is, in fact, even more invasive than actual content collection. She gives an example of how that can be the case: Even if all the NSA does is trace the one or more calls from your home to your doctor on a day when you would normally be at work, followed by one or more calls from your phone that is now located at the doctor’s office to your family, that information strongly suggests that the content of the call was bad news.

Similarly then, if the NSA collects metadata of all calls and online traffic in the US, they are probably much less interested in an person living in New Paltz, NY who calls Barcelona 8 times a week than they are in biweekly calls from an Indo-Pak restaurant owner in Edison NJ to a “terrorist-heavy” locale in Pakistan—say Waziristan. Clearly, in both cases, the pattern reveals the obvious: that both the NY and NJ residents have some connection to folks in the receiving nation. But what does it tell the NSA about who they are? To judge from the NSA’s datamining project, the intensity of NSA surveillance is heavier in Pakistan than in Europe. Thus, even if the calls from New Paltz are to a terrorist cell in Barcelona, it seems more likely that the calls to Waziristan (say, to the restaurant owner’s mother and brother and his family) will be more suspicious—of course due to the US’s framing of where the War on Terror must be waged.  Still, the latter would be, as Marcy Wheeler discusses in a related issue, ‘false positives.’

What is the starting framework that informs the NSA to target your call? That folks with close/frequent connections to Pakistan should have their calls monitored? That these same folks have an increased likelihood of being terrorists/sympathizers? Or, alternately, that if one is an Iranian migrant, from a family that left sometime around the Revolution, yet retains close friends who work for the Iranian state (even as low-level civil servants), then their calls should be the subject of targeting, because as DiFi has now announced, Iran is a terrorist state?  Or, as DiFi has also stated, it allows the state to keep records of people who become terrorists later (a la Minority Report).

I can hear the liberals now: “Of course, there she goes, making it all about race again.” Um, no. The NSA is making it about race/religion/ethnicity –as these are uniquely combined in the conceptual category of ‘Muslim Terrorists.’ Other branches of the state have long established that terrorism is a unique category that, while defined race-neutrally as having to do with international or domestic political violence targeted against the US government or its citizens, is almost uniquely and singularly applied to Muslims. We’ve seen evidence of this at other levels of government, as in the case of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims—in NY, CT, PA, NJ and internationally. Most recently, we saw this assumption with the immediate rush to assume that a Saudi national that fled the Boston bomb blasts must have been the person who set them—before he was cleared the next day.

If this is the framework that underlies the massive dragnet, then I’m hardly the one making it about race. Meanwhile, as is so often the case, Marcy Wheeler and Rayne (writing at emptywheel.net) have each been presenting some of the most careful and detailed analysis of these programs.  While the PRISM program is limited to collecting data from non-U.S. persons (and what that means is still unclear: does US person include non-citizen residents from India/Pakistan/Iran, etc. residing legally?), as Rayne asks

Does this mean that all communications between individuals who do not have an Anglo-Saxon name are likely to be sniffed if not collected?

Does this sketchy “(foreign) + (less than 3 hops)” approach executed by humans explain known false-positives? Could the relationships between the false-positives be as tenuous as shopping at the same store? What happens in the case of targets possessing a highly common name like “Ahmed” — the equivalent of Smith in terms of frequency among Arabic surnames — in collection so large it could be called a dragnet?

As some have pointed out, some of these details are hardly new, although the names and scope of the program have changed. As far back as 2005 (yes, under an order signed by then-President Bush), USA Today was reporting details of the NSA’s data collection, warrantless wiretapping, and telecom companies turning over data to the feds. It’s also true that there was hullaballoo about it (though not as loud in mainstream media) by those who are labeled hardcore “privacy freaks,”—folks like the ACLU, etc.  At some level, we may not have heard that much ‘new’ information—but between Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill, and Glenn Greenwald, we now have unquestionable, tangible, proof that the intelligence dragnet has been extensive and long-standing even after Bush’s executive order was rescinded.

Ultimately, the political celebration of NSA’s surveillance programs appears to rest on the same old tired flackery parroted by Lindsay Graham: “I don’t care if the NSA collects my data.”  Of course, Graham doesn’t care. Of course, DiFi thinks NSA data collection is crucial to catching terrorists. Of course, white suburban soccer moms are more interested in the intrigue of Snowden’s (ex?)girlfriend. Why should they care? They don’t worry that they will awake some morning and find themselves on the wrong side of the state—and certainly not because ‘they’re not doing anything wrong,’ but rather because they’re not the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong family (Remember Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki’s death? “He should have been born to a far more responsible father”). But of course.

That’s why Lindsay Graham, DiFI and the white burbie housewives think that NSA surveillance is a great idea. They’re not politically vulnerable (okay, that’s an understatement). They’re officially in favor of the War on Terror. And certain under this Administration and the previous one, their calls to the doctor and to family (or even Graham’s hypothetical call to Waziristan) are not registering as the ‘suspicious’ activity that the NSA is looking for.

As I’ve said before, this all comes down to a familiar form of American privilege:

[T]he 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.

The other side of the NSA leaks has to do with what we know or can infer about the profiles of people who get top-security clearance. If the NSA’s dragnet is designed to look for ‘suspicious’ activity, then besides being directed towards foreigners and foreign threats—it should also be looking for people like Snowden (of course I’m not endorsing this—just considering the logic of the hunt): seeming ‘one of us’ kinda guys: conservative, a believer in American ideals as decided and executed by the US government, a former troop, a “regular guy” with top national security clearance. Who, as it turns out, doesn’t like what he is coming to learn in the course of his work, and is beginning to take serious issue with the size and scope of the project. Except that all the national security surveillance in the world didn’t catch him before he flew to Hong Kong to meet with reporters and turn over evidence of these secret slides that document an out-of-control surveillance program. Whoops.

As Marcy Wheeler also points out, we need to question the success of such tracking programs if ‘success’ is defined as catching David Headley, suspected facilitator of the Mumbai attacks after 166 Indians are killed, or as Floyd Brown points out, catching Maj. Nidal Hassan after his killing rampage, etc., etc.

That again raises questions about whether the national security apparatus is working—or whether it merely is a foundational aspect of the ‘architecture of oppression,’ that Snowden refers to. But that will be the subject of another post.

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A version of this piece was published at http://www.salon.com on June 14, 2013.