24 and Zero Dark Thirty helped sell Americans on torture

A new Pew poll says Americans approve of CIA torture by 51%-29%, so bringing this out again:

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some haveclaimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.”

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A poem for Chelsea Manning on her birthday

US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning turns 27 in prison today, serving 35 years for leaking proof of torture and other US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the eve of her show trial in summer 2013, I wrote this poem for Chelsea (then known as Bradley).

As I explained in that post, I’d been reading a lot of Adorno: The title is a reference to his infamous dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz would be barbaric”, while the epigraph is a quote from a poignant passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about the knowing resignation with which Americans accept their powerlessness in the capitalist economy.

We’ve let Chelsea down, and we’ll let her down every day of our lives until we honor her actions by our own courage to seek justice.

“No poems after Auschwitz”

KS 6/1/2013

It’s a free country

But freedom has rules:

You can say what you want about the Market

but if you don’t play ball

you’re not one of us.

We don’t leak the wrong footage

of the wrong Apache helicopters

swarming over Baghdad

picking off civilians like flies.

And on a rainy Tuesday in November

every four years

we pick Dear Leader

like free people do.

You’ll never change the world.

But to those who will try –

The risk you bear is

unspeakable

it’s terrifying

 

I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.

Extrajudicial assassination: An Obama holiday tradition

This weekend, the Obama administration began an operation targeting “suspected Al-Qaeda militants” in Yemen, where three days of drone strikes have left at least 55 people dead. Days earlier, the Al-Qaeda network’s Arabian Peninsula affiliate (AQAP) had released a video of an unprecedented gathering of AQAP fighters, including its leader, Nasir Al-Wuhayshi, who vowed to fight back against Western “crusaders”.

George W. Bush, who launched one drone attack against Yemen (in 2002), once described the War on Terror as a “crusade”. But it’s Barack Obama – still the anti-Bush in the eyes of most Democrats, despite having bombed Yemen more than 80 times – who marked Easter Sunday by killing 30 people without charge or trial in south Yemen’s Abyan province.

Most of mainstream media reporting on the administration’s so-called targeted killing program simply parrots the claims of anonymous administration sources (or in this case, unnamed “high-level Yemeni government officials”). But can we really take their word for it? How do we know the dead were all “suspected Al-Qaeda militants”? And even if they were guilty of some punishable infraction, why couldn’t they be charged with a crime like any other criminal?

This seems like a good time to point out that:

  • The administration defines “militants” as “all military-age males in a strike zone”.
  • A Human Rights Watch report found roughly 70% of airstrike victims in Yemen were civilians.
  • Yemen is the primary theater for the Obama policy of signature strikes, which allow the administration to order an attack without knowing the identities of the targets, based on patterns of “suspicious behavior”.
  • According to a legal memo carefully prepared by the Justice Department and “leaked” in Feb. 2013, the administration doesn’t need a shred of evidence that someone is a threat to national security in order to assassinate them for being a threat to national security.

Government officials lie about the extrajudicial killing program all the time, and mainstream news outlets take their word for it – every time. When, on Dec. 12, 2013, a US drone strike hit a wedding convoy, killing at least 12 local tribespeople, US and Yemeni officials “leaked” the demonstrably untrue story that the strike had actually killed 12 militants, including Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, a mid-level AQAP operative.

The fact is that nothing drives terrorist recruitment like the Obama administration’s campaign of terror in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya. As a “counterterrorism” policy, extrajudicial killing – whether by drones, conventional aircraft, or any other weapon – is as counterproductive as it is ethically repugnant. Nothing foments hatred of the United States more, nothing could make outbursts of violence against Americans more inevitable, than our government’s own unrestrained savagery.

Yet polls consistently show that a significant majority of self-identified liberal Democrats support the President’s drone program. Their racism is the subtle racism of indifference to the plight of others – the brown Muslim others whose lives take a backseat to partisan loyalty. 

Every election season, the liberal media and political class position the Democratic Party as a friend: a friend to women, to ethnic minorities, to labor, to queer folks, to the “middle class”. In 2012, the Democratic cheerleading-industrial complex defeated mean old Mitt Romney by demanding lockstep marching behind the President, as if three years of neoliberalism and war were less of a dealbreaker than some missing tax returns or an unfortunate incident with the family dog.

It was later revealed that, during that election, our friend joked to aides that he didn’t know he’d be “really good at killing people”. I don’t think there’s much to say about Obama personally without buying into his formidable cult of personality – only that comments like this betray a callousness we’re told to expect from evil Republicans, not from our friends.

But it was a Democrat who ordered the deaths of four unidentified people in Pakistan on Christmas Day, 2013, and it was a Democrat who massacred 30 people in Yemen on Easter. I think Charles Davis said it best: “If I had a friend like that, I probably wouldn’t be friends with them anymore.”

A couple of media interviews with me

I was on Iran’s Press TV this past week discussing US public opinion about the War on Terror – you can watch that clip here.

I also returned to the Progressive Radio Network with a couple of my SJP comrades to talk BDS and Israeli apartheid for a full hour – stream or download here (interview starts at around minute 7:45).

“Terrorism” doesn’t always mean what you think it means

On Wednesday evening, something happened in the US House of Representatives that seemed unthinkable before the revelations of mass NSA surveillance leaked by Edward Snowden. The House defeated by a margin of only 12 votes an amendment to the 2014 defense spending bill that would have defunded the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Specifically, the amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash and co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Conyers, would have cut off funding under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which the Obama administration claims empowers it to conduct dragnet electronic surveillance. As Conyers explains, Section 215 includes no language that would support this interpretation. On the contrary, it “authorized the government to obtain certain business records only if it can show to the FISA court that the records are relevant to an ongoing national security investigation.” Even the original author of the PATRIOT Act, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner, has come out in opposition to this NSA program, arguing that the indiscriminate collection of phone data violates Section 215.

The administration, meanwhile, has fought every step of the way to keep even the legal opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (i.e., the de facto interpretation of the written law) from being made public. On Tuesday, the White House sent NSA Director Keith Alexander to lobby lawmakers to reject the Amash-Conyers amendment. In addition, the administration released this surreal statement urging the House to vote against the amendment, claiming, “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.” As Glenn Greenwald points out,

The highly surgical Amash/Conyers amendment – which would eliminate a single, specific NSA program of indiscriminate domestic spying – is a “blunt approach”, but the Obama NSA’s bulk, indiscriminate collection of all Americans’ telephone records is not a “blunt approach”. Even worse: Amash/Conyers – a House bill debated in public and then voted on in public – is not an “open or deliberative process”, as opposed to the Obama administration’s secret spying activities and the secret court that blesses its secret interpretations of law, which is “open and deliberative”.

The amendment was defeated, but much more narrowly than expected. As the final vote results show, both parties were highly split – with a majority of the GOP backing the administration, and a majority of Democrats opposing it.

As usual, Republicans like John Boehner and Peter King teamed up with top Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman Schultz to defend the national security state. Those who honestly believe that the GOP opposes everything Obama tries to do would surely have been shocked to hear Rep. Michele Bachmann’s impassioned argument that the NSA leaks – and subsequent efforts to limit the Obama administration’s surveillance powers – only help “Islamic jihadists”.

For the first time in the post-9/11 era, however, the coalition between authoritarians in the leadership of both parties was opposed by another trans-partisan coalition. Aligned with the increasingly overwhelming majority of Americans who say mass surveillance violates US privacy rights, the 205 votes in favor of Amash-Conyers included liberals like Barbara Lee and Alan Grayson as well as Tea Party Republicans like Louie Gohmert and Jason Chaffetz.

How meaningfully the emerging coalition will be able to stand up for constitutional rights in the future is unclear. What’s beyond doubt is that this Congressional backlash seemed unlikely before Snowden’s leaks. Even now, it’s still somewhat incredible that this vote played out the way it did. It’s tempting to conclude that public opinion in the wake of the leaks pushed Congressional Democrats and Republicans to flout their respective (identical) party lines. That can’t be the whole story, though. Most important issues find both parties opposed to what the majority of Americans want. And it’s not as if there have been mass demonstrations in the US over the recent spying revelations. In very nearly cutting off funding to a major bulk surveillance program, members of Congress may even be out in front of the US public.

For example, while generally repulsive politicians like Gohmert made good (for once) on their rhetoric of limited government, some liberals and self-identified progressives still insist that they don’t see what all the fuss is about. After all, if you already consent to hand your electronic data to big bad corporations, what’s wrong with the government using that data to catch “Islamic jihadists”? As I discussed in my first post on the NSA leaks, this argument presupposes (incorrectly) that surveillance powers haven’t been used by the US government as a tool of repression – and won’t be in the future. But there’s another implicit assumption in this argument that’s worth highlighting: That corporations and the government are distinct, even opposing forces, rather than active collaborators.

As a matter of fact, according to the FBI, the biggest target of domestic counterterrorism operations aren’t violent jihadis or the increasing number of neo-fascist militias, but rather, left-wing groups that pose a threat to corporate power: Anti-war, animal rights, environmental, and Occupy Wall Street activists.

In 2002, the ACLU detailed how the PATRIOT Act makes the definition of “domestic terrorism” so broad that it could be used to investigate nonviolent acts of protest. In 2005, the FBI’s top domestic terrorism official, John Lewis, declared that, “The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement.” How can this be explained when right-wing violence has increased by 400% since 1990? Who suffers from the violence of white supremacy and patriarchy, and who suffers from “eco-terrorism”? The answer is clearly that while far-right extremists kill and terrorize ethnic and sexual minorities, environmental and animal rights activists damage corporate property and profits.

The US government is right that surveillance is a vital tool in investigating potential threats. The question is: threats to whom? FBI documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund reveal that Occupy Wall Street activists were monitored as domestic criminals and terrorists as early as a month before the first encampment in Zucotti Park – this despite the FBI’s acknowledgement, in those same documents, that OWS organizers did “not condone the use of violence”.

The heavily redacted documents show that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, local law enforcement, and corporations (including Wall Street firms) coordinated extensively to spy on and contain Occupy protests across the country. According to the PCJF’s Executive Director, they are likely “the tip of the iceberg” regarding federal agencies’ function as a “de facto intelligence arm” of the corporate class.

Another FOIA request in 2011 revealed that the FBI monitors – and recommends prosecuting – those who investigate factory farms as terrorists. Under the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and various “Ag Gag” bills passed at the state level, activists and journalists who go undercover to document animal abuse and cruelty can be prosecuted as terrorists.

On one hand, these laws and practices suppress and punish acts of journalism and nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at protecting the most vulnerable beings in society; on the other, they shield corporations who can now commit all sorts of atrocities with impunity. And mass surveillance makes it all but impossible for conscientious individuals and groups to engage in dissent without subjecting their entire life history – including everything, illegal or legal, they’ve ever done – to the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. 

President Obama and Michele Bachmann will keep insisting that it’s necessary for them to know everything in order to protect us from America’s Enemies. When you say you have nothing to hide, what you really mean is that you’re not going to challenge the US government in any meaningful way. Fine.

But our friends and community members who complain about “money in politics” would do well to remember what that actually means in practice: When you say you have nothing to hide, what you also mean is that you’re not going to challenge corporate power in any way that matters. Corporate influence isn’t just a slogan; it has far-reaching implications that we ignore at our own peril. One of them is this: When even those nasty “Islamic jihadists” can be a strategic ally in the US elite’s pursuit of global dominance, the only true “enemies of the state” are the enemies of capital. 

Mass surveillance is a weapon in Obama’s escalating war on dissent

As Bradley Manning’s trial continues (mostly ignored by corporate news outlets), the story of another crucial national security leak has sent shockwaves through the US establishment. Over the course of last week, Glenn Greenwald and other journalists at The Guardian published convincing evidence that the NSA – in direct contradiction to statements by top officials under oath – is engaged in mass wiretapping and surveillance on an astronomical scale, including dragnet surveillance of Americans.

This leak marks the first time that government documents have publicly confirmed the numerous reports (dating back to 2005) of widespread domestic spying by the NSA. It’s also the first time a leaker has disrupted the Obama administration’s routine for whistleblower prosecutions by preemptively claiming responsibility in a series of interviews published by The Guardian. Edward Snowden, as we now know, is an ex-CIA analyst who’d been working under NSA contract for the private company Booz Allen Hamilton. Witnessing firsthand the ongoing expansion of the national security state, Snowden grew so alarmed that he decided to release a carefully selected series of documents to Greenwald. “A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama,” he told Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in Hong Kong, where he’s seeking political asylum. “I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama’s promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.”

Of all the alleged journalists who report on these issues in the US, Greenwald (who lives with his husband in Brazil) was the one Snowden trusted most to do real journalism: that is, not to censor himself under the threat of government retribution. Thanks to Snowden and Greenwald, we now have proof of the following NSA surveillance operations: 

1. The NSA collects the call records of millions of Verizon customers every day, as evidenced by a top-secret FISA court order. The telephone records include information about whom a customer called, from where the call was made, and the length of the conversation.

2. A top-secret program called PRISM gives the NSA “direct access” to the servers of nine internet giants, including Google, Apple, and Facebook. This means the Obama administration does not even have to request information from these internet companies in order to archive and search the electronic communications of users, Americans and non-Americans alike. The Guardian has obtained an internal PowerPoint presentation on the program consisting of 41 slides, of which it has published 4.

3. The NSA can effectively suck up the entire world’s communications under the program dubbed Boundless Informant, a name so apt that it’d be comical were it an invention of Philip K. Dick’s imagination and not an actual US government program. The program doesn’t collect an equivalent amount of data for all countries: Rather, a color-coded map included in The Guardian‘s exposé indicates how much surveillance individual countries are subject to, with Iran the most intensively monitored country.

Fellow NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake has since confirmed that “Snowden saw what I saw”: “The NSA programs that Snowden has revealed are nothing new,” he wrote in The Guardian. “[T]hey date back to the days and weeks after 9/11. I had direct exposure to similar programs, such as Stellar Wind, in 2001.” Stellar Wind, Drake explains, “was a highly secret program that, without warrant or any approval from the Fisa court, gave the NSA access to all phone records from the major telephone companies, including US-to-US calls.”

Both Drake and “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg, widely considered the most important whistleblower in US history, compare the current US intelligence apparatus to that of the notorious Ministry for State Security (“Stasi”) in East Germany. In a piece called “Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America”, Ellsberg writes,

In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material…Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an “executive coup” against the US constitution.

Specifically, regardless of their extremely dubious legality, the NSA programs revealed by the leaked documents unquestionably violate the Fourth Amendment, which I encourage everyone to read. The national security state under Obama – as much as (if not more than) under Bush – violates virtually everyone’s constitutional rights virtually all of the time. This, I think, is the crucial point, which is why I won’t spend time picking apart the various attacks on Snowden and Greenwald by partisan hacks and self-serving authoritarians in the media. Others have already done so. I want to zero in on a question I’ve heard a lot in recent days, not only from professional Obama apologists, but from ordinary people: Even if these practices are unconstitutional – even if they’re illegal – what’s so troubling about the government storing information that you already “choose” to hand over to evil corporations?

This question, as articulated by liberals, seems to assume that the government is mostly benign – especially since a former constitutional lawyer and his party full of hip, reasonable people happen to be in power. Snowden’s own answer is worth quoting in full:

[E]ven if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

It might sound like an obvious point, but apparently, it needs to be made: When the government seizes and codifies authoritarian powers, that enables it to then abuse those powers at any time in the future. When I had the chance to speak with Greenwald at Brooklyn College earlier this year, I asked him why he thinks it is that Americans seem so unwilling to think these and other policies through to their logical conclusions. For one thing, he said, the partisan mentality is so pervasive that all political and ethical questions are reduced to trusting and defending “your guy” and “your team”. For another thing, Americans seem curiously wedded to the belief that some form of fascism or dictatorship might overthrow liberal democracy in other countries, but not in the US. To quote Sinclair Lewis, “It can’t happen here”.

It can happen here. It can get much, much worse, and it’s already begun to. As Mohamad Tabaa points out in an article for Salon, Muslims in the US have already been the victims of mass surveillance since 9/11. Data ranging from emails to library borrowing records aren’t only collected, but used as evidence in court. Entire communities haven’t just been robbed of their privacy; they’ve been criminalized by the very apparatus that claims to keep us safe: “[T]hese powers have since evolved – as was inevitable – well beyond the simplicities of mere surveillance to include deliberate cases of FBI entrapment, which have resulted in innocent people being sentenced to decades in prison.” 

It’s well known that the US government’s COINTELPRO used unconstitutional, sometimes illegal, and ethically repulsive methods to silence radical and progressive voices. Most notoriously, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI hounded Martin Luther King, Jr., using the fruits of their surveillance to blackmail him. When that failed to shut him up, they tried to use what they had to discredit him publicly. A genuine challenge to power may not exist in the US right now, but as poverty and inequality grow, so will resistance to the status quo.

That behind the assault on privacy is really an assault on dissent is apparent from the bipartisan calls, from right-wing Republicans like Peter King and right-wing Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, for the prosecution not only of Snowden, but of Greenwald as well. Greenwald has been a lonely voice of principled opposition to the most shameful policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations, and his readiness to publish these leaks in defiance of the state’s demand for secrecy and obedience has drawn ire from “both sides of the aisle”. Meanwhile, Greenwald has promised that more documents are forthcoming.

For now, it’s likely that retribution will be focused primarily on Snowden. But the Obama administration’s attitude towards journalists who expose its crimes is most clearly illustrated by the case of Abdulelah Haider Shaye. As Jeremy Scahill has documented, Shaye, a Yemeni journalist, dared to report that the US had dropped Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs on one of the poorest villages in the south of Yemen. Shaye revealed that the claims of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government – that it was responsible for the airstrike, and that the target was an Al Qaeda training camp – were patently false. Al Majalah and its inhabitants had been shredded by the US Joint Special Operations Command, which reports directly to the White House. Saleh had Shaye imprisoned and tortured, triggering a huge public outcry. When Saleh considered releasing Shaye, he received a call from President Obama himself, ordering him to keep Shaye in prison indefinitely.

What’s the difference, from Obama’s point of view, between imprisoning Greenwald and imprisoning Shaye? The answer is that Greenwald is a citizen of the US, where the Constitution protects his right to do real journalism and shed light on what the government does in secret. Our civil liberties are inextricably linked to each other. Our right to privacy is essential to our right to voice our opposition and reveal elite wrongdoing. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” – In which authoritarian state is that not the case?

A poem for Bradley Manning

Today, June 1, is the international day of solidarity with Bradley Manning, the US Army whistleblower charged with leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. Among other things, the leaked documents exposed Bush-era war crimes, including running torture centers and death squads in Afghanistan and Iraq. The response of the Obama administration has been ruthless, charging Manning with “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda and imprisoning him for over 1,000 days without trial. He has been held in solitary confinement for much of that time, prompting the UN special rapporteur on torture to denounce his treatment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

The most notorious of the leaks was this video footage of a 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad, dubbed “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, which shows helicopters massacring a group of unarmed men (including two Reuters war correspondents) with the chilling glee of someone playing a video game. At a pretrial hearing in February, Manning said that, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables, this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.” That debate has yet to occur, and the culture of bloodlust and impunity surrounding every act of state violence, past and present, remains intact.

As I struggled to come to terms with our silence, I wrote this poem for Bradley. At the time, I was deeply immersed in the work of Theodor W. Adorno. The title refers to Adorno’s dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”: After the horrors of fascism and the Holocaust, it’s clear that achieving the height of culture hasn’t civilized us. On the contrary, it has distracted from, and rationalized, our other achievement – the apex of our disregard for individual human life. The poem’s epigraph is a quote from a passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s impressions of Americans (Since the English in the quote is also in English in the original, I’ve left the German words [sagt der Amerikaner, “the American says”] untranslated). Americans, they write, judge their self-worth based on their market value; they aren’t ignorant of their powerlessness in the capitalist economy, nor do they celebrate it – rather, they accept it.

We’ve met with willful indifference the actions of a young man whose courage and plight should’ve been a wake-up call to a nation that claims to value human rights and freedom. We – not only the government, not only the media, but we, the people of the United States – have let him down.

“No poems after Auschwitz”

KS 6/1/2013

 

It’s a free country

 

But freedom has rules:

You can say what you want about the Market

but if you don’t play ball

you’re not one of us.

 

We don’t leak the wrong footage

of the wrong Apache helicopters

swarming over Baghdad

picking off civilians like flies.

 

And on a rainy Tuesday in November

every four years

we pick Dear Leader

like free people do.

 

You’ll never change the world.

But to those who will try –

The risk you bear is

unspeakable

it’s terrifying

 

I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.