Abdulmutallab, POTUS, and Al-Awlaki: NPR Stenographers and Post-Assassination Apologias

Yesterday, a US judge sentenced Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to life in prison without parole for eight felony counts, including attempted murder and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. You will recall that on Christmas Day 2009, Nigerian-born Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight  from Amsterdam to Detroit with an explosive device planted in his underwear. The bomb did not go off, though Abdulmutallab was burned in the effort.

Several interesting facts to note: First, Abdulmutallab, unlike Anwar Al-Awlaki, was not a US citizen. Second, Abdulmutallab received a US criminal trial, and by many accounts, seems to have been accorded due process: He was charged publicly; he was read his Miranda rights; and he was given a court-appointed lawyer, whom he dismissed. As Glenn Greenwald suggests, due process is possible when trying suspected terrorists. Third, the evidence on which Abdulmutallab was convicted was given by several witnesses who were on the plane (more evidence of due process). Fourth, Abdulmutallab has apparently admitted under questioning by the FBI, to have trained with Anwar Al-Awlaki and Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Fifth, we are not privy to the conditions under which the confession was obtained. Sixth, there are many statements by British newspapers, US officials, and Yemeni reporters that link Abdulmutallab to Al-awlaki, but we don’t have any official evidence.

NPR’s reportage of it was a remarkable act of breathless apologia. Dina Temple-Raston, who wrote a well-researched expose of the FBI’s attempt (in an act of unmitigated racist profiling) to infiltrate a group of Muslims after September 11, 2001, covered the sentencing. I used to appreciate her work in the early days after September 11, especially her sober and balanced attempt to consider how Muslims were being received in the American Political Arena. Temple-Raston and Melissa Block, pointed breathlessly to Abdulmutallab’s confession, given as testimony in his trial, that he had joined Anwar Al-Awlaki for several days of intense training in preparation for this event.

Here’s an excerpt from their exchange:

BLOCK: Dina, we heard you mention the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Talk about his role in this plot.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Well, you remember Awlaki is that radical cleric who may be best known as a propagandist for al-Qaida’s arm in Yemen. He had this huge presence and a Facebook page and a lot of English-speaking followers. What we knew about Abdulmutallab was that he had said he was inspired by him. What is new are these details that came out in this court document that was supposed to help the judge make a decision about the sentencing. And that document revealed the extent of Awlaki’s role in the plot.
Abdulmutallab told investigators that he went to Yemen in search of Awlaki, and he wanted to martyr himself. And he eventually actually went to Awlaki’s house in the desert and trained with him for several days. And he said Awlaki connected him with an al-Qaida bomb maker who actually constructed the underwear bomb and even helped him make his martyrdom video.
BLOCK: Was Abdulmutallab basically saying that al-Awlaki was the mastermind, the instigator ordering this attack then?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, essentially. And the reason why this is so important is because Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen late last year. And it was a very controversial strike because Awlaki was born in New Mexico. He’s an American. And the Obama administration said he was operational – was an operational threat. But they provided any (sic) evidence to back that up. The release of these details from the Abdulmutallab case are a start. And we’re expecting the attorney general, Eric Holder, to talk about the legal justification for killing Awlaki any time now.
I mean, we understand that there’s a speech being prepared to at least address the issue. And we don’t know when that speech is going to be given, but it seems that the details in this Abdulmutallab filing could be readying the ground for that. (my emphasis)

This confession, to hear Block and Temple-Raston, would confirm—no, prove—that President Obama was correct to have assassinated Al-Awlaki even though he gave no evidence for the killing. The two stenographers, as Glenn Greenwald has aptly described, seemed to concur that the confession would become post-facto proof that would vindicate the POTUS and the AG Eric Holder in their decision. They completely—forgot? ignored? the fact that Abdulmutallab’s confession had little to do with the initial controversy over Al-Awlaki’s murder—namely the absence of due process, the absence of any (let alone objective) evidence, the decision to kill an US Citizen by sending Navy Seals into another sovereign nation without permission. Abdulmutallab’s confession has little bearing on exculpating Obama’s use of the unilateral, autocratic, power in ordering the killing of Al-Awlaki as a US Citizen. The supposed confession seems to confirm some bizarre post-assassination fact to Block and Temple-Raston, along the lines of an  “I told you so”: “See, he (POTUS) was right to use arbitrary autocratic power!!” Indeed, it would appear that Temple-Raston and Block have given up nearly all critical skills, which I suppose is what is owed to become foremost stenographers on National Public Radio.

The Power of Arrogance: the US and the Terrorism Card

Besides marking the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay, Wednesday was notable for the murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mustafa Ahmadi-Roshan.  The NYT reported that, “The campaign, which experts believe is being carried out mainly by Israel, apparently claimed its latest victim on Wednesday when a bomb killed a 32-year-old nuclear scientist in Tehran’s morning rush hour.”

“Mainly by Israel.” Who else would help Israel…but the US, its closest ally?  Before I go on, just want to note here that the NYT reported it, which means that it is a fact that Israel (and a good probability that the US) murdered an Iranian national.  Why?  Because if the NYT is reporting it, it must have been confirmed by US and Israeli government officials.  We know that the NYT’s model of reportage, despite their claims to publish All the News That is Fit to Print, is more Pravda than Colorlines. We also know the NYT reports only what the US state approves for reporting (remember this? Scroll down to paragraph #9).

[NB: Here is a terrific sardonic analysis by Jay Rosen which I read after writing this post, which refers to a query of NYT readers by its Public Blog editor about whether the media should prioritize truth-telling! And here I worried that readers would decide I was a conspiracy theorist. I can’t even make this stuff up.]

Glenn Greenwald asks why, when a Saudi official is targeted for murder by Iranian agents, the US denounces that action as terrorism, but when the US and Israel are found to have collaborated on murdering an Iranian nuclear scientist, it’s called a covert or a targeted killing by most major media outlets.  Greenwald offered ample evidence of the double standards of the mainstream media (MSM) by pointing to clips from ABC News, AP, CNN, Washington Post, Council of Foreign Relations, and the US’ very own office of obfuscation, the Department of Justice, all of whom point to Iran’s actions in terms of terrorism, but find the Israeli/US hit to be merely a covert or targeted killing.

Why the double standard? The obvious, if too simple, answer is because the US has shifted from being an “superpower” to an Empire. And we know that Empires call the shots when they please, as they please, and how they please. And as importantly, Empires can choose which strategy they want to take: Shall “we” engage in direct brute violence and just kill folks en masse and openly (such as the German genocide of the Herero Tribe in Namibia)? Or should “we” codify our violence through the rule of law (such as the British massacre in Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919), and insist that it follows from the word of God, of Nature, or from an obvious consensus of “right-thinking” peoples in our midst at home and internationally?

Of course, Empires don’t have to choose. That is, after all, what it means to be an Empire. I mean, if Empires chose strategies, that might indicate that they were worried about public perceptions, backlash, or reprimands from other superpowers. As in the instances of Guantanamo, renditions, the National Security Entry –Exit System (NSEERS) (used to round up thousands of Muslim men residing in the states after 9/11), material support statutes which can retroactively name former allies as terrorists or terrorist organizations (PKK), the creation of enemy combatants, warrantless wiretapping, pre-emptive and indefinite detention of foreign nationals (and now, of US nationals)–ALL of these can be done under the aegis of the Rule of Law, while also engaging in overt and direct violence without a direct mandate, approval or review from Congress or the Courts.  We see this charade in the decision to attack Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the assassination of Terrorist #1 Osama Bin Laden, the assassination of Terrorist #2, US national Anwar Al-Awlaki (see the absolute absence of evidence of Awlaki’s terrorist credentials even in response to repeated questioning by ABC News’ Jake Tapper. Tune in at 2:24), and the assassination of Roshan.  Now we hear increasing murmurs of an impending attack on Iran.

Again, I know it’s too trite and obvious to reiterate that these actions are all being done in the name of fighting the “War Against Terror,” but let me do so anyway.  I don’t think Greenwald goes far enough when he says,

the fact that Terrorism has no fixed meaning does not mean it is inconsequential. The opposite is true. Terrorism is one of the most consequential words in our political lexicon. The term designates Supreme, Unmitigated Evil. Once someone is successfully branded a Terrorist, it means that anything and everything can and should be done to them without constraints.

The advantage of being an Empire is that we codify the terms we like to use in ways that can be deployed against dissenters, agitators, or racial threats. And that’s precisely the beauty of the seeming ambiguity of the word “Terrorist.”

The most recent definition of “terrorism” according to US Code, Title 18, § 2331, states that

‘international terrorism’ means activities that involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State


“appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce” civilian populations, influence government policies, affect government conduct, or “occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”

If we substitute “Iran” for the United States in the above definition, it seems fairly easy to apply this definition to the assassination of Mustafa Ahmadi-Roshan. The definition of terrorism as a federal crime, as expressed a decade ago in the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, was even less artful. Among other things, a terrorist act included injury or death of US nationals outside US boundaries (Sec 808). This definition might have repositioned the murder of Al-Awlaki in a starkly different light. Coincidentally, the PATRIOT Act doesn’t discuss the killing of US nationals outside the confines of the US….by the US.

Legal exegesis is probably best left to (progressive) lawyers, which I am not, and it’s fairly boring outside of a classroom or courtroom, so I’ll stop. But it seems that the definition of terrorism is a little less ambiguous than Greenwald suggests. As we have come to learn especially vividly in the last year, it’s not a terrorist act if a foreign national is murdered, and especially not if the US is doing the murdering.

In many ways, the Patriot Act is not “new” law. Its path was paved by any number of older laws, such as the the 1917 Espionage Act, Executive Order 9066 (signed by Pres. Roosevelt to authorize the internment of migrants and citizens of Japanese descent), 1978 FISA (defanged in 2008), and 1996 Anti-terrorist Act. The ability to circumvent judicial review for “aliens” is also found in various laws over the last decade and before. That circumvention was, again, paved by numerous older laws. See Daniel Kantstroom’s brilliant book, Deportation Nation, for a comprehensive, if turgid, list and discussion of laws that manage, regulated, and criminalized non-“Americans” since the late 1700’s. Nothing new, perhaps.

Still the Patriot Act, at least for those of us born in the last 50 years, felt like a game-changer in terms of highlighting ways to circumvent Constitutional safeguards under the auspices of “fighting” terror. “Terror” became the legalized name for newly visible racial threats (like Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, South Asians), and of course, we know that the echo chamber called the MSM is very useful in furthering the State’s purposes by helping disseminate its propaganda with images, fear-mongering, heightened hysteria-turned cultural-status quo.

Now, let’s be clear: the notion of racial threats have been long associated with some US populations of color; the legalized names for long-standing racial threats (mostly African American men and women) have been articulated along the lines of violent offenders, murderers, rapists, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc.  So, the notion of constitutional reliability has never been a solid concept for the US black population. Today, the reliability of Constitutional rights evaporates for many more folks, some of whom previously depended on being able to slip into the “good” minority category (Legal scholar Karen Engle has an old but great piece on this).

Another (interesting?) point: the racial threat of terror has been conjoined with the threat of the undocumented. It’s not uncoincidental that the war on migrants has revved up within the discourse of the War on Terror. So, while terror was re-instituted in a legal definition in 2001, the war on the undocumented also dovetails with it through the language of “defending the Homeland” (Seriously? We’re resorting to Nazi terminology?), “our” borders, along with the usual nationalist trash about defending our liberty and way of life, etc. As is always the case with fear-mongering, the law eventually becomes invisible, expressed instead through popular and cultural discourses.

Greenwald’s point remains: Terror is an ambiguous term, but its use is anything but ambiguous: it’s a tool of the US Empire and its allies, deployed against those who go against the mainstream national grain either through their express actions (dissent or protest) or through their racial presence.

It is, as I’ve mentioned before, an Empire State of mind. The state’s response to the Occupy protests around the country stunned many people who had accepted the US line that violence is justly and exclusively directed against those who threaten our way of life. They were surprised to see the authoritarian hand of the state brought out in response to their middle-class college- or  law-school-going children, their professional-class neighbors, and even their grandparents. The passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), perhaps coincidentally, now legalizes the arrest of those same college students, professionals, and grandparents without cause. The arrest of your sweet liberal neighbors has been facilitated by the Patriot Act, but also by the expansions of FISA and the widespread collaboration of the telecommunication companies. Revolt, protest, dissent (whether by challenging the banks or by insistently living as an undocumented migrant in order to achieve…what?…political, economic, religious, sexual, security): these have been long-standing terrorist acts, but typically associated with visible racial threats. When your financially secure children, friends, neighbors are being targeted, that should be an important clue that those that the US Empire deems “terrorists” may be scapegoats or targets in a larger ideological struggle over the hearts and minds of Americans.  These random murders and promiscuous state violence are the consequence of unchecked arrogance couple with unrestrained power.

What’s the antidote to Empire? Unchecked arrogance–in the form of uninhibited state power–requires critical scrutiny, oversight and strict (i.e. not Bush-like) judicial accountability. If we have a state that insists that it knows best regardless of public outrage, then it’s time to jump off the righteous “war on terror” bandwagon.