One of my favorite quotes includes the lines “I awoke this morning to find that it was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” I think that sums up a part of my thinking, but certainly not all.
A nuclear reckoning, war with China, or anything else quite so violently apocalyptic is imminent, or even underway, as far too many of us think. I live in one of those bubbles, the sum of which make up America now. Many of the people I talk to, in person and here online, seem to believe, truly believe, the world is coming to something of an end. These are by and large educated, once-rational people, some of whom have been voices of reason in the past. They are not that way now.
We are however falling, some important threads of our nation being teased apart, and our best days are behind us. But this did not start on November 8, 2016, or January 20, 2017, thoough historians will note those dates as significant milestones (same as September 11, 2001.) But not because of Donald Trump. Because his name just happened to be attached to what has been growing inside us since the end of WWII.
The Russians did not elect Trump. They may or may not have tried to get involved in the election, but we did this to ourselves. As the historian you have probably not read but should read Morris Berman predicted years ago, we are eating each other.
We are consumed most of all by our fears. Fear of what the Soviets, and maybe the Chinese, would do after WWII. We created a nuclear arsenal measured in how many multiples of times it could destroy the world. We dragged our country through disasters like Vietnam, that murdered so many and cracked apart our nation. Our fear of race, our war on drugs, and then of course our fear of a world beyond our control after 9/11. Another quote that seems to fit is “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”
The fears were encouraged at every opportunity by those who profited from them, either by rawly making money, or by acquiring power and control, or in most cases, both. We are unconcerned — it’s normal — that politicians routinely leave office wealthy despite modest salaries. We have so much, and share so little. We enthusiastically abandoned so many of the good things about America, such as our Bill of Rights. America’s pre-WWII Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern irony, hope.
Of course none of that was close to perfect, but it was good and it is gone in some arenas and going away in most of the rest. We’ll still be allowed to rant on Twitter, a modern day bread and circus, but the real stuff of standing up and speaking back to government will happen only with handfuls of whistleblowers who will sacrifice their lives and freedom to say what they need to say.
I thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead was proven to be a dupe. I thought he might turn it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously. One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. If there was no Obama there would be no Trump.
A new generation, and me again, thought there was another chance with Bernie Sanders. We were stupid. He was a distraction, and showed his true colors throwing away everything he said previously to support a candidate of the same old old school we’ve been voting for since WWII.
Trump is at best/worst a symbol of all this. How powerful people play us against each other and exploit our differences. How fear (currently fear of Trump filtered through fear of Putin) can be used to manipulate us. How the ideas of democracy can be so easily tossed aside so that our most progressive thinkers are convinced elections are illegitimate, and anything from silly name calling to demands for something akin to a coup are justified when the enemy is as perceived evil as Trump. Echoing the famous lines from Vietnam, it is in their minds necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.
I’ve written here before open letters to my daughters, talking about the world they are maturing into. This is in that spirit. Somebody, maybe them, is one day going to stop and wonder how they got to where they ended up, an oligarchy that profits from mouthing the nice words of our Founders while ignoring them. Maybe they will find this essay, dated for convenience only, January 20, 2017.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I’ve reviewed Oliver Stone’s movie Snowden elsewhere, and it’s well worth seeing just as a movie. But of course the issues brought up by Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, are more complex than fit into two hours.
I had this hit home in a recent discussion with a friend who keeps insisting he has nothing to hide in his emails, phone calls, social media, etc., so why should he care if the NSA looks at all that?
Friend, here’s why:
NSA surveillance is legal.
True, as was slavery in the U.S., the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa and so forth. Laws serve higher purposes. They can be manipulated for evil. That’s why we need checks and balances to protect us.
Well, there are checks and balances in the system to protect us.
The king of all checks and balances in this, the Fourth Amendment, has been treated by the government like a used Kleenex.
As for the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA), set up to review government requests for wiretapping, it approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012. The FBI made 15,229 National Security Letter requests in 2012 on Americans. None of those even require FISA rubber-stamping. And here’s DOJ trying to keep classified a court ruling that says it might have acted unconstitutionally.
The first FISA ruling ever released in full came from Edward Snowden. Before that, no one outside a small circle inside the government had ever seen one.
And you know who represents the “suspect” (i.e., you) in front of the FISA court? No one. You don’t even know they’re reviewing you.
If all the NSA’s activities are legal, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public, in front of the Supreme Court. After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong there is nothing to hide. Unfortunately, when Amnesty International tried to bring such a case before the Court, the case was denied because Amnesty could not prove it was subject to monitoring– that was a secret!– and thus was denied standing to even bring the suit.
Unfettered surveillance violates both the Fourth Amendment protections against search, and the First Amendment protections on the right to peaceably assemble, online in this instance.
Anyway, whatever, FISA. I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care? If you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to hide!
The definition of “wrong” can change very quickly, especially if you have no way to defend yourself, or even know you’re under suspicion. Are you really, really ready to risk everything on what is right and wrong today staying that way forever? Seems like a fool’s bet, given America’s witch hunts in the 1950s for communists, and Islamophobia today. Things do change.
Well, I trust Obama on this.
Good for you. There’ll be a new president soon. You also trust him or her? How about the one after that, and the one after that? Data collected is forever. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish.
FYI, whether you trust Obama, Trump, Hillary or the next presidents, do remember your personal data is in the hands of the same people that run the TSA, the IRS and the DMV. Do you trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? Do you believe none of them would ever sell your data for personal profit ever? That they have your information so well protected hackers will never get to it and dump it out onto the Internet?
How about other governments? The NSA is already sharing your data with, at minimum, British and Israeli intelligence. Those are foreign governments that your American government is informing on you to.
Distasteful as this all is, it is necessary to keep us safe. It’s for our own good.
The United States, upholding to our beautiful Bill of Rights, has survived (albeit on a sometimes bumpy road) two world wars, the Cold War and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of our civil rights. Keep in mind that the Founders created the Bill of Rights, point-by-point, specifically to address the abuses of power (look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment) they experienced under an oppressive British government.
A bunch of angry jihadis, some real and many imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system. Prior to 9/11 we did not have a mass-scale terror act (by foreigners; American Citizen Timothy McVeigh pulled one off.) Since 9/11 we have not had a mass-scale terror attack. More than 15 years in, we must accept 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, and cannot be a justification for everything the government wishes to do.
There is also the question of why, if the NSA is vacuuming up everything, and even sharing that collection abroad, this all needs to be kept secret from the American people. If it is for our own good, the government should be proud to tell us what they are doing for us, instead of being embarrassed when it leaks.
After all, if you’re not doing anything wrong then you’ve got nothing to hide, right?
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
But what I really wanted to say to her — rather than see you later, call this weekend, do you need money? — was: I’m sorry.
Like all parents in these situations, I was thinking about her future. And like all of America, in that future she won’t be able to escape what is now encompassed by the word “terrorism.”
Everything is OK, But You Should Be Terrified
Terrorism is a nearly nonexistent danger for Americans. We have more of a chance of being hit by lightning, though fear doesn’t work that way. There’s no 24/7 coverage of global lightning strikes or “see something, say something” signs that warn about reporting thunderstorms. I felt no need to apologize for lightning.
But terrorism? I really wanted to tell my daughter just how sorry I was she would have to live in what 9/11 transformed into the most frightened country on Earth.
Want the numbers? Some 40 percent of Americans believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was in 2001, the highest percentage ever.
Want the apocalyptic jab in the gut? Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said earlier this month the threat has not lessened. “Those people, those enemies, those members of that terrorist group, still intend – as they did on 9/11 – to destroy your freedoms, to kill you, kill your families, they still intend to destroy the United States of America.”
All that fear turned us into an engine of chaos abroad, while consuming our freedoms at home. And it saddens me that there was a pre-9/11world her generation and all those who follow her will never know.
My kids grew up overseas while, from 1988 to 2012, I served with the State Department. For the first part of my career as a diplomat, wars were still discreet matters. For example, though Austria was a neighbor of Slovenia, few there worried the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s would spill across the border. Suicide bombers didn’t threaten Vienna when we visited as tourists in 1991. That a war could again consume large parts of the world and involve multiple nations would have seemed as remote to us vacationers that year as the moon.
Even the big war of the era, Desert Storm in 1991, seemed remarkably far away. My family and I were assigned in Taiwan at the time, and life there simply went on. There was no connection between us and what was happening in the sand far away, and certainly we didn’t worry about a terror attack.
It’s easy to forget how long ago all that was. Much of the Balkans is now a tourist destination, and a young soldier who fought in Desert Storm would be in his mid-forties today. Or think of it this way: either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump entering the Oval Office next January will be the fifth president in succession to bomb Iraq.
On September 11, 2001, I was assigned to Japan, and like everyone, as part of a collective trauma, watched the terrible events on TV. Due to the time difference, it was late at night in Tokyo. As the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I made sandwiches, suspecting the phone would ring and I’d be called to the embassy for a long shift. I remember my wife saying, “Why would they call you in? We’re in Tokyo!” Then, of course, the phone did ring, and I remember running to grab it not out of national security urgency, but so it didn’t wake my kids.
My daughter’s birthday falls on the very day that George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. I missed her celebration in 2003 to stay at work preparing for the embassy to be overrun by al-Qaeda. I missed her birthday again in 2005, having been sent on temporary duty to Thailand to assist the U.S. Navy in setting up a short-term base facility there. When the naval officers mentioned the location they wanted to use to the Thai military liaison accompanying us, he laughed. That’s taken, he said, but you didn’t hear it from me, better ask your own people about it.
Later, I would learn the location was a CIA black site where the country I then represented was torturing human beings.
Looking back, it’s remarkable to realize that, in response to a single day of terror, Washington set the Middle East ablaze, turned air travel into a form of bondage play, and did away with the best of our democracy.
Nothing required the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, renditions, drone assassinations, and the National Security Agency turning its spy tools inward. The White House kept many of the nastiest details from us, but made no secret of its broader goals. Americans on the whole supported each step, and Washington then protected the men and women who carried out each of the grim acts it had inspired. After all, they were just following orders.
Protocols now exist allowing the president to select American citizens, without a whit of due process, for drone killing. Only overseas, he says, but you can almost see the fingers crossed behind his back. Wouldn’t an awful lot of well-meaning Americans have supported an aerial drone killing in San Bernardino, or at the Pulse club in Orlando? Didn’t many support using a robot to blow up a suspect in Dallas?
Back in the Homeland
The varieties of post-9/11 fear sneak up on us all. I spent a week this summer obsessively watching the news for any sign of trouble in Egypt while my daughter traveled there to visit some old embassy acquaintances. She had to risk her life to see a high school friend in a country once overrun with tourists.
So, I want to say sorry to my daughter and her friends for all the countries where we Americans, with our awkward shorts and sandals, used to be at least tolerated, but are now dangerous for us to visit. Sorry that you’ll never see the ruins of Babylon or the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq unless you join the military.
Arriving back in the U.S., my daughter called from the airport to say she’d be home in about an hour. I didn’t mention my worries that she’d be stopped at “the border,” a new name for baggage claim, or have her cell phone confiscated for having traveled to the Middle East. She was, in fact, asked by an immigration agent her purpose in going there, something that even the Egyptians hadn’t bothered to question her about. We don’t yet say “papers, please,” but we do refer to America as the Homeland.
I also wanted to apologize to my daughter because she will never really know what privacy is in our new surveillance world. I needed to ask her forgiveness for how easily we let that happen, for all those who walk around muttering they have nothing to hide, so what’s to worry about. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was that she’s now afraid of the police, not just for herself but especially for her friends of color. I wanted to tell her how badly I felt that she’d only know a version of law enforcement so militarized that, taking its cues from the national security state, views us all as potential enemies and so believes that much of its job involves repressing our most basic rights.
I’m sorry, I want to say to her, that protesting Americans can be confined in something called a “free speech zone” surrounded by those same police. I want to tell my daughter the Founders would rise in righteous anger at the idea of the police forcing citizens into such zones outside a political convention. And that most journalists don’t consider such a development to be a major story of our times.
As I sent her off to college, I wanted to say how sorry I was that we had messed up the world, sorry we not only didn’t defeat the terrorists the way Grandpa did the Nazis but, by our actions, gave their cause new life and endless new recruits. Al-Qaeda set a trap on 9/11 and we fell into it. The prison American occupiers set up at Camp Bucca in Iraq became a factory for making jihadis, and the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib remain, like Guantánamo, an infomercial inviting others to pick up a weapon.
The New Normal
My daughter is not naïve. Like most of her classmates, she is aware of most of these things, but she has no point of comparison. What fish truly sees the water around it? And it’ll be even harder for her kids to try and do so. Her adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that is too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.
I’m truly sorry that her generation copes with this by bouncing between cynicism and the suspension of disbelief. That allows many to accept the idea that invading Iraq was a reasonable response to an attack on America by a group of Saudis funded by Saudi “charity donations.” And by now, “well, it wasn’t actually a crime” is little short of a campaign slogan for acts that couldn’t be more criminal. That’s a world on a path to accepting 2+2 can indeed equal 5 if our leaders tell us it’s true.
We allow those leaders to claim the thousands of American troops now stationed in Iraq are somehow not “boots on the ground,” or in the newest phraseology, “ground troops.” Drone strikes, we’re told, are surgical, killing only bad guys with magic missiles, and never on purpose hitting civilians, hospitals, children, or wedding parties. The deaths of human beings in such situations are always rare and accidental, the equivalent of those scratches on the car door from that errant shopping cart in the mall parking lot.
Cleaning Up After Her Dad
If anyone is going to fix this mess — I want to tell my daughter — it’s going to have to be you. And, I want to add, you’ve got to do a better job than I did, if, that is, you really want to find a way to say thanks to me for the skating lessons, the puppy, and for me not being too mad when you almost violated curfew to spend more time with that boy.
After the last cardboard boxes had been lugged up the stairs, I held back my tears until the very end. Hugging my daughter, I felt I wasn’t where I was standing but in a hundred other places; I wasn’t consoling a smart, proud, twenty-something woman apprehensive about senior year, but an elementary school student going to bed on the night that would forever be known only as 9/11.
Back home, the house is empty and quiet. Outside, the leaves have just a hint of yellow. At lunch, I had some late-season strawberries nearly sweet enough to confirm the existence of a higher power. I’m gonna really miss this summer.
I know I’m not the first parent to grow reflective watching his last child walk out the door. But I have a sense of what’s ahead of her. Fear is a terrible thing to be sorry for. And that can be scary.
(Photo is for illustration only; it is not my daughter)
#NeverForget911 . Wait, did something happen yesterday besides #ClintonCollapse ? I forgot.
OK, ok, serious now. It’s been 15 years now people, so we can talk about this kind of thing, ‘kay? That’s what anniversaries are for, after all.
Peter Bergen, at CNN, who is often the sanest clown in the CNN circus, tell us that al Qaeda really blew it on 9/11.
“Like the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Bergen, “9/11 was a great tactical victory for America’s enemies. But in both these cases the tactical success of the attacks was not matched by strategic victories. Quite the reverse.” He goes on to remind us the U.S. totally kicked Japan’s butt.
Now it can get a little fuzzy when you try to jam 9/11 and al Qaeda into the Saving Private Ryan narrative framework. So it’s important to understand what Bergen thinks al Qaeda’s goal was with the attacks 15 years ago. I’ll quote him so when I call him an idiot a bit later, you’ll understand my reasoning:
“Bin Laden believed that al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington would result in an American withdrawal from the Middle East. Instead, the United States quickly toppled the Taliban and al Qaeda… The United States not only did not reduce its influence in the Middle East, but it also established or added to massive bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And, of course, it also occupied both Afghanistan and Iraq. Bin Laden’s tactical victory on 9/11 turned out to be a spectacular strategic flop.”
Bergen is an idiot. Al Qaeda got much, much more than it ever hoped for out of 9/11, and Bergen’s silly retelling of al Qaeda’s goals is part and parcel of what drives American foreign policy off a cliff on a daily basis in the Middle East.
Japan was a nation set on territorial conquest in WWII. It bombed Pearl Harbor to destroy as much of America’s Navy as it could to buy itself as much time as it could to conquer as much as it could across the Pacific before America got back on its naval feet. Standard war as it has been since Caesar.
Terrorists fight a different war, a political one. They don’t have navies. They have guys who hijack planes.
Quite the opposite of what Bergen says, al Qaeda did not want America to withdraw from the Middle East, he wanted to pull America into a Middle Eastern quagmire as deep and sticky as possible. This would drive recruits to al Qaeda’s cause, establishing with global certainty the west was at war with Islam.
That worked; see Islamic State, and the way war and chaos has spread from edge-to-edge in the region, as well as the presence of so-called lone wolves in the U.S. and Europe. And remember, on 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya were all stable countries and there were no lone wolves in California and Florida.
Bin Laden did almost blow it. He expected the west to bog down in the graveyard of Afghanistan very quickly, but that didn’t happen. The early successes that drove the Taliban out of governing and into the mountains were done with very few troops and relatively clean bombing attacks. It was after that the Afghan war grew messy, when reconstruction and democracy and all that became the new goals interlaced with the U.S. having new tolerance for the nasty bastards running Pakistan.
And, of course, the crown jewel of bin Laden’s success, the invasion of Iraq.
Bush’s invasion of Iraq was so transparently pointless to everyone but most Americans that it made concrete all the things bin Laden was saying: America was at war with Islam, America sought to conquer the Middle East, America wanted the oil, and so forth. But even bin Laden could not have hoped for the free gifts his cause got out of the invasion: the chance for al Qaeda to set up shop in Iraq, the massacre at Fallujah when the Marines reduced the city to medieval rubble, the images of torture from Abu Ghraib, the jihadi training grounds at prison Camp Bucca, and, of course, the overall Sunni-Shia clusterf*ck the invasion ended up as. You know, the one that is driving the current ISIS war today.
And never mind the U.S. destruction of the Libyan state, America’s clumsy hand in crushing the Arab Spring, the growth of Islamic State and the little wars between the Turks and the Kurds, in Yemen, and more to come. Chaos and failed states favor the terrorists.
As Canadian historian Gwynne Dyer, a guy we all should be listening to said, “It is hard enough for Westerners to recognize that their attackers actually have a coherent strategy and are not simply mad fanatics motivated by hatred. To accept that these terrorist attacks are not really about Western countries at all, but merely an attempt to use the overreaction of Western countries to create change in the Middle East, is beyond their understanding.”
What Peter Bergen cannot seem to understand himself is bin Laden was practicing a kind of tough love when he staged the 9/11 attacks, to bring the wrath of the United States down on innocent Muslims to radicalize and politicize them. It is, bin Laden (and now ISIS) believe, for their own long-term good.
We’ll need to wait longer to find out if the U.S. will ever get it. See you next year for the next anniversary of 9/11.
We’re instituted full background checks, body scanners and cavity searches at my home for all guests and pets (can’t be too careful!), which keeps me pretty busy, so this will be a short post. Because they hate our freedoms, we’ve taken them away for safekeeping.
So here’s our fun thing for today: reflecting. So let’s get started:
State of Things September 11, 2001
— There was no Islamic State.
— Syria and Libya were peaceful places more or less.
— There was no global refugee crisis.
— There was no Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iraq opposed Iran, helping establish a balance of power in the Middle East. Any danger Saddam was worth was contained by the no-fly zones and had been, successfully, since 1991.
— Iran’s plans were cooled by an enemy on its western border, Iraq, and one on its eastern border, the Taliban.
— The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. was not at war, and 4,486 Americans had not died in Iraq and 1,935 had not died in Afghanistan. A bunch o’ brown people were still alive. Suicide was not the most common cause of death in our military.
— The U.S. was not known as a torturer, a keeper of secret prisons, an assassin with drones.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and helped finance jihad (in Afghanistan.)
— America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats.
— Americans at home were secure, protected from abuses by their government by the First and Fourth Amendments.
State of Things September 11, 2016
— There is an Islamic State (and still an al Qaeda) that makes war across the Middle East and commits terrorism in Europe.
— Syria and Libya are failed states, at war, and sanctuaries for Islamic State and al Qaeda.
— There is a global refugee crisis that threatens the stability of Europe.
— There is a Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East, with well-established ties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
— The Taliban control much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. government actively and continuously spies on Americans, particularly through electronic means. Once aimed only abroad, the NSA now devotes a substantial portion of its mighty resources inside the U.S.
— The U.S. government drone assassinates American Citizen abroad without trial.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and help finance jihad (in Afghanistan, Syria, maybe for a day in New York.)
— We’re all scared as hell about terrorism all the time.
Crystal is the traditional material of the 15th anniversary gift. Fitting, in that it breaks easily.
It’s interesting that accusations that Putin is trying to swing the election to Trump peaked, for now, in the midst of the Democratic Convention, and distracted nicely from what was revealed in the hacked emails. Hmmm.
Putin was then ushered off stage, to be replaced by the Wrath of Khan and their son, who died in Iraq 12 years ago. I wonder now when Putin will be brought back. He will of course be brought back, being far too good a bad guy to waste in this most obscene of elections.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no global enemy for America to face down. No big nasty to spur weapons procurement, or to justify a huge standing military with hundreds of bases around the world, or to pick fights with to allow a president down in the polls to morph into a war leader.
A lot of people had a lot of power and money in play that demanded some real bad guys. An attempt was made in the 1980s to make narco-lords the new major threat, but they were too few in number to sustain the meme, and too many American loved their dope. Following 9/11, the bad guys were “the terrorists.” The Bush gangsters anointed Saddam a WMD threat and christened Iran and North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil.
The Iraq War was ultimately very unpopular, and is never-ending. Meh. Bin Laden never launched a second attack on the U.S., and the Taliban had no poster child leader like him to snarl at for 15 years. Iran and North Korea just make a lot of noise. The United States made an effort to label others — Gaddafi, Assad, Islamic State — global enemies worthy of perpetual war, but the Middle East in general has turned into a quagmire we all want to really wake up sober from.
Washington really needs an Arch Enemy, a guy who looks like a Bond villain with nuclear weapons he’ll brandish but never use.
Americans are already well-prepared by the old Cold War to see Russia as an evil empire, and Putin does look the part. A new Cold War will require America to buy more military hardware, plus discover new places like the Baltic states to garrison. It might even straighten out a NATO confused about its role regarding global terrorism.
Forget Trump and Clinton; Putin is the political-military-industrial complex dream candidate.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the New York Times the so-called “28 pages,” a still-classified section from the official report of the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, may be released to the public as early as this summer. The full 838-page report, minus those pages, was published in December 2002.
The pages detail Saudi Arabia involvement in funding the 9/11 hijackers, and were classified by then-President George W. Bush.
So what do they say?
The 28 Pages
Richard Clarke is the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism for the United States. He is best-known for trying to warn the George W. Bush administration that a terror attack was imminent in the days preceding 9/11. As late as a July 5, 2001, White House meeting with the FAA, the Coast Guard, the FBI, Secret Service and the INS, Clarke stated that “something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”
Here’s what Clarke said at a security forum held this week in New York about what those 28 pages will reveal:
— 9/11 hijackers and Saudi citizens (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Al Hamzi met in San Diego with several other Saudis, including one who may have been a Saudi intelligence agent and another who was both an al Qaeda sympathizer and an employee of the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles.
— The CIA also made contact with Midhar and Hamzi in San Diego, and unsuccessfully tried to “turn them,” i.e., recruit them to work for the United States. The CIA did not inform the FBI or others of this action until just before 9/11. (In a 2009 interview, Clarke speculated that the CIA would have used Saudi intelligence as an intermediary to approach the two al-Qaeda operatives.)
— The 28 pages may include speculation that the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs funded mosques and other locations in the U.S. used by al Qaeda as meeting places and for recruitment.
— The rumors that Saudi charities and/or the spouse of then-Saudi ambassador to the United States Bandar bin Sultan (who went on to be director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014) directly funded the 9/11 hijackers per se are “overblown,” according to Clarke.
However, elements of Saudi charities and the ambassador himself did regularly provide funding to various Saudi citizens in the United States, for example, those needing money for medical care. It is possible that the 9/11 hijackers defrauded Saudi sources to obtain funds, but less clear that any Saudi government official knowingly funded persons for the purpose of committing 9/11.
Alongside Clapper, Clarke too believes the 28 pages will be released to the public within the next five to six weeks.
Others have suggested more clear ties between the hijackers and the Saudis, including multiple pre-9/11 phone calls between one of the hijackers’ handlers in San Diego and the Saudi Embassy, and the transfer of some $130,000 from Bandar’s family checking account to yet another of the hijackers’ Saudi handlers in San Diego.
Not the What, But the Why
Should the full 28 pages be released, there will no doubt be enormous emphasis placed on what they say, specifically the degree to which they implicate elements of Saudi Arabia and/or the Saudi royal family in funding or supporting the 9/11 hijackers. If the CIA contact with some of the hijackers is confirmed, that will be explosive.
But as pointed out in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK (below), after the what is the why, and that answer has the potential to affect the future, not just document the past.
— Why were the pages classified in the first place (who benefited?) and why did they stay classified now into a second administration, some 15 years after the events they discuss took place?
— Why did the United States allow officials of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs to work in the U.S. under diplomatic status? That Ministry’s existence goes back to the 1991 Gulf War. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a shattering event in the country’s history, calling into question the bargain between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, whose blessing allows the Saud family to rule. In 1992, a group of the country’s most prominent religious leaders issued the Memorandum of Advice, which implicitly threatened a clerical coup.
The royal family, shaken by the threat to its rule, accommodated most of the clerics’ demands, giving them more control over Saudi society. One of their directives called for the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which would be given offices in Saudi embassies and consulates. As the journalist Philip Shenon writes, citing John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy and a 9/11 commissioner, “it was well-known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.”
Only one official in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs inside the U.S., Fahad al-Thumairy, was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported because of suspected ties to terrorists. That was in 2002.
— Why does the U.S. still allow allow officials of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs to work in the U.S. under diplomatic status?
— Why did the American government not arrest Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national and employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco. Although he drew a salary, according to the New Yorker he apparently never did any actual work for the company during the seven years he spent in America. Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy and with the consulate in Los Angeles; he was widely considered in the Arab expat community to be a Saudi spy, though the Saudi government has denied that he was.
— Why did the CIA not reveal its contacts with the two 9/11 hijackers? Who benefited?
You don’t want to read this, and I take no pleasure in writing it, and no one really wants to hear it right now. But I believe it needs to be said.
I join the world in grieving for the dead in Paris. I have grieved for the dead from 9/11 forward — the Australians who died in terror attacks on Bali in 2002, Londoners who died in terror attacks in 2005, the French citizens who died in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year, the Russians whose plane went down over the Sinai a week or so ago. So many more non-Western deaths barely noticed in the U.S. media. I grieve also for those killed in smaller attacks already smuggled deep into the obscurity of our memory.
And so we Tweet hashtags and phrases in high school French and post GIFs to Facebook. We know what to do; we’ve done this before.
But it has to be said, especially looking at the sick repetition of the same story, that despite fourteen plus years of a war on terror, terror seems to be with us as much as ever, maybe even more. It is time to rethink what we have done and are doing.
Since that day in 2001, the one with those terrible sparkling blue skies in New York, we have spied on the world, Americans at home and foreigners abroad, yet no one detected anything that stopped the Paris attacks. We gave up much to that spying and got nothing in return.
Since 2001, the United States has led nations like Britain, France, Australia and others into wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, with drone attacks on people from the Philippines to Pakistan to all parts of Africa. We have little to nothing to show for all that.
Since 2001 the U.S. has expended enormous efforts to kill a handful of men — bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, al-Awlaki, and this weekend, Jihadi John. Others, many without names, were killed outside of media attention, or were tortured to death, or are still rotting in the offshore penal colony of Guantanamo, or the dark hell of the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.
And it has not worked, and Paris this weekend, and the next one somewhere else sometime soon, are the proof.
We gave up many of our freedoms in America to defeat the terrorists. It did not work. We gave the lives of over 4,000 American men and women in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan, to defeat the terrorists, and refuse to ask what they died for. We killed tens of thousands or more in those countries. It did not work. We went to war again in Iraq, and now in Syria, before in Libya, and only created more failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide havens for terrorists and spilled terror like dropped paint across borders. We harass and discriminate against our own Muslim populations and then stand slack-jawed as they become radicalized, and all we do then is blame ISIS for Tweeting.
Note that it is the strategy of Islamic terror to generate a crackdown in France in order to radicalise French Muslims. Hundreds of French citizens have already traveled to Syria to fight with groups including ISIS.
As one of the most intelligent commentators on all this, Bill Johnson, said, terrorism is about killing pawns to affect the king. The attacks in Paris are not about the murder of 150 innocent people. Hell, that many die nearly every day in Iraq and Syria. The true test for France is how they respond to the terror attacks in the long-game — that’s the king in all this. America failed this test post-9/11; yet it does not sound like France understands anything more than America. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” French president Hollande said outside the Bataclan concert hall, scene of the most bloodshed.
If I had exactly the right strategy, I’d tell you what it is, and I’d try and tell the people in Washington and Paris and everywhere else. But I don’t have the exact thing to do, and I doubt they’d listen to me anyway.
But I do have this: stop what we have been doing for the last 14 years. It has not worked. There is nothing at all to suggest it ever will work. Whack-a-mole is a game, not a plan. Leave the Middle East alone. Stop creating more failed states. Stop throwing away our freedoms at home on falsehoods. Stop disenfranchising the Muslims who live with us. Understand the war, such as it is, is against a set of ideas — religious, anti-western, anti-imperialist — and you cannot bomb an idea. Putting western soldiers on the ground in the MidEast and western planes overhead fans the flames. Vengeance does not and cannot extinguish an idea.
Start with those things and see, even if you won’t give it 14 years to succeed, if things improve. Other than the death tolls scaling up further, I can’t imagine we could be doing anything worse.
They also cannot find their own butt squatting over a mirror, but they sure can grope yours.
Remember airports before 9/11? You walked through a metal detector, had a quick bag check, all done by contract employees who swung between polite, and bored. Shoes stayed on, your laptop could stay in its case, it all took minutes and no one bullied you. No one touched your junk for freedom.
Then, because of massive intelligence failures, some Saudis with simple box cutters were able to commandeer planes and do 9/11. The paradigm then was for passengers and crew to cooperate with hijackers, presuming they wanted the plane or money. Fast forward to now: we take our shoes off because some dumbass failed to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb years ago. We pull out all our electronics because, well, nothing really. We go through scanners that display our junk on screens. The government created a massive bureaucracy of TSA bullies to harass and embarrass us for the audacity of trying to fly somewhere. We all can now enjoy watching old ladies, people in wheelchairs and soccer moms groped in public.
But at least that all keeps us safe, right?
Well, there’s the problem.
U.S. lawmakers and federal watchdogs took the occasion Tuesday to deride the Transportation Security Administration’s ability, or lack thereof, to adequately detect weapons and other contraband during the passenger screening process at the nation’s airports. And TSA didn’t just miss a few things. Nope, according to auditors from the Inspector General’s Office, posing as travelers, 95 percent of contraband, like weapons and explosives, got through during clandestine testings.
“In looking at the number of times people got through with guns or bombs in these covert testing exercises it really was pathetic. When I say that I mean pitiful,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, speaking Tuesday during a House Oversight hearing concerning classified reports from federal watchdogs. “Just thinking about the breaches there, it’s horrific,” he added.
“The failures included failures in the technology, failures in TSA procedures, and human error,” the Inspector General told the committee. “We found layers of security simply missing.”
The General Accounting Office piled on, adding “TSA has consistently fallen short in basic program management.”
Peter Neffenger, the new TSA administrator, said the agency was undertaking a “full system review.” It is also considering using dogs to search passengers as well.
Ed Snowden is right. We have lost too many of our freedoms. What the hell happened?
The United States has entered its third great era is what happened. The first, starting from the colonists’ arrival, saw the principles of the Enlightenment used to push back the abuses of an imperial government and create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The next two hundred some years, imperfect as they were, saw those principles progress, putting into practice what an evolving government of the people might look like.
We are now wading in the shallow waters of the third era, Post-Constitutional America, a time when our government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges. Those ideas– enshrined in the Bill of Rights– are disarmingly concise, the haiku of a People’s government. Deeper, darker waters lay in front of us, and we are drawn down into them. The king, jealous of the People’s power, wants some back.
Pre-Constitutional America: 1765-1789
History turns out to be everything that matters. America in its Pre-Constitutional days may seem familiar to even casual readers of current events. We lived under the control of a king, a powerful executive who was beholden only to the rich landowners and nobles who supported him. The king’s purpose was simple: to use his power over Americans to draw the maximum financial gain out of the colony, suppressing dissent in service to the goal and to maintain his own power.
If you lived in Pre-Constitutional America, you knew that imposed laws could be brutal, and punishments swift and often extra-judicial. Protest was dangerous. Speech could make you the enemy of the government that ruled you. Journalism could be a crime.
Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?
There were many offenses against liberty in Pre-Constitutional America. One pivotal event, the Stamp Act of 1765, stands out. To enforce the taxes imposed by the Act, the king’s men used “writs of assistance” that allowed them to burst into any home or business, with or without suspicion. Americans’ property and privacy were torn apart, ransacked, often times more as a warning of the king’s power than any “legitimate” purpose the original approved law might have held. Some American was then the first to mutter in ignorance “But if I have nothing to hide, why should I be afraid?” He learned soon enough everyone was treated as an enemy of the government, everyone, it seemed, had something to hide, even if it turned out they did not.
The Stamp Act, and the flood of similar offenses, created in the Founders a profound suspicion of government unchecked, a confirmation that power and freedom cannot coexist in a democracy. What was needed, in addition to the body of the Constitution which outlined what the new nation’s government could do, was a remuneration of what that government could not do. The answer was the Bill of Rights.
Never Again: 1789 – 9/11/2001
There was no mistaking it: the Bill of Rights was written to make sure that America’s new government would not be the old government of a king. Each important amendment spoke directly to a specific offense committed by the king. The Bill would protect Americans from their government. The rights enumerated in the Bill were not granted by the government, but already present within the People. The Bill said what the government could not take away. Never again, the Founders said.
For over 200 years the Bill of Rights expanded and contracted. Yet through out, the basic principles that guided America were sustained despite war, depression and endless challenges. It was a bumpy road, but it was a road that traveled forward.
(The Founders were imperfect men, and very much of their era. As such, the rights of women and Native Americans were not addressed. Shamefully, the Bill of Rights did not destroy the institution of slavery, our nation’s Original Sin. It would take many years, and often much blood, to make up for those mistakes.)
Post-Constitutional America: 9/12/2001 to the Present
Then, one sharp, blue September 11 morning, everything changed, and our Post-Constitutional era began.
You know the story: NSA spying, drone killing, Guantanamo, arbitrary arrests and police violence. And for every short-hand example, there are many other motes of shame you have probably thought of as you read. If not, open today’s newspaper or Google “NSA” and they’ll most likely be there. Remember too that Manning, Snowden and other whistleblowers were able to pass on only relatively small portions of the information the government is trying to hide, and we haven’t even seen all of the Snowden documents yet.
But isn’t it all legal? Taking the most generous position, all the things the king did, and the government now does, were (albeit often in classified form) approved in (albeit often secret) courts. But in Constitutional America, there was a standard above the law, the Constitution itself. The actions of the executive and the laws passed by Congress were only legal when they did not conflict with the underlying principles of our democracy.
The accepted history of our descent into a Post-Constitutional state is following 9/11, evil people under the leadership of Dick Cheney, with the tacit support of a dunce like George W. Bush, pushed through legally-lite measures to allow kidnapping, torture, imprisonment and indefinite detention, all direct contraventions of the Bill of Rights. Obama, elected on what are now seen as a series of false promises to roll back the worst of the Bush era-crimes, went full-in for the same or more. That’s the common narrative, and it is mostly true.
What is missing is a more complete view. Even today, years after 9/11, 45 percent of Americans say that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public.” Snowden’s revelations about the NSA revealed in depth how far the government has gone, though much of the raw outlines of what he filled in have been known for several years without much exposure in the mainstream media.
Americans, ignorant of their own history, seem unsure whether or not the NSA’s actions are indeed justified, and many feel Snowden and the journalists who published his material are criminals. The most common meme related to whistleblowers is “Patriot or Traitor?” and toward the war on terror, “Security or Freedom?” There is no widespread movement toward any real change in what the government has been doing. It seems many Americans like it, and support it.
To return to the set of rules, laws and beliefs that we still claim in high school civics classes define us, the Bill of Rights, means first deciding we will no longer agree to have those rights taken away from us. No, no, not taken away– given away, too easily. Too many Americans, compelled by fear and assured by propaganda, want the government to expand its powers further, embracing dumb-headly the idea that freedom is in conflict with security. The Founders, even as they remained under significant threat from the then-World’s Most Powerful Nation, knew all along the real dangers did not lie out over the water, but on land, at home, inside.
But wait, people say. I write angry emails all the time and nobody has kicked down my door. I went to court for something and it worked just the way the rules said. I was randomly selected at the airport and it took five minutes, no big deal. True all. For people who’s last strongly held belief was over who got cheated on the last round of Dancing with the Stars, life isn’t very different.
At issue in post-Constitutional America is not that all rights for all people all the time will disappear (though privacy seems on the chopping block.) It is that the government now decides when, where and how the rights which were said to be inalienable still apply. Those decisions will likely be made in secret and will be enforced without recourse. You’ll never know who is next.
We are the first to see what is post-Constitutional America, and perhaps the last who might stop it.
Why exactly again is the U.S. at war in Syria and Iraq? Here’s a potpourri of fun things.
I heard it was something to do with Islamic State, a bunch of guys who have never done anything outside their own neighborhood but who we are afraid will strike inside the United States at any moment.
They’ve never done that, anywhere, and seem to have their hands full in Syria and Iraq, plus most of their heavy weapons seem to come from American allies handing our stuff over to them. It is almost as if by elevating them to Bond-villain status they are able to use that notoriety to recruit more fighters.
And of course to strike inside the U.S. ISIS would need to get in line behind our own mass shooters.
We’re no longer really even giving lip service to saving Iraq, so why are we fighting over there?
Now in Syria a couple of years ago we started our war there because Assad was butchering his own people, what with the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons and such. Well, we’ve shown him. He is no longer butchering his own people, others are. Currently the U.S., Russia, Turkey, UAE, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France and Jordan are bombing Syria.
Also, the war to save the Syrians from their dictator has killed 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and to Europe.
Maybe I could check with the Iranians. They, too, are fighting in Iraq, but in order to maintain control over the Shiite government as their proxy, and to push aside or wipe out the Sunnis, all in contravention of American goals, except America is helping the Iranians because they are also killing them some ISIS.
The Iranians are also fighting in Syria, on Assad’s side allied with the Russians. We help the Iranians in Iraq, but not in Syria.
Now the Saudis, they know where they stand. They do sometimes do a little tiny bit of bombing stuff in Syria, and especially in Yemen, probably Islamic State, but who knows, because they live in literal terror about terrorism sweeping away their repressive monarchy. The Saudis are also bombing Syria because the Saudis are one of America’s closest allies in the region.
Except that donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide. In fact, Hillary Clinton even said so, in a Wikileaks document from 2009 classified as secret, where she admonished her diplomats that “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups.”
Oh, also, the Saudis may have helped fund 9/11. See, there was this disagreement between the secular monarchy and the religious side of the Kingdom, that resulted in Islamic religious zealots being assigned into Saudi embassies worldwide as part of the balancing act/compromise, including in the U.S. Some of those “diplomats” collected donations from within the Kingdom and funneled them to extremists in the the U.S. and elsewhere, such as the 9/11 guys. I heard.
Also, we’re bombing hospitals and killing doctors in Afghanistan, apparently to prove the axiom that when we do it it’s an accident and when they do it it’s barbaric terrorism.
Anyway, if anyone can straighten me out on all this, please, I need your help. Thanks!
Whew. America survived another never was going to happen terror plot nearly completely driven by the FBI because the FBI arrested the lone, sad loser they tricked into the plot. See, that’s the sound of freedom. Never Forget, m*therfuckers!
Here’s what sort of happened: A Florida man faces up to 20 years in federal prison after authorities say he was trying to help plan an attack on an upcoming 9/11 memorial in Missouri. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Thursday that 20-year-old Joshua Ryne Goldberg was arrested and charged with distributing information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction.
A criminal complaint says Goldberg began communicating online with an FBI informer in July and gave that person information on how to build a bomb with a pressure cooker, nails and rat poison. The complaint says Goldberg also instructed the informer to place the bomb at an upcoming memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, that was commemorating the 14th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Here’s what really happened: a college kid with a history of internet trolling was talking dumb sh*t online. The Australian intelligence services (i.e., the NSA monitoring Americans from abroad where it is legal, versus from inside the U.S. where it is not) alerted the FBI, who had one of their people make contact with the troll online and ease him forward with the plot. The troll ran a Google search for “how to build a pressure cooker bomb”.
Boom! That resulted in charges of “distributing information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction.”
Once again FBI informants have courageously defended us from a plot that probably would never have existed were it not for the involvement of FBI informants. Absolutely nothing to see here. No one was in danger. Nothing was foiled, but at least some of us may have been fooled.
Happy 9/11 America!
I really tried this year. I wanted to write a killer blog piece on the 14th anniversary of 9/11, something that summed up all that has happened, the wars, the loss of freedoms, everything. As I live in New York, Ground Zero is a subway ride away, so I went there, hoping for inspiration.
Instead, I found people taking selfies in front of the memorials. European tourists asking for directions to the subway, vendors selling cheesy NYC souvenirs and NYFD Never Forget T-shirts. It wasn’t somber, it was just another New York tourist attraction. Meanwhile, there were bomb-proof trash cans, and “See Something, Say Something” signs everywhere.
I went home and knocked off most of a liter of (Russian) vodka and at some point inspiration turned to me watching Cartoon Network.
Then I read a terrific article on the meaning of 9/11 which said everything I was hoping to say until Sponge Bob stepped in. So here, guest blogger Tom Engelhardt speaks for us all.
Fourteen Years Later, An Improbable World
Fourteen years later and do you even believe it? Did we actually live it? Are we still living it? And how improbable is that?
Fourteen years of wars, interventions, assassinations, torture, kidnappings, black sites, the growth of the American national security state to monumental proportions, and the spread of Islamic extremism across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa. Fourteen years of astronomical expense, bombing campaigns galore, and a military-first foreign policy of repeated defeats, disappointments, and disasters. Fourteen years of a culture of fear in America, of endless alarms and warnings, as well as dire predictions of terrorist attacks. Fourteen years of the burial of American democracy (or rather its recreation as a billionaire’s playground and a source of spectacle and entertainment but not governance). Fourteen years of the spread of secrecy, the classification of every document in sight, the fierce prosecution of whistleblowers, and a faith-based urge to keep Americans “secure” by leaving them in the dark about what their government is doing. Fourteen years of the demobilization of the citizenry. Fourteen years of the rise of the warrior corporation, the transformation of war and intelligence gathering into profit-making activities, and the flocking of countless private contractors to the Pentagon, the NSA, the CIA, and too many other parts of the national security state to keep track of. Fourteen years of our wars coming home in the form of PTSD, the militarization of the police, and the spread of war-zone technology like drones and stingrays to the “homeland.” Fourteen years of that un-American word “homeland.” Fourteen years of the expansion of surveillance of every kind and of the development of a global surveillance system whose reach — from foreign leaders to tribal groups in the backlands of the planet — would have stunned those running the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Fourteen years of the financial starvation of America’s infrastructure and still not a single mile of high-speed rail built anywhere in the country. Fourteen years in which to launch Afghan War 2.0, Iraq Wars 2.0 and 3.0, and Syria War 1.0. Fourteen years, that is, of the improbable made probable.
Fourteen years later, thanks a heap, Osama bin Laden. With a small number of supporters, $400,000-$500,000, and 19 suicidal hijackers, most of them Saudis, you pulled off a geopolitical magic trick of the first order. Think of it as wizardry from the theater of darkness. In the process, you did “change everything” or at least enough of everything to matter. Or rather, you goaded us into doing what you had neither the resources nor the ability to do. So let’s give credit where it’s due. Psychologically speaking, the 9/11 attacks represented precision targeting of a kind American leaders would only dream of in the years to follow. I have no idea how, but you clearly understood us so much better than we understood you or, for that matter, ourselves. You knew just which buttons of ours to push so that we would essentially carry out the rest of your plan for you. While you sat back and waited in Abbottabad, we followed the blueprints for your dreams and desires as if you had planned it and, in the process, made the world a significantly different (and significantly grimmer) place.
Fourteen years later, we don’t even grasp what we did.
Fourteen years later, the improbability of it all still staggers the imagination, starting with those vast shards of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, the real-world equivalent of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand in the original Planet of the Apes. With lower Manhattan still burning and the air acrid with destruction, they seemed like evidence of a culture that had undergone its own apocalyptic moment and come out the other side unrecognizably transformed. To believe the coverage of the time, Americans had experienced Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima combined. We were planet Earth’s ultimate victims and downtown New York was “Ground Zero,” a phrase previously reserved for places where nuclear explosions had occurred. We were instantly the world’s greatest victim and greatest survivor, and it was taken for granted that the world’s most fulfilling sense of revenge would be ours. 9/11 came to be seen as an assault on everything innocent and good and triumphant about us, the ultimate they-hate-our-freedoms moment and, Osama, it worked. You spooked this country into 14 years of giving any dumb or horrifying act or idea or law or intrusion into our lives or curtailment of our rights a get-out-of-jail-free pass. You loosed not just your dogs of war, but ours, which was exactly what you needed to bring chaos to the Muslim world.
Fourteen years later, let me remind you of just how totally improbable 9/11 was and how ragingly clueless we all were on that day. George W. Bush (and cohorts) couldn’t even take it in when, on August 6, 2001, the president was given a daily intelligence briefing titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” The NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, which had many of the pieces of the bin Laden puzzle in their hands, still couldn’t imagine it. And believe me, even when it was happening, I could hardly grasp it. I was doing exercises in my bedroom with the TV going when I first heard the news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center and saw the initial shots of a smoking tower. And I remember my immediate thought: just like the B-25 that almost took out the Empire State Building back in 1945. Terrorists bringing down the World Trade Center? Please. Al-Qaeda? You must be kidding. Later, when two planes had struck in New York and another had taken out part of the Pentagon, and it was obvious that it wasn’t an accident, I had an even more ludicrous thought. It occurred to me that the unexpected vulnerability of Americans living in a land largely protected from the chaos so much of the world experiences might open us up to the pain of others in a new way. Dream on. All it opened us up to was bringing pain to others.
Fourteen years later, don’t you still find it improbable that George W. Bush and company used those murderous acts and the nearly 3,000 resulting deaths as an excuse to try to make the world theirs? It took them no time at all to decide to launch a “Global War on Terror” in up to 60 countries. It took them next to no time to begin dreaming of the establishment of a future Pax Americana in the Middle East, followed by the sort of global imperium that had previously been conjured up only by cackling bad guys in James Bond films. Don’t you find it strange, looking back, just how quickly 9/11 set their brains aflame? Don’t you find it curious that the Bush administration’s top officials were quite so infatuated by the U.S. military? Doesn’t it still strike you as odd that they had such blind faith in that military’s supposedly limitless powers to do essentially anything and be “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known”? Don’t you still find it eerie that, amid the wreckage of the Pentagon, the initial orders our secretary of defense gave his aides were to come up with plans for striking Iraq, even though he was already convinced that al-Qaeda had launched the attack? (“‘Go massive,’ an aide’s notes quote him as saying. ‘Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'”) Don’t you think “and not” sums up the era to come? Don’t you find it curious that, in the rubble of those towers, plans not just to pay Osama bin Laden back, but to turn Afghanistan, Iraq, and possibly Iran — “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran” — into American protectorates were already being imagined?
Fourteen years later, how probable was it that the country then universally considered the planet’s “sole superpower,” openly challenged only by tiny numbers of jihadist extremists, with a military better funded than the next 10 to 13 forces combined (most of whom were allies anyway), and whose technological skills were, as they say, to die for would win no wars, defeat no enemies, and successfully complete no occupations? What were the odds? If, on September 12, 2001, someone had given you half-reasonable odds on a U.S. military winning streak in the Greater Middle East, don’t tell me you wouldn’t have slapped some money on the table.
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that the U.S. military has been unable to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, its two major wars of this century, despite having officially left one of those countries in 2011 (only to head back again in the late summer of 2014) and having endlessly announced the conclusion of its operations in the other (only to ratchet them up again)?
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that Washington’s post-9/11 policies in the Middle East helped lead to the establishment of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in parts of fractured Iraq and Syria and to a movement of almost unparalleled extremism that has successfully “franchised” itself out from Libya to Nigeria to Afghanistan? If, on September 12, 2001, you had predicted such a possibility, who wouldn’t have thought you mad?
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that the U.S. has gone into the business of robotic assassination big time; that (despite Watergate-era legal prohibitions on such acts), we are now the Terminators of Planet Earth, not its John Connors; that the president is openly and proudly an assassin-in-chief with his own global “kill list”; that we have endlessly targeted the backlands of the planet with our (Grim) Reaper and Predator (thank you Hollywood!) drones armed with Hellfire missiles; and that Washington has regularly knocked off women and children while searching for militant leaders and their generic followers? And don’t you find it odd that all of this has been done in the name of wiping out the terrorists and their movements, despite the fact that wherever our drones strike, those movements seem to gain in strength and power?
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that our “war on terror” has so regularly devolved into a war of and for terror; that our methods, including the targeted killings of numerous leaders and “lieutenants” of militant groups have visibly promoted, not blunted, the spread of Islamic extremism; and that, despite this, Washington has generally not recalibrated its actions in any meaningful way?
Fourteen years later, isn’t it possible to think of 9/11 as a mass grave into which significant aspects of American life as we knew it have been shoveled? Of course, the changes that came, especially those reinforcing the most oppressive aspects of state power, didn’t arrive out of the blue like those hijacked planes. Who, after all, could dismiss the size and power of the national security state and the military-industrial complex before those 19 men with box cutters arrived on the scene? Who could deny that, packed into the Patriot Act (passed largely unread by Congress in October 2001) was a wish list of pre-9/11 law enforcement and right-wing hobbyhorses? Who could deny that the top officials of the Bush administration and their neocon supporters had long been thinking about how to leverage “U.S. military supremacy” into a Pax Americana-style new world order or that they had been dreaming of “a new Pearl Harbor” which might speed up the process? It was, however, only thanks to Osama bin Laden, that they — and we — were shuttled into the most improbable of all centuries, the twenty-first.
Fourteen years later, the 9/11 attacks and the thousands of innocents killed represent international criminality and immorality of the first order. On that, Americans are clear, but — most improbable of all — no one in Washington has yet taken the slightest responsibility for blowing a hole through the Middle East, loosing mayhem across significant swathes of the planet, or helping release the forces that would create the first true terrorist state of modern history; nor has anyone in any official capacity taken responsibility for creating the conditions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, possibly a million or more people, turned many in the Greater Middle East into internal or external refugees, destroyed nations, and brought unbelievable pain to countless human beings. In these years, no act — not of torture, nor murder, nor the illegal offshore imprisonment of innocent people, nor death delivered from the air or the ground, nor the slaughter of wedding parties, nor the killing of children — has blunted the sense among Americans that we live in an “exceptional” and “indispensable” country of staggering goodness and innocence.
Fourteen years later, how improbable is that?
Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt
America used to be a country with balls. Now, our government wants to make us into a nation of scaredy cats, existing in a state of constant fear and near-panic, like we were kids worrying if the school bully was waiting for us after school.
Here’s the basic theme for this weekend: Americans need to remain vigilant to the threat of a terrorist attack, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, warned. He said there has been increased chatter on social media that indicates terrorists may be planning to strike during the celebrations. “I am extremely concerned Syrian and ISIS recruiters can use the Internet at lightning speeds to recruit followers in the United States and then activate them to do whatever they want to do. Whether it’s military installations, law enforcement or possibly a Fourth of July event parade.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re sitting here a week from today talking about an attack over the weekend in the United States. That’s how serious this is,” former CIA deputy director Michael Morell told CBS. “There’s been about 50 people in the last 12 months who have been arrested in the United States for being radicalized by ISIS, wanting to go fight there or wanting to conduct an attack here.”
USA Today added to the fear-mongering, noting “While there was no specific or credible threat of attack, the official said the intelligence bulletin prepared by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI alerted local colleagues to the ongoing threats posed by the Islamic State and other homegrown extremists. The official was not authorized to comment publicly.”
So let’s break this down, ahead of your BBQ, beach time and backyard sparklers.
America has suffered one significant foreign terror attack in the 239 years since the July 4th we celebrate this weekend. That attack was fourteen years ago and while tragic, took a similar number of lives has the number of Americans who have died since from toxoplasmotic brain parasites. The 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counterterrorism Center notes Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists. Perhaps even sadder, about double the number of Americans killed on 9/11 have died in the still-ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Disagree with one set of numbers, pick your favorite statistic/comparison, but you get the idea.
Noteworthy is that while fourteen years ago, and for most of the succeeding years, is that the government warned the attacks were to be carried out or threatened by foreigners. This weekend’s warnings, however, point at Americans who want to do harm to other Americans. That seems to be one of the most significant “achievements” of the fourteen year war of terror, turning us into them.
So this July 4, in honor of America’s 239th birthday, our government tells us not to be brave and free, but to be scared and fearful. We need to watch around us, and we need especially to watch our fellow citizens. One of them might be a lone wolf, supposedly “radicalized” by 140 characters he read on Twitter. We are to balance in our minds the conflicting images of a government that takes away our civil rights and pisses away our tax dollars to protect us while simultaneously saying they may not be able to protect us.
Whatever you do this July 4th, don’t look for me there. I’ll be at home, doors locked, weapons cocked and ready in abject terror, trying not to remember what I’ll be drinking to forget. Happy Birthday America.
A Saudi in the U.S. on a student visa (now where have we heard that one before?), who prompted a four-hour lockdown at a U.S. Army post in Texas when he claimed to have a bomb in his car, pleaded guilty to two federal charges. He agreed to leave the country with his only penalty being about seven weeks of time-served awaiting trial.
U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed not to sentence Mutasim Abdul-Aziz Alati, 24-years-old, to prison on condition he not return to the U.S. As soon as his family in Saudi Arabia buys him a one-way ticket, Alati will be escorted to the airport.
Prosecutors say Alati showed up at the main entrance to U.S. Army Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio in November and told military police he had a bomb in his vehicle. This prompted a high-speed chase through the post. He was apprehended and no bomb was found in the car.
Despite what might in other circumstances be called a terrorist bomb threat, Alati was only charged with evading authorities and illegally entering military property. Even if he had been sentenced, the likely time would have only been two years.
By way of explanation, Alati told the court he was “stressed out” by tests he was taking at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
(By way of a quick comparison, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, faces one count of “attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization,” which carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, after being arrested at a Chicago airport allegedly on his way to join ISIS, not having done anything else.)
The 9/11 Report and the Saudis
While these unusual events passed relatively unnoticed in Texas, other events related to Saudi citizens and possible terror acts passed relatively unnoticed in Washington DC.
Since the September 11 attacks, what Jeff Stein of Newsweek calls “dark allegations” remain about official Saudi ties to the terrorists, most of whom were Saudi citizens. Fueling the suspicions: 28 still-classified pages in the Congressional 9/11 Report. Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat who co-chaired the joint investigation into the attacks, says the classified pages raise questions about Saudi financial support to the hijackers.
“There are a lot of rocks out there that have been purposefully tamped down, that if were they turned over, would give us a more expansive view of the Saudi role” in assisting the 9/11 hijackers, Graham said.
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama refused to declassify the pages, citing “national security.” But critics, including members of Congress who have read the pages, say national security has nothing to do with it. U.S. officials, they charge, are trying to hide the double game that Saudi Arabia has long played with Washington, as both a close ally and a player in Islamic Sunni extremism.
One of course cannot forget the oddity in the days right after 9/11, when the Bush administration used the FBI to facilitate the departure of 160 Saudi nationals, including relatives of bin Laden, out of the United States. Their chartered planes were among the very few non-military flights allowed in the air at the time.
The Saudi ambassador to the United States at the time of the 9/11 attacks, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was known as “Bandar Bush” for his close ties to the Bush family in Texas. He went on to become chief of Saudi intelligence. Bandar had led Saudi efforts to coordinate the supply of weapons to Syrian rebels. He faced criticism for backing extreme Islamist groups and thus risking a repeat of the “blowback” that brought Osama bin Laden’s Saudi fighters home after the Saudi-sanctioned jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
And hey, just recently, Prince Khaled bin Bandar, the new chief of Saudi intelligence, arrived in Washington for “discussions on joint efforts to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).” The Saudi’s have been widely-held to have helped fund ISIS in the recent past.
Following Obama’s address to the nation Wednesday, America’s psychiatrists and liquor stores stocked up on anti-depressants and massive amounts of alcohol. States allowing for legal marijuana report booming sales.
President Obama announced an expansion of the current war with Iraq (not to be confused with the previous war with Iraq he claimed to have ended in 2011) as well as a Cheney-like giddy eagerness to bomb Syria “just as soon as Congress wimps out and gets out of my way.” Despite their general glee about bombing any brown person anywhere anytime on the planet, many Americans are expected to complain of depression.
“I support 9/11 and all that, but really, another freaking war?” said one college undergrad waken for comment. “My neighbor’s cousin’s son has PTSD or STD or something from that last war I like saw online and so I plan to feel sad about this before the pre-game on Saturday.”
Psychiatrists take a more serious tone. “People will be eating Prozac and Cymbalta like candy,” said one doctor. I’m stocking up, not just for myself, but for the new patients I am expecting to flood in. I’ll be double-billing the insurance companies as usual, so I guess there is an upside. Also, 9/11.”
“Upside?” commented the owner of local store Booze-a-Palooza, We Don’t Card. “Hell, I’ve already booked a luxury cruise on the profits from this thing. You had the drinking games. Kids online were saying they took shots every time the president mentioned ‘moderate rebels’ or ‘degrade and destroy.’ I quietly trolled for a full water glass of bourbon to be drunk every time the idiot said ‘no boots on the ground.’ And of course depressed people are my bread and butter audience every day, so there’s also that. And 9/11. Never forget.”
Colorado state officials, congratulating themselves on the timing of legalizing marijuana, could not be happier. “The taxes on weed sales just funded our school systems through 2019, with an overflow of cash into the coffers to buy enough blow to near kill us all here at the office. Weed is for light weights, especially after this speech. Dude, 9/11. Don’t forget.”
When reached for comment at a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary, Obama was characteristically calm and cool about the issue.
“Americans understand our constant state of pointless war is necessary to, what is it this week Reggie? Right, to protect the country. Some may say by making this speech exactly one year after I said we’d bomb Syria to oust Assad only to now plan on bombing Syria in tacit support of Assad, and choosing 9/11 eve for the speech, I increased the weary nation’s sense of complete and devastating cynicism. Well, folks have got to understand that war means sacrifice. Hey, did you hear about this drinking game where every time I said ‘no boots on the ground’ people had to shotgun a water glass of bourbon? I told my speechwriters to throw that line in about a million times. I think the whole address went down better with the American people drunk off their ass when they heard it. Now, watch this drive.”
The Hillary Clinton not-a-campaign, located in Oprah’s guest house, declined comment on the entire everything, pending the outcome of polling to see what opinion the not-a-candidate should hold deeply.
Reached at his luxury villa in Riyadh, an ISIS spokesperson just laughed. “ISIS lacks the ability to strike directly into your Homeland– I mean, who even says words like ‘Homeland,’ seriously man, outside of Leni Riefenstahl and Fox anymore? Anyway, we can’t whack you infidels at home, so we rely on the American government to do the job for us. And I must say, they are superb. Declaring ISIS a direct threat to Americans in Iowa, man, that sent ISIS stock futures soaring. Making all Americans depressed over our successes and the needlessly dumb acts their government plans to take? Man, you can’t buy that kind of PR. I’d say I was happy as a pig in poop right now if I did not consider pigs filthy creatures under my religion. Oh heck, why not? This is a great day!”
The blog about the State Department I always wanted to be is Diplopundit. The anonymous writer manages to point out State’s dumbassery without resorting to terms like dumbassery, quite an accomplishment.
So I tip my hat to Diplopundit for pulling up the video below. It was made by the U.S. government with your tax dollars. The stated purpose of the video is to somehow encourage more students from Saudi Arabia to come to the U.S. for college. Education is a huge business now in America, and foreign students from places like Saudi pay top dollar. So while the goal to bring more of their money to the U.S. is a noble one, how this video helps is beyond me. Have a look.
Oh where oh where to begin? First question of course, is how could this possibly cause a Saudi to decide he wanted to throw his lot in with these people? What would be the key selling point? The gratuitous use of English to communicate with a foreign audience? The broken English of the Saudi student applicants? The hard to read subtitles? The nearly endless parade of stereotypes? The poncy Marilyn Monroe thing near the end? The Saudi guy dressed like a 1970s pimp? Yes, that would be the winner.
Anyway, enjoy the video and have a laugh. After all, you paid for it.
BONUS: We all do remember one of the last times the State Department went out of its way to get more Saudis to travel and study in the U.S., right? That was the Visa Express system that facilitated the travel for several of the 9/11 hijackers. And that episode didn’t even need its own cartoon advertisement.
It is unfortunate that so many foreigner visitors are unfamiliar with our freedoms. The tree of liberty needs to be refreshed from time to time with the residual remains of patriots, so I went to the airport for a civics lesson alongside them.
I am sure that having flown out of sleek, modern facilities in Asia linked to nearby cities by fast, convenient public transportation, the tourists were unprepared for what it means to be truly free. The advertisements now included in the plastic security bins drove home the American government works for the people, not corporations. Still, many foreigners seemed confused as to why they had to semi-disrobe to board a plane.
Was removing shoes at the airport some sort of American custom? Even the Japanese, who are shoe-removing fetishists, seemed unsure about wearing only socks to tread upon a filthy public floor. Then came off belts, jackets, jewelry and stuff in pockets. The foreigners, some from Commie Red China where the government controls their every action, were worried pants might be next, but quickly found out we Americans would never bow to a bully government like they had to do at home. We instead all waited in long, slow lines for our chance to appear before a petty government official with blind power over us.
One thing that distinguishes our international airports from those in many other third world countries is the near-exclusive use of English. Few Americans appreciate the efforts we go to as a nation to provide these gratis tutorial sessions. A curious fact is that American airport workers seem to believe that anyone can speak English if it is blasted at them loud enough and s-l-o-w enough. Idiomatic phrases, such as “ I SAID, liquids in a baggie, 3:1, ya’all, c’mon, people are waiting behind you” are also taught. American passengers often helped out by advising foreign visitors of how to manhandle their laptops, tear open wrapped gifts, disassemble iPods, pour out big bottles of perfumes and bottled water foolishly purchased earlier in the airport and the like.
As part of America’s commitment to equal treatment for all, I was somehow again selected for random additional screening. It was a good thing, as it meant at least I was still not on the no-fly list. The random part started when the helpful TSA employee scribbled something on my boarding pass and would not tell me what it meant. See, even though I am an American, I too could be treated with scorn. The foreigners, all of whom I could see did not get chosen by Das Selection, seemed impressed. In what other country could the son of a simple tradesman be singled out to represent what is now our America to the world?
My random extra screening included removing a Chapstick from my pants pocket, and opening it in front of the TSA person as proof it was not terrorist balm meant to moisten one’s lips before shouting “Allah hu Akbar!” Like with the foreigners, the TSA gent spoke English loudly to me, as if to reaffirm loudly we are all equal here in America. He also “asked” that I remove and open my wallet in case it included a very thin gun. In some countries that might be seen as a sleazy request for a bribe, but here we all understood it was just bullying by a public servant. I think when Mr. TSA Employee of the Month saw I had a major credit card was when he knew I was “A-OK.” But not before swabbing my hands for explosives. The Chinese tourists watching all this no doubt remembered the great American cowboy movies they had seen, where men settled things with violence, and smiled seeing how far we had come. As a culture that revers its elders, the Chinese also noted how, after discovering a typo in the name on a boarding pass, TSA sent an elderly woman back to the airline counter for a new one even though she said that would cause her to miss her flight. Not all governments around the world understand they are there to serve the people, not themselves.
Overall, as I reassembled myself alongside the many visitors sweating and yammering in foreign tongues about how much freedom we Americans enjoy, I could not help but feel proud. Travel and tourism builds bridges, and lets visitors see a people for what they really are. As those modern-day explorers returned to their repressive, petty and inefficient governments at home, I knew that they had at least once, briefly but certainly memorably, breathed free air alongside me.
BONUS: The foreign visitors no doubt also enjoyed the airport’s retro-touches, which evoked the Golden Age of air travel of the 1950s and 1960s. The lack of WiFi, just like when their parents first visited America, the two electrical outlets serving an entire wing of the airport, the toilets which appear to have not been cleaned since 1950 and the “Welcome Home Troops” signs reminiscent of those displayed for soldiers coming home from the Korean, Vietnam and other wars, all harken back to simpler times.
You might have been mislead by the constant “Blue on Green” attacks, where people in “Afghan Army Uniforms” kill their American comrades. Or that the Taliban still controls whole provinces. Or that drug exports are up since the war started. Or that Kabul is regularly attacked. Or that Afghanistan’s leaders, led by Hamid “Da’ Fresh Prince” Karzai have funneled billions of U.S. dollars into their own accounts in Dubai while flipping off ol’ Uncle Sam. Or whatever is on in Pakistan. Or that after 13 years, trillions of dollars and uncountable loss of life Afghanistan is pretty much still a dangerous, awful place unlikely to host a Spring Break parteeeee anytime prior to the Sun imploding into a black hole (namecheck: Neil Freakin’ Degrassee Tyson!)
Why We Fight
Anyway, forget all that because the ever-reliable Fiscal Times says we won. OK, that’s sorted. Here are some highlights from their recent victory lap article (emphasis and laugh-track added).
First, some Fiscal Times background on the war. Forget 9/11, or bin Laden, or bases. The real reason we have been at war in Afghanistan is revealed to be:
We are fighting an insurgency based in the Pashtuns, a majority ethnic group that has always ruled modern Afghanistan. If the Taliban regained enough support among that base, their overthrow of the Kabul would be very possible.
Not sure how much of that insurgency was there before we arrived, or how much was born because we arrived, but at least it is not 9/11 again.
Afghanistan Doesn’t Really Need a Strong Government
But don’t worry, because we have an ace in the hole:
The saving grace for us is that Afghanistan doesn’t have to have a strong central government.
Good. Despite another recent round of “purple fingers” photos that mean Democracy! the State Department has been right all along. Their total failure to build a strong central government has been part of the plan. Crazy yes, but like a fox.
The Afghan Local Police will Save the Day
It gets better. Fiscal Times:
There are recent reasons for optimism, however. One is the growth of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which began in 2010 as a program that recruited rural Afghans to protect their own villages. The ALP has been so strategically successful that their authorization has expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 fighters (My Note: That authorization takes the form of the U.S. Congress agreeing to pay for more.) The most recent Pentagon report on the war said that the ALP was “one of the most resilient institutions in the ANSF,” or Afghan National Security Forces, with the ANSF’s highest casualty rate.
I got nothing. If anyone believes a high casualty rate means winning, I can’t top that. Also, here’s a neat argument that the police are just another brand of lawless militia plaguing Afghanistan. Another on when the U.S. suspended training for the ALP because of too many insider attacks. Here’s one about how the ALP engages in human rights abuses such as “rape, arbitrary detentions, forcible land grabs, and other criminal acts” and how the ALP favors warlordism. Anyway, that’s all in the past now.
Key to Victory: Use U.S. Money to Pay Off Warlords. Or Kill Them
The second necessity for victory is a responsible-looking central government with which foreign countries can interact. To be a sustainable recipient of Western aid, Afghanistan simply must have a more sympathetic government than Hamid Karzai or somewhat thuggish local power brokers. Only with a regular supply of Western aid will the Kabul government be able to bribe the regional powerbrokers to tilt towards it, and stay within our commandments. And if they don’t – if they really don’t, and flaunt it – then eventually they may have to die. An American high-end special operations capability in Afghanistan is critical not for Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorists, but also to drop the hammer if local warlords step too far out of line.
Leaving aside the obvious contradiction that Afghanistan doesn’t need a strong central government and Afghanistan does need a strong central government only a few paragraphs apart, Fiscal Times does get a gold star for turning the use of U.S. money to bribe warlords into paid-for cooperation into a positive thing. In most instances paying protection money to thugs is sort a dead end street (they usually keep demanding more and more money.)
The kill them all idea is just rich. Hasn’t that sort of been the failed policy for the past 13 years? What kind of unmedicated mind can even write that stuff? I’m sure our elite special forces community is also now proud of their role as Mafia enforcers.
Time to Declare Victory and Leave
It is time. Thirteen years of a war that no one can even agree anymore what it is about is enough. If it helps you sleep better, sure, we won. Is that enough? Can we just stick a U.S.-funded knife into this and slink away? Syria is calling.
In written testimony to the European Union (EU), Edward Snowden explained in patient, well-written, detailed prose exactly why what the NSA is doing is so dangerous. Snowden reveals himself an articulate writer, and through that moves from mere whistleblower into an almost philosophical role. His testimony deserves your full read, so you should best stop right here and just go read it.
For those who prefer some highlights, with commentary, please follow me deeper down the
page rabbit hole.
The suspicionless surveillance programs of the NSA, GCHQ, and so many others that we learned about over the last year endanger a number of basic rights which, in aggregate, constitute the foundation of liberal societies.
The first principle any inquiry must take into account is that despite extraordinary political pressure to do so, no western government has been able to present evidence showing that such programs are necessary. In the United States, the heads of our spying services once claimed that 54 terrorist attacks had been stopped by mass surveillance, but two independent White House reviews with access to the classified evidence on which this claim was founded concluded it was untrue, as did a Federal Court.
…There are indications of a growing disinterest among governments for ensuring intelligence activities are justified, proportionate, and above all accountable. We should be concerned about the precedent our actions set.
Snowden understands that the programs he revealed are fundamentally in conflict with the very basis of a just society; the two cannot co-exist. When the government turns its full resources to spy, without suspicion or reason or legitimate purpose, on its full citizenry (including the Senate, charged with in theory a check-and-balance role on the executive), a fundamental shift occurs: the Government is no longer of the People, it has made the People its enemy. The opposite follows by course. Deceiving your enemy is part of any war.
I know the good and the bad of these systems, and what they can and cannot do, and I am telling you that without getting out of my chair, I could have read the private communications of any member of this committee, as well as any ordinary citizen. I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true.
These are not the capabilities in which free societies invest. Mass surveillance violates our rights, risks our safety, and threatens our way of life. If even the U.S. government, after determining mass surveillance is unlawful and unnecessary, continues to operate to engage in mass surveillance, we have a problem.
Indeed we do Edward. The problem is that following the events of that one day– 9/11– America went, quite simply, insane. For a short period of time, nearly every American, naw, let’s all look at our shoes and feel ashamed, because EVERY American agreed that anything that even might make us feel safe again was OK. We went out and bought duct tape when told a gas attack might happen, and we eyed our neighbors cautiously.
But as the dust literally settled, the government realized that they could cite 9/11 as justification forever, for anything. Evil people took this opening to slip a still-metastasizing national security state into the fabric of our lives, then enlarge it to cover the globe. Snowden in his testimony acknowledges that the NSA’s reach covers billions of people. I am certain that if we could ever catch anti-freedom figures like Cheney, Obama and their pig helpers in a private moment, they would all say: “If we knew it was going to be this easy to create an omnipotent executive, we would have done it years ago.”
Whether we like it or not, the international norms of tomorrow are being constructed today, right now, by the work of bodies like this committee. If liberal states decide that the convenience of spies is more valuable than the rights of their citizens, the inevitable result will be states that are both less liberal and less safe.
There is the most important sentence of all: the international norms of tomorrow are being constructed today. Because if this devolution of our world, our freedoms and our privacy is allowed to remain, it will grow, and that will be the end of that. As Snowden warned earlier, no one in elementary school today will ever know what privacy is, and will grow up in a police state that envelopes their lives in total. They will never hold a private thought, never share a private communication, never wake to a place where they are not on someone’s video screen. Snowden is clear that we are at the last Y in the road.
The final words are Snowden’s:
If you want to help me, help me by helping everyone: declare that the indiscriminate, bulk collection of private data by governments is a violation of our rights and must end. What happens to me as a person is less important than what happens to our common rights.
Now really, go read Snowden’s full testimony.
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones. Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.
At every significant moment in those years, our presidents opted for more, not less, violence, and our Congress agreed — or simply sat on its hands — as ever more moral isolation took the place of ever less diplomacy. Now, those same questions loom over Syria. Facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama appears to be grasping — without any sense of irony — at the straw Russian President Vladimir Putin (backed by China and Iran) has held out in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff proposal that put the White House into a corner. After claiming days ago that the U.N. was not an option, the White House now seems to be throwing its problem to that body to resolve. Gone, literally in the course of an afternoon, were the administration demands for immediate action, the shots across the Syrian bow, and all that. Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief that it may not be forced to take a stand. The Senate has put off voting; perhaps a vote in the House will be delayed indefinitely, or maybe this will all blow over somehow and Congress can return to its usual partisan differences over health care and debt ceilings.
And yet a non-vote by Congress would be as wrong as the yes vote that seems no longer in the cards. What happens, in fact, if Congress doesn’t say no?
A History Lesson
The “Global War on Terror” was upon us in an instant. Acting out of a sense that 9/11 threw open the doors to every neocon fantasy of a future Middle Eastern and global Pax Americana, the White House quickly sought an arena to lash out in. Congress, acting out of fear and anger, gave the executive what was essentially a blank check to do anything it cared to do. Though the perpetrators of 9/11 were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda itself sought refuge in largely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. So be it. The first shots of the War on Terror were fired there.
George W. Bush’s top officials, sure that this was their moment of opportunity, quickly slid destroying al-Qaeda as an organization into a secondary slot, invaded Afghanistan, and turned the campaign into a crusade to replace the Taliban and control the Greater Middle East. Largely through passivity, Congress said yes as, even in its earliest stages, the imperial nature of America’s global strategy revealed itself plain as day. The escape of Osama bin-Laden and much of al-Qaeda into Pakistan became little more than an afterthought as Washington set up what was essentially a puppet government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, occupied the country, and began to build permanent military bases there as staging grounds for more of the same.
Some two years later, a series of administration fantasies and lies that, in retrospect, seem at best tragicomic ushered the United States into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its autocratic leader and our former staunch ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, ruled a country that would have been geopolitically meaningless had it not sat on what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called “a sea of oil” — and next to that future target of neocon dreams of conquest, Iran. Once again, Congress set off on a frenzied rush to yes, and a second war commenced out of the ashes of 9/11.
With the mighty American military now on their eastern and western borders and evidently not planning on leaving any time soon, Iranian officials desperately sought out American diplomats looking for some kind of rapprochement. They offered to assist in Afghanistan and, it was believed, to ensure that any American pilots shot down by accident over Iranian territory would be repatriated quickly. Channels to do so were reportedly established by the State Department and it was rumored that broader talks had begun. However, expecting a triumph in Iraq and feeling that the Iranians wouldn’t stand a chance against the “greatest force for liberation the world has ever known” (aka the U.S. military), a deeply overconfident White House snubbed them, dismissing them as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Congress, well briefed on the administration’s futuristic fantasies of domination, sat by quietly, offering another passive yes.
Congress also turned a blind eye to the setting up of a global network of “black sites” for the incarceration, abuse, and torture of “terror suspects,” listened to torture briefings, read about CIA rendition (i.e., kidnapping) operations, continued to fund Guantanamo, and did not challenge the devolving wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Its members sat quietly by while a new weapon, armed drones, at the personal command of the president alone, crisscrossed the world assassinating people, including American citizens, within previously sovereign national boundaries. As a new president came into office and expanded the war in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone attacks, made war against Libya, did nothing to aid the Arab Spring, and allowed Guantanamo to fester, Congress said yes. Or, at least, not no, never no.
The World Today
Twelve years later, the dreams of global domination are in ruins and the world America changed for the worse is a very rough place. This country has remarkably few friends and only a handful of largely silent semi-allies. Even the once gung-ho president of France has been backing off his pledges of military cooperation in Syria in the face of growing popular opposition and is now calling for U.N. action. No longer does anyone cite the United States as a moral beacon in the world. If you want a measure of this, consider that Vladimir Putin seemed to win the Syria debate at the recent G20 summit as easily as he now has captured the moral high ground on Syria by calling for peace and a deal on Assad’s chemical weapons.
The most likely American a majority of global citizens will encounter is a soldier. Large swaths of the planet are now off-limits to American tourists and businesspeople, far too dangerous for all but the most foolhardy to venture into. The State Department even warns tourists to Western Europe that they might fall victim to al-Qaeda. In the coming years, few Americans will see the pyramids or the ruins of ancient Babylon in person, nor will they sunbathe, among other places, on the pristine beaches of the southern Philippines. Forget about large portions of Africa or most of the rest of the Middle East. Americans now fall victim to pirates on the high seas, as if it were the nineteenth century all over again.
After 12 disastrous years in the Greater Middle East, during which the missiles flew, the bombs dropped, doors were repeatedly kicked in, and IEDs went off, our lives, even at home, have changed. Terrorism, real and imagined, has turned our airports into giant human traffic jams and sites of humiliation, with lines that resemble a Stasi version of Disney World. Our freedoms, not to speak of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, have been systematically stripped away in the name of American “safety,” “security,” and fear. Congress said yes to all of that, too, even naming the crucial initial piece of legislation that began the process the PATRIOT Act without the slightest sense of irony.
When I spoke with Special Forces personnel in Iraq, I was told that nearly every “bad guy” they killed or captured carried images of American torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib on his cellphone — as inspiration. As the victims of America’s violence grew, so did the armies of kin, those inheritors of “collateral damage,” seeking revenge. The acts of the past 12 years have even, in a few cases, inspired American citizens to commit acts of homegrown terrorism.
Until this week, Washington had abandoned the far-from-perfect-but-better-than-the-alternatives United Nations. Missiles and bombs have sufficed for our “credibility,” or so Washington continues to believe. While pursuing the most aggressive stance abroad in its history, intervening everywhere from Libya and Yemen to the Philippines, seeking out monsters to destroy and, when not enough could be found, creating them, the United States has become ever more isolated globally.
The horror show of the last 12 years wasn’t happenstance. Each instance of war was a choice by Washington, not thrust upon us by a series of Pearl Harbors. Our Congress always said yes (or least avoided ever saying no). Many who should have known better went on to join the yes men. In regard to Iran and George W. Bush, then-candidate for president Senator Joe Biden, for instance, said in 2007, “I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years. I teach separation of powers in constitutional law. This is something I know. So I brought a group of constitutional scholars together to write a piece that I’m going to deliver to the whole United States Senate pointing out that the president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war against a country of 70 million people unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him. The House obviously has to do that, but I would lead an effort to impeach him.”
Only a year ago, Biden criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being too anxious to go to war with Syria. That country, Biden said, “is five times as large geographically [as Libya], it has one-fifth the population… It’s in a part of the world where they’re not going to see whatever would come from that war. It’ll seep into a regional war… If in fact it blows up and the wrong people gain control, it’s going to have impact on the entire region causing potentially regional wars.”
Biden has been missing from the public eye this week. His last public statement on Syria was in late August. Monday, while Susan Rice begged for war and Obama taped multiple TV interviews, the vice president was in Baltimore handing out federal grant money to improve the port. Silence in the face of a car wreck isn’t golden, it’s deadly. Good God, man, hit the brakes before we kill someone!
What If Congress Says Yes?
Some in Congress now are talking about a new resolution that would pre-authorize the administration to launch “fallback airstrikes” — that is, its desired attack on Syria — after some sort of deadline passed for U.N. action, Syrian action, or perhaps just another mythical red line was crossed. Should Congress say yes yet again to such a scheme or anything like it, nothing will change for the better, and much is likely to change for the worse.
An attack on Syria will demand a response; war works that way, no matter how “surgical” the strikes may be. Other countries, and even terrorists, also tend to imagine that, in such situations, their “credibility” is at stake. Fearing reprisals, the U.S. has already preemptively withdrawn its diplomats from a consulate in Turkey near the Syrian border, and from Lebanon. Security has increased in Iraq, with the already fortress-like U.S. embassy there bracing for attacks, allegedly already being planned by Iranian-sponsored sappers.
Be assured of one thing: bombs and missiles falling in Syria will cause “collateral damage,” newspeak for images splashed across the globe of Muslim women and children killed by American weaponry. History has ensured that borders in the Middle East are arbitrary and easily enough ignored. As the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq sparked a metastasizing regional Sunni-Shia civil war, so a new intervention in the latest version of that war will lead to further, possibly devastating, and certainly divisive consequences in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. Think of this as a grim domino theory for the new century.
Should a desperate Assad regime in Syria, or an Iranian proxy from Lebanon, retaliate against Israel, the U.S. could wake up to find itself in the middle of a far larger war. Who knows then what a Russia already moving naval forces into the Mediterranean and with a naval base in Syria itself might do, perhaps citing the need to maintain Putin’s “credibility”?
Even the most optimistic pundits do not believe a single set of strikes over a limited number of days will have much strategic effect. And what if, after giving up some or all of his chemical weapons, Assad just makes or buys more? The famous comment of General David Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq — “Tell me how this ends” — would need answering again. We didn’t like the answer the last time and we won’t like it this time.
Of course, something like half of the anti-Assad rebels fight for Islamic fundamentalist outfits. If, however unmeant, the U.S. essentially becomes the air force over Syria for al-Qaeda-branded and other jihadist outfits, unleashing them to take further territory, that would undoubtedly create even more unsettled and unsettling conditions across the region. A rebel victory, aided by U.S. strikes, would certainly give al-Qaeda the sort of sovereign sanctuary the U.S. has been fighting to eliminate globally since the Clinton administration. No serious scenario has been offered in which the civil war in Syria would begin to abate thanks to U.S. bombs and missiles.
With or without an attack, some things will remain constant. Israel destroyed Syria’s nascent attempts to build nuclear weapons and would do so again if needed. Iran has played a clever game in the regional proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere — they won in Iraq — and will continue to do so. Since the 1970s, Syria has had stocks of chemical weapons that the Assad regime manufactured itself and has never used them against the United States or any other country, nor have they in 40 years transferred those weapons to any terrorists. There is no reason to believe that will change now, not even as a way to strike back should the U.S. attack first (though the fate of those weapons, should Assad fall under U.S. attacks, no one can possibly know.)
With a U.S. president willing, for the first time in decades, to hand over some part of his decision-making powers to Congress (though he dubiously maintains that it would still be constitutional for him to launch strikes against Syria on his own), the Senate and House of Representatives have a chance to courageously re-insert themselves in war policy. Alternatively, they can once again assure themselves of a comfortable irrelevance. On one thing Obama is certainly right: the world is indeed watching the unfolding spectacle.
What If Congress Says No?
If Congress says no to an attack on Syria, the U.S. may for the first time in 12 years have the chance to change the world for the better. Though this is not an overly dramatic statement, it’s also true, as every diplomat knows, that it’s easier to break things than fix them.
The world would at least have seen Washington step back after its citizenry told their government that enough is enough. The world would see an America which, in a modest but significant way, was beginning to genuinely absorb the real lessons to be drawn from our post-9/11 actions: that endless war only fuels more war, that living in a world where foreigners are seen mainly as targets brings no peace, that lashing out everywhere means no safety anywhere.
In the wake of a non-attack on Syria, parts of the world might be more open to the possibility that the United States could help open new paths, beginning with a tacit acknowledgement that we were wrong. Nothing can erase the deeds of the past years or those long memories common not just in the Middle East, but to humanity more generally. Certainly, what we did is likely to haunt us for generations. But when in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging. Via Congress, the U.S. can take a small first step toward becoming an “indispensable nation” in more than our own minds.
If Congress says no on Syria, it will, just as the president warns, also be sending a message to Iran — not, however, that the United States lacks the resolve to fight. It seems unlikely, given the past 12 years, that anyone doubts this country’s willingness to use force. A clear no from Congress would, in fact, send a message of hope to Iran.
It was only in June that Obama claimed Iran’s election of a moderate as president showed that Iranians want to move in a different direction. “As long as there’s an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t proceed,” Obama said. “The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything anytime anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Diplomacy is often a series of little gateway-like tests that, when passed, lead two parties forward. A no on Syria would be such a step, allowing Iran and the United States a possible path toward negotiations that could someday change the face of the Middle East. Only three months ago, Obama himself endorsed such a plan. If Congress says no, it won’t destroy credibility with the Iranians; it’s likely, in fact, to enhance it. This decision by Congress could empower both parties to proceed to the negotiating table in a more hopeful way. A yes from Congress, on the other hand, could sideline Iranian moderates and slam the door shut on discussions for a long time.
It is clear that partisan politics will play a significant role in Congress’s decision. That body is fundamentally a political animal, and the House, of course, faces midterm elections in little more than a year. Still, that’s not a terrible thing. After all, for the first time in a long while, when it comes to foreign policy, House members are openly speaking about the influence that a wave of constituent opposition to a Syrian intervention is having on them. They appear to be hearing us speak, even if the impulse isn’t just to do the right thing, but to garner votes in 2014.
Should Congress say no, it seems unlikely that a president, isolated at home and abroad, will go to war. Some of Obama’s top aides have already been signaling that reality. Despite macho talk in the upper echelons of his administration on his right to ignore Congress, as a constitutional scholar and a savvy politician he would be unlikely to risk the demands for his impeachment and the spectacle of a Constitutional crisis by launching Syrian strikes in the wake of a no vote. All the noise about not backing down and his credibility suffering a catastrophic blow should be taken as so much pre-vote political saber rattling. The president may make foolish decisions, but he certainly is no fool.
By saying no, not again, not this time, the current group of gray men and women who largely make up our Congress have the chance to join some of the giants who have thundered in those chambers in the past. At this moment, that body has the opportunity to choose a new meaning for future anniversaries of 9/11. It could be the day that life went on just as disastrously as previously — or it could be the day that changed everything, and this time for the better.
(Off topic here, but I wanted to say a few words after dropping my child off at college. Regular readers who hope to see evil and corruption exposed, tune in again. There’s still plenty of it out there, also in a way the topic of this essay. This originally appeared on Huffington Post)
Mrs. We Meant Well and I sent off the last of the heirs to the We Meant Well fortune to college. She’s a good kid, smarter than me hopefully, and she should do well at school. Though she is more embarrassed than anything about half the stuff on this blog, her heart’s in the right place. It would be very odd if as a teenager she would be any different. Hell, if she was as cynical as me at her age, we’d need to have her see a doctor.
I kept my mouth shut at the college– there are rituals to these things and dad-confessions are not among them– but I wanted to say sorry to her more than simply goodbye. My kids all grew up overseas while I served with the State Department (though they of course did not accompany me to Iraq). Despite the occasional job hassles, it was not a bad life. For most of the time the world was mostly at peace. We started the adventure around the same time that Desert Storm happened. After a week of silly paranoid concern that the Iraqi Army might somehow attack us in Taiwan, life went back to normal and continued that way until September 11, 2001. We were assigned in Japan at that time, and like all of you, watched the terrible events unfold on TV, albeit late at night because of the time zone thing. As the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I got up to make some sandwiches to bring in to work, knowing the phone would ring soon and I’d be called in to the Embassy. I remember as clear as glacier water my wife saying “Why would they call you in? That’s in New York and we’re in Tokyo!” Then the phone did ring and that was that. Forever after I would feel like a shadow looking for the sanctuary of a light.
The world my kids grew up in no longer exists. We destroyed it. In reaction to the terror attack, we set the Middle East on fire (still burning), nearly bankrupted our own economy, turned air travel into a form of bondage play, and did away with our democracy in return for a security state that exists only to keep us perched on the edge of fear. Nothing pressed us into these actions; we did them all on our own, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, the NSA amok, all that.
That night twelve years ago in Tokyo, when I was called in to the Embassy after midnight? As I approached the gate, I could see a large crowd gathered, not usual for after midnight and certainly not usual in calm-as-dust Tokyo. About a hundred Japanese had spontaneously gathered there, some with flowers bought who-knows-where at that time of night. They clapped for us as we walked in to work. They wanted to touch us as we walked by. It did not last long. Fast forward to March 2003 and a larger crowd gathered to protest the invasion of Iraq, and protest calls blew out the switchboard. Our security people let us out a back gate, saying it wasn’t safe to exit through the front door. In Tokyo. One bomb threat and false positive al Qaeda warning after another followed, hitting a low point when, after weeks of denying it, the State Department admitted that they had shipped diplomatic pouches into our Embassy that might have been infected by the anthrax that was in the U.S. mail system at the time. My office was near the pouch mail room and I had to take Cipro as a precaution and wonder if anything got into my home and my kids’ room off my clothes. Threats and terror alerts became a daily part of our new normal, there and in the U.S.
So I wanted to say I was sorry to my child. Sorry we messed up the world for you. Sorry for, what, how many dead? Sorry countries where Americans used to be at least tolerated with our awkward shorts and sandals ‘n socks are now too dangerous to even visit. Sorry you’ll never see the ruins of Babylon in Iraq, or the Pyramids, unless you join the Army. Sorry you will never know what privacy is. Sorry that you, and your children, will live in an America that exists in a constant state of low-fever war. Sorry you will never know peace. Sorry that we not only did not defeat the terrorists but, by our actions, gave their cause new life and seemingly endless new recruits. Sorry you will never enjoy an airplane trip, sorry you will never trust your government, sorry you will always have that tiny glint of reservation when you hear the anthem, read the Constitution or wonder what happened. And while I am sorry that you’ll blame us, you are right to do so. We did it. Some of us actively participated, some passively let it happen. Some that tried to make changes failed to make them significant enough to hold back even some of the water coming over the levies. Sorry, but if anyone is going to fix this, it is going to have to be you. Do a better job than we did if you want to really find a way to say thanks for the piano lessons and ballet lessons, the puppy, for using the car, for me not being too mad when you violated curfew to spend more time with that boy, for the college tuition.
Funny, but I also just sent my last draft for the new book off to the editor. He’ll make it much better and I know that, but I have given up something that used to be all mine at the same time. It’ll come back different.
We sent my daughter off to college this weekend and while my wife cried about 99% of the time, I held back some tears until the very end. While some kid my daughter had never met before said “C’mon, we’re going out with the guys from the next quad!” I stood there hugging her not in that room but in a million places where she had fallen down or asked for ice cream or needed a diaper changed or the causes of World War I explained. I didn’t hug an 18 year old woman but a six year old, a 13 year old, an infant in diapers, a two year old angry about being wet in the snow.
And despite my need to hold on to her for just that much more she felt closer in that moment to the anonymous roommate demanding she go out the door with her than to me and I knew simultaneously how I hurt and how right she was to need to leave. The space between us was a fraction of an inch but it was a distance I would never cross.
Back home it was quiet. Just my wife and the stupid, now old dog. I walked outside and saw the trees were still an unbelievable green, but just a hint of yellow, almost too little to really see, more of a feeling. There were nine empty beer cans in the recycling bin and I could hear cicadas. I swacked a mosquito. I’m gonna really miss summer.
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing. He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.
First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.
And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel. Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.
The Whistle Is Blown
MacLean joined the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) in 2001 after stints with the Air Force and the Border Patrol. In July 2003, all marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which oversees FAMS, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to the cell phones of the marshals cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. MacLean became concerned that cancelling missions during a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public. He complained to his supervisor and to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, but each responded that nothing could be done.
It was then that he decided to blow the whistle, hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to reinstate the marshals’ flights. So MacLean talked to a reporter, who broadcast a story criticizing the TSA’s decision and, after 11 members of Congress joined in the criticism, it reversed itself. At this point, MacLean had not been identified as the source of the leak and so carried on with his job.
A year later, he appeared on TV in disguise, criticizing the TSA dress code and its special boarding policies, which he believed allowed marshals to be easily identified by other passengers. This time, the TSA recognized his voice and began an investigation that revealed he had also released the 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006. Although the agency had not labeled that message as “sensitive security information” (SSI) when it was sent in 2003, in August 2006, months after MacLean’s firing, it issued a retroactive order stating that the text’s content was indeed SSI.
A Whistleblower’s Catch-22
That disclosing the contents of an unclassified message could get someone fired for disclosing classified information is the sort of topsy-turvy situation which could only exist in the post-9/11 world of the American national security state.
Under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), a disclosure prohibited by law negates whistleblower protections. That, of course, makes it in the government’s interest to define disclosure as broadly as possible and to classify as much of its internal communications for as long as it possibly can. No wonder that in recent years the classification of government documents has soared, reaching a record total of 92,064,862 in 2011.
Officially, the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Since 9/11, however, various government agencies have created multiple freestyle categories of secrecy like “SSI,” “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” “Sensitive But Unclassified,” and the more colorful “Eyes Only.” All of these are outside the normal codification system; all are hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of the formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information. In addition to those labels, there exist more than 130 sets of extra “handling requirements” that only deepen the world of government secrecy.
At issue for MacLean was not only the retroactive classification of a text message already in the public domain, but what classified could possibly mean in an era when everything related to the national security state was slipping into the shadows. Such questions are hardly semantic or academic. MacLean’s case hinges on how they are answered.
The case against Army Private Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks is, for example, intimately tied up in them. The military hides behind classification to block access to Manning’s “public” trial. With WikiLeaks, despite more than 100,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables being available to anyone anywhere on the web, the government continues to insist that they remain “classified” and cannot even be rereleased in response to requests. Potential federal employees were warned to stay away from the cables online, and the State Department even blocked TomDispatch from its staff to shield them from alleged WikiLeaks content (some of which was linked to and discussed, but none of which was actually posted at the site).
With author Tony Shaffer, the government retroactively classified its own account of why he was given the Bronze Star and his standard deployment orders to Afghanistan after he published an uncomplimentary book about American actions there. The messy case of alleged “hacktivist” Barrett Brown includes prosecution for “disclosing” classified material simply by linking to it at places where it had already been posted online; and, while still at the State Department, I was once accused of the same thing by the government.
In MacLean’s case, over a period of seven years, the legality of the TSA firing him for using an only-later-classified text was upheld. Legal actions included hearings before administrative judges, the Merit Systems Protections Board twice, that interlocutory appeal, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The sum of these decisions amid a labyrinth of judicial bureaucracies demands the use of the term Kafkaesque. MacLean, so the general judgment went, should have known that the text message he planned to leak was a classified document, even when it wasn’t (yet). As a result, he should also have understood that his act would not be that of a whistleblower alerting the public to possible danger, but of a criminal risking public safety by exposing government secrets. If that isn’t the definition of a whistleblower’s catch-22, what is?
What such a twisted interpretation by the various courts, boards, and bodies meant was chillingly laid out in an amicus brief on behalf of MacLean filed by the United States Office of Special Counsel (a small, lonely U.S. government entity charged with protecting whistleblowers):
“Whistleblowers should not have to guess whether information that they reasonably believe evidences waste, fraud, abuse, illegalities or public dangers might be later designated as SSI [unclassified sensitive security information] and therefore should not be disclosed. Rather than making the wrong guess, a would-be whistleblower will likely choose to remain silent to avoid risking the individual’s employment.”
Seven Years Later…
In 2011, five years after he had been fired as an air marshal, MacLean’s case finally reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Two full years after that, in April 2013, the court handed down a decision that may yet provide justice for Robert MacLean — and for future whistleblowers. While awkwardly upholding previous decisions that the government can indeed retroactively classify information, even documents in categories like SSI that exist outside the government’s official framework for classification and secrecy, the court tackled a more basic question: Was Robert MacLean a whistleblower anyway, entitled to protection for his act of conscience?
Here lies the conflict at the heart of just about every whistleblower case — between the public’s right (and need) to know and the (at times legitimate) need for secrecy. The government typically argues that individuals should not be allowed to decide for themselves what remains secret and what doesn’t, or chaos would result. At the same time, in a post-9/11 world of increasing secrecy, the loss of the right to know, and the massive over-classification of documents, the “conflict” has become ever more one-sided. If everything can be considered a classified secret document too precious for Americans to know about, and nothing classified can be disclosed, then the summary effect is that nothing inside the government can ever be shown to the public.
The court found that while the Transportation Safety Administration could legally apply any classification it wanted to information any time it wanted, even retroactively, simply slapping on such a label did not necessarily prohibit disclosure. Absent an actual law in MacLean’s case mentioning SSI, a term created bureaucratically, not congressionally, there could be no Whistleblower Protection Act-excepting prohibition. In other words, MacLean could still be a whistleblower.
One of MacLean’s lawyers, Tom Devine, told me the decision “restored enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act’s public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for WPA rights.”
“With this precedential decision,” MacLean explained to me, “agencies can no longer cancel out Whistleblower Protection Act rights with their semi-secret markings like SSI, Law Enforcement Sensitive, etcetera.”
In a concurring opinion, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Judge Evan Wallach was even clearer: “Mr. MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public… I concur to emphasize that the facts alleged, if proven, allege conduct at the core of the Whistleblower Protection Act.”
MacLean’s case now returns to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board is a complex piece of bureaucracy inside the already complicated federal government personnel system. In simple terms, it is supposed to be a place to appeal personnel actions, such as alleged unfair hirings and firings. It thus serves as a kind of watchdog over the sprawling federal human resources empire. The Board now has the court-ordered specific charge to “determine whether Mr. MacLean’s disclosure qualifies for WPA protection.”
Note as well that this case could continue without end for years more, traveling on “appeal” back through the federal judicial bureaucracy and the courts. And remember that this, too, is an advantage to a government that wants ever less known about itself. If, as a federal employee, you are watching a case like MacLean’s (or Thomas Drake’s, or Franz Gayle’s, or Morris Davis’s, or John Kiriakou’s, or even my own small version of this), then you can’t help noticing that the act of whistleblowing could leave you: a) out on your ear; b) prosecuted for a criminal act and/or c) with your life embroiled for years in the intricacies of your own never-ending case. None of this is exactly an encouragement to federal employees to blow that whistle.
Whistleblowers and Secrecy
Threats to whistleblowers abound, so any positive step, however minimalist or reversible, is important. Entering the White House pledging to head the most transparent administration in history, Barack Obama has, in fact, gone after more national security whistleblowers, often using the draconian Espionage Act, than all previous administrations combined.
His Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by their actions. In addition, through the ongoing case of Berry v. Conyers, Obama has sought to expand the definition of “national security worker” to potentially include thousands of additional federal employees. Many employees who occupy truly sensitive jobs in the intelligence community (for example, real-world spies at the CIA) are exempt from being granted whistleblower status. They also cannot appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if fired. By seeking to expand that exemption to a significantly larger group of people who may work at some federal agency, but in non-sensitive positions, Obama is also functionally moving to shrink the pool of potential whistleblowers. In Berry v. Conyers, for example, the persons Obama seeks to exempt as occupying sensitive jobs are merely an accounting technician and a commissary worker at an Air Force base. Neither of them even hold security clearances.
What happens with MacLean’s case potentially affects every future whistleblower. If the mere presence of a pseudo-classification on an item, even applied retroactively, negates whistleblower protections, it means dark days ahead for the right of the citizenry to know what the government is doing (or how it’s misbehaving) in its name. If so, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected, since all the government would have to do to unprotect it is classify whatever was disclosed retroactively and wash its hands of the miscreant. Federal employees, not a risk-taking bunch to begin with, will react accordingly.
This is what gives MacLean’s case special meaning. While the initial decision on his fate will occur in the bowels of the somewhat obscure Merit Systems Protections Board, it will set a precedent that will surely find its way into higher courts on more significant cases. Amid a lot of technical legal issues, it all boils down to something very simple: Should whistleblower protections favor the conscience of a concerned federal employee willing to risk his job and the freedom to inform the public, or should they dissolve in the face of an unseen bureaucrat’s (retroactive) pseudo-classification decision?
Procedurally, there are many options ahead for MacLean’s case, and the government will undoubtedly contest each tiny step. Whatever happens will happen slowly. This is exactly how the government has continually done its dirty work post-9/11, throwing monkey wrenches in the gears of the legal system, twisting words, and manipulating organizations designed to deliver justice in order to deny it.
MacLean smiles at this. “I did seven years so far. I can do seven more if they want. There’s too much at stake to just give up.”
Just to get ahead of things, a few announcements before we begin. If you plan to send hate mail or death threats after this blog post, please include the key word “HATE” in the subject line to assist me in sorting things. Also, I grieve for all those lost on 9/11. It was a terrible tragedy. None of this is intended to dispute that, but…
Get over it New York.
I had the pleasure of a few days in New York City, all for the good. People were themselves, food great, subways running smoothly post-Sandy. But it seems that official New York can’t seem to get past 9/11. On Monday the cops in the subways switched from their weekend soft caps and 9mm pistols to helmets, body armor and M-4s with the long clips. Armed National Guard paroled the Port Authority terminal, literally outfitted for war. Both the cops and the Guard carried milpsec gas masks ready to protect against anthrax and a host of other militarized biochem things. C’mon guys, 9/11 was almost twelve years ago. In the subway, with its low ceilings, packed-to-the- edges crowds and hard surfaces, exactly what are you going to do with a machine gun? Can you sketch out a scenario where the NYPD is going to be exchanging a couple of hundred armor piercing rounds underground where they won’t be killing more people than the bad guys?
The subways are noisy enough without the endless recorded admonitions to “see something, say something” and report suspicious packages to the proper authorities. No one cares. The homeless guys all had bags and bags with them, maybe filled with empty 40 ouncers, maybe terror bombs, but nobody paid them any attention. I am so very sorry about those who lost their lives on 9/11, particularly the brave first responders. But do we really need that many murals on walls, all resplendent with gas station velvet-painting level burning Twin Towers?
The indifference of the millions of people and the signs of official excessive panic stand in contrast. Most folks seem to have moved on. It has been almost twelve years and yet… and yet… the NYPD and others seem to want to keep everyone on edge, act as if there has been attack after attack, to keep the sore from healing. Of course some one will write in and explain to me that such vigilance is all that stands between us and the darkness, that when it is my child held in the kabob-stained hands of terror under 51st Street I’ll wish there were armed men protecting her and all that. Save your time.
Maybe, just maybe, it makes sense to a police state to keep reminding everyone why they need to support and maintain a police state. Maybe the image of the NYPD as gruff but lovable neighborhood guys and gals isn’t enough to justify big budgets and a surveillance state.
Maybe, just maybe, it is time for New York, officially, to get over 9/11.
BONUS: Anyone enjoying the media these days can see a preview of the Next Enemy. Even the White House seems to be slowly walking back from Terrorism Everywhere as a justification for Everything, and is prepping us with near-daily stories about the super dangers of cyber-terrorism. Stay tuned for the change over as we head first into midterm elections next year and then as we gear up for the 2016 presidentials. The Chinese are sneaking into our Internets to take over our Facebooking!!!!!!!!
We’re instituted full background checks, body scanners and cavity searches at my home for all guests, which keeps me pretty busy, so this will be a short post. You can’t be too careful! Because they hate our freedoms, we’ve taken them away for safekeeping.
Here’s a fun thing for today while we’re all reflecting. I guess the cool political thing to do is ask “Are you better off now?” so let’s just do that:
State of Things September 11, 2001
Iraq opposed Iran, helping establish a balance of power in the Middle East. Any danger Saddam was worth was contained by the no-fly zones and had been, successfully, since 1991.
Iraq had no WMDs.
Iran’s plans were cooled by an enemy on its western border, Iraq, and one on its eastern border, the Taliban.
Al Qaeda was active in Afghanistan.
The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan.
The US was not at war, and 4,486 Americans had not died in Iraq and 1,935 had not died in Afghanistan. A bunch o’ brown people were still alive. Suicide was not the most common cause of death in our military.
The US had a chunky budget surplus and had not spent three trillion dollars on wars. Americans got a tax rebate we had so much cash.
The US was not well-known among nations as a torturer, a keeper of secret prisons, an assassin with drones.
America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats.
Americans at home were secure, protected from abuses by their government by the First and Fourth Amendments.
Iraq had no WMDs.
Gas was about $1.50 a gallon in the US.
State of Things September 11, 2012
Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East, with well-established ties into Iraq and Afghanistan.
China has also made healthy economic inroads in Afghanistan, as well as Africa. They hold a good chunk of America’s debt.
Al Qaeda is active in Afghanistan. Also Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and many other places the franchise never held ground in before 9/11.
The Taliban control much of Afghanistan.
The US national debt is over $16 trillion dollars and growing growing growing growing…
The US has assets in the fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, all over Africa, Guatemala, Yemen, used to in Libya, probaly in Syria, and has suffered drone strikes on all sort of other places, including the Philippines.
The US government ctively and continuously spies on Americans, particularly through electronic means. Once aimed only abroad, the NSA now devotes a substantial portion of its mighty resources inside the US.
The US government drone assassinates American Citizen abroad without trial.
America is represented abroad primarily by soldiers.
Iraq still has no WMDs. But other new places do or soon will.
The amount of oil flowing from Iraq is about the same as it was in 2001.
Gas is about $4.00 a gallon in the US.
So, are you better off? The traditional anniversary gift for an eleventh anniversary is something made of silk or linen, so for you America, here is a linen hankie to cry into. Can’t afford a silk one.
For a more sober reflection on how far we have fallen from 9/10/01, have a look at Morris Davis’ latest article.
Manhattan Federal Magistrate Judge Frank Maas in late July ruled in favor of the 110 survivors and 47 victims’ estates that are parties to the lawsuit. The ruling orders not just the Taliban and al Qaeda, but also the current Iranian regime, to pay $6 billion to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. In December, Federal Judge George Daniels concluded that the heinous acts of Sept. 11, 2001 were also aided by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei and, why not throw them in, Hezbollah.
Readers are forgiven any confusion. Many may remember that George W. Bush tried very, very hard to convince people that it was actually Saddam of Iraq that committed 9/11. Clever citizens noted that most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Yet despite all this, apparently it was Iran all along. Sneaks! And this information is finally coming to light only coincidentally now that the US is preparing for some sort of October surprise Persian Gulf War-a-Polooza.
The so-called evidence of Iranian 9/11-ism is that Federal Judge George Daniels found that Iran, its Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and Hezbollah aided the attacks. According to the unimpeachable New York Daily News, Iran concealed hijackers’ travel through the country and “could have prevented them from entering the U.S.,” while an Iranian government memo not actually cited suggested Khamenei knew of the plot in May 2001. Investigators also believe that Iran helped Al Qaeda members escape Afghanistan after 9/11.
Collecting One’s Winnings
Now about that $6 billion al Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran now owe the 9/11 victims’ families. There is actually a long history of victims seeking cash compensation from despots. Families of victims of Iraqi, Iranian, and Libyan terrorism spent much of the ’80s and ’90s in pursuit of justice, until Congress finally opened the courtroom door by waiving sovereign immunity for countries that sponsor terrorism (list courtesy of the State Department). The victims’ families–because of Congress’ help–started winning default judgments against the likes of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein back in 1997. But when they went to collect on their judgments–by tapping the frozen US assets of dictators– the State Department turned around and fought the families.
Since sponsors of terrorism tend not to respect the findings of American courts, their frozen national assets held by the U.S. government are only chance the families have to collect on the court judgments. The “compromise” position offered by State is that the families be compensated by the U.S. government, not by the regimes responsible for the terrorist attacks. Why is State so desperate to hoard the frozen assets all for itself? In a letter to the Senate, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (the same guy who leaked the identity of CIA NOC officer Valerie Plame and was never punished for it) wrote, “There is no better example [of protecting national security] than the critical role blocked assets played in obtaining the release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1981.” In other words, bribe money.
The State Department also is always atwitter of the possible affect of actually helping Americans get compensation on bilateral relations. While demanding 9/11 blood money sound good when the sap is current bad guy Iran, the 9/11 families should not expect to get any money out of a Foggy Bottom ATM.
State Department Also Blocked Victims’ Compensation to Aid Iraq Reconstruction
State has a long, sordid history of protecting bad guys over American victims. By mid-2002, 180 persons who had been used as “human shields” by Saddam during the first Gulf War had obtained judgments totaling $94 million. On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, George W. authorized their payment from blocked Iraqi accounts. But the administration then transferred all remaining Iraqi funds to the Coalition Authority in Iraq instead. The Bush administration promised to “make sure that people who secure judgments find some satisfaction,” and Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Congress that his State Department would lead that effort. But for four years, the Department did nothing. Powell left office under the shame of yet another lie.
In December 2007 Congress stepped up, passing a defense bill which contained a provision that would have enabled American victims of Saddam to obtain compensation from Iraqi money still in U.S. banks. Bush vetoed that mammoth defense bill just before the New Year and demanded that Congress re-enact it without the offending compensation language, all based on advice from the State Department that granting the compensation would hold back the reconstruction effort by draining Iraqi money.
Bush Administration Blocked American POW’s Saddam Compensation
Not the State Department this time, but in 2005 the Bush administration fought former U.S. prisoners of war in court, trying to prevent them from collecting nearly $1 billion from Iraq that a federal judge awarded them as compensation for their torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The case — Acree v. Iraq and the United States, named after then-Marine Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, happily pitted the U.S. government against its own war heroes.
“No amount of money can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering that they went through at the hands of this very brutal regime and at the hands of Saddam Hussein,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters when he was asked about the case in November 2003. Government lawyers insisted, literally, on “no amount of money” going to the Gulf War POWs. “These resources are required for the urgent national-security needs of rebuilding Iraq,” McClellan said.
And thanks for your service, suckers!
Over the weekend I re-found my DVDs of the The Concert For New York City. The Concert was a benefit that took place on October 20, 2001 at Madison Square Garden in New York City in response to the September 11 attacks. It was an attempt to honor the first responders from the New York Fire and Police Departments, their families, and those lost in the attacks.
Performer after performer singled out individual members of the NYPD to thank them, and famous rock stars competed with each other to wear police caps that were thrown on stage. It was a very warm, very moving show, as many of the performers and all of the cops lived in New York and shared a sense of tragedy, place and survival. The cops were us, we were the cops.
Then I made the mistake of hitting the news, which showed scenes from Occupy Wall Street, where those same NYPD “heroes” from 9/11 were acting like storm troopers to clear peaceful protesters out of Zuchotti Park.
If anyone needed an image of how far things had changed after ten years of warring, there it is.
When the Green Bay Packers visited the White House a few weeks ago to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl title, linebacker Desmond Bishop wasn’t with his teammates. He had forgotten his drivers license on the plane and without ID, was not allowsed past White House security.
Really? Through the action of refusing entry to this semi-celebrity, the president was safer?
I write this after a bought of air travel. We lined up, took off our shoes, were chastised for not pulling a laptop out of our bag while Kindles, smart phones and all matter of electronic stuff flowed through unmolested. We watched a befuddled older woman get pulled aside for having a 4 ounce tube of lotion (3 ounces is the allowed amount) in her bag. She was searched, told she was a bad person and then allowed to travel with the evil extra ounce as some sort of benevolent gift. Others had to drink their water or have it thrown away. There was a bin full of toothpaste and sunscreen in evil amounts.
As we pass the 10th “anniversary” of 9/11, and count our soldier deaths in the thousands, and the number of people we have killed in the hundreds of thousands, it is worth a moment’s reflection before the media hyper drive takes off to think about what we have become. It seems to be one thing to be defeated by a bad guy, another altogether to have defeated ourselves. Yeah, bin Laden’s dead, along with the ever-long list of Number 2’s and 3’s and couriers and significant Taliban commanders, but in a way, so is a piece of us. George W. Obama. It’s a mug’s deal.
I was planning on a self-induced coma this 9/11 Weekend, hoping to be revived after all the mad coverage. As predictable as the reviews of the Cheney book (torture good, torture bad), a terror alert was issued on Friday, just before 9/11 Weekend, whipping idiots in New York and Washington into a happy, familiar frenzy. Three men may have entered the US; they may be planning a vehicle bomb; it may be in New York, it may be in DC. Be watchful. It was implied– still gotta watch our step– that the three men are “brown,” as they reportedly came from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Security theater was whipped into shape here in our nation’s capital. Even at my dull, suburban Virginia subway station, two local cops wearing body armor, one with a shotgun, stood guard over my commute. Should al Qaeda decide this sleepy stop on the Orange Line is the new Ground Zero, they’ll have a fight on their hands. The point is clear: Keep Fear Alive. Ten Years Means Nothing. We Can Never Be Safe Again.
My own 9/11 memory is actually something more like a 10/25 memory. I was working at our Embassy in Japan, and charged with administering the Federal fund to the 9/11 victims’ families. To prevent everyone from suing everyone for all eternity and bankrupting the airlines, there was some US Government program whipped together to give money to the families of those who died on 9/11, American and foreign alike. New York City had not then sorted out the whole business of issuing death certificates without bodies and so documentation was lacking. The Japanese families whose husbands were trading bonds in the World Trade Center on the Day had to troop into the Embassy to fill out some forms and apply for their victim’s compensation money. The key item was “What evidence do you have that your loved one was killed in the terror acts of 9/11?”
I’d have to interview these women about that last question, to guard against fraud I guess. The women were typically in their mid-thirties, and usually brought their one or two infant children in with them. Hubby had gone off to New York to work, and they stayed in Japan. “He called home every day. Then, no calls.” “The man he lived with missed work that day. He mailed me my husband’s neckties.” “My son cries every night because he has no father.” “A co-worker called me to say he last saw my husband on the 77th floor. I don’t feel he lied.” My Japanese is decent enough, but most of the women felt the need to speak slowly and repeat themselves to politely make sure I understood. Some felt the need to assist by using the limited English they knew, so I could not hide behind the niceties of words like “deceased” or “missing” and had to confront words like “dead” in their place. The interviews were brief, and no one seemed happy– relieved perhaps– when I signed the form and gave instructions on how to get the money sent to their bank accounts. Grief was overcome by awkwardness, but only for a moment. It returned like a draft, unwelcome but surely felt. There were strange echoes from the future, when in Iraq I’d hear from widows whose husbands were lost in the American invasion there.
It will soon enough be Monday, and by then Anderson and Wolf will return us to our regularly scheduled diet of Perry and Obama, now already in progress.
The lessons learned are already being compiled in a recipe for future campaigns. Target someone without nukes (North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are very safe, at least from us) and who is not a nuclear threshold state (Saudis, breathe easy). Use as many US and NATO resources as possible except for “boots on the ground.” Boots on the ground these days means troops we’ll need to acknowledge, not special forces, spies and sneaky mercs who can and were deployed in great abundance but in great secrecy. Let the public face of the war be someone, anyone, who is not American. Label them generic rebels, and tone down the rhetoric of past misadventures (no “freedom fighters,” no “Mission Accomplished” photo-ops). Encourage the media-fueled “victory” announcements from Libya. Stir, chill overnight and you’ve deposed another of America’s formerly reliable despots in favor of a bunch of nobodies we hope will keep the oil tap wide open. Repeat.
Now, my hope will be that the media will keep an eye on Libya long enough to allow us to see what happens next. The rebels will need to shift from breaking things to fixing things, the key transition that screwed up the American adventure in Iraq. Will they be able to very quickly take control of picking up trash, keeping the water and sewage plants running, funding electrical grid upgrades, making sure teachers, cops, toll collectors and tax officials all show up to work and all the rest of the day-to-day stuff of governing? Will they get sidetracking into settling scores and reprisal killings? Security, stabilization and development done sequentially take far too long in a bubbling post-conflict environment, but are very, very hard to do simultaneously (again, see Iraq).
How conflicts like the Libya campaign will fit into the bigger US geopolitical picture will be able to be judged by the results of such mundane civil tasks. Will the US walk away from Libya in large part, the “tyrant” now gone, uncaring about what happens next as long as the oil flows? It is obvious that the US plans nothing on the scale of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that set out to fix all those problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and failed miserably. But will the US dump “experts” and money into Libya? Doing so may or may not make things work, but will increase ownership of the problems by the US, something America would most dearly like to avoid. Doing close to nothing will likely ease Libya’s transition into a permanent semi-failed state.
Breaking things is easy, fixing things is hard. The US has mismanaged that problem consistently since 9/11. Let’s see what the play is in Libya to see if anyone in Washington really learned any lessons.