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Thursday, May 21, 2009

fearless leader takes on fearmongering

Does anybody have any questions?

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

man and superman

I normally try to avoid blogging about obvious things. We know, for instance, that thoughtless people say silly things on talk radio. You don't need me to point that out. I try to save my attention and yours for the odd occasion when I think I have a rare insight to share or a piece of information too little noticed elsewhere.

The recent hysteria against transferring Guantánamo detainees to prisons on the U.S. mainland is so obviously silly that I should ignore it, shouldn't I? There is nothing sensible to say about it that a million others have not already said more cleverly than I. And yet, the matter bothers me so keenly that I must say a few words, however unoriginal, about it.

It was understandable to be shaken up by the terrorist attacks of 2001 and even to overestimate the people responsible. This panel from one of the first installments of David Rees's comic strip 'Get Your War On' typified that scared sentiment.

Bush and Cheney did their best to prolong people's exaggerated fears of the enemy, but thoughtful people eventually put things back in perspective.

That perspective has gone out the window in the debate over where to house the detainees after the closure of the prison camp at Guantánamo. One way to understand the hysteria is to think of contamination models. It's as if, in the minds of the hysterical, the detainees were a virus which could only be contained on a remote island somewhere. If the prisoners are brought here, to a land known since September 11, 2001 as 'the homeland', all hell will somehow break loose.

Another helpful frame of reference is comic books: the remaining detainees—'the worst of the worst' according to Donald Rumsfeld—have come to seem like super-powered villains, hence Rees's invocation of Lex Luthor. No prison on earth can hold them, if you believe the fearmongers. Like General Zod, Ursa, and Non in the first Superman movie (1978), we have no choice but to banish them to the Phantom Zone and pray that they never come to Earth where their Kryptonian physiology will be unbound by our planet's weak gravitational pull. We somehow have to convince the American people that the detainees cannot fly, punch through walls, or use their X-ray vision to destroy the republic.

Historical examples should work: the German and Japanese prisoners held on U.S. soil during World War Two, Soviet spies during the Cold War, and so on. Better still, perhaps we ought to remind people that U.S. prisons currently hold quite a few who fit the description of terrorists. Let's consider a few cases.

1. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols

McVeigh was convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and executed in 2001. Not only did he serve time in the federal 'supermax' prison in Florence, Colorado in the same cellblock as the Unabomber and Ramzi Yousef, but he was moved, without incident, to Indiana for his execution. So much for terrorists breaking free in transit. Nichols, serving a life sentence without parole, was convicted on 161 counts of homicide and other charges.

2. The 1993 World Trade Center bombers

Mahmud Abouhalima, Ahmad Ajaj, Nidal Ayyad, Eyad Ismoil, Mohammad Salameh, and Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, were all convicted for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. They are the only people who have bombed the WTC and lived to tell the tale, yet U.S. prisons are somehow able to hold them. If we follow the comic-book reasoning of the hysterical, should we transfer them to Guantánamo just to be on the safe side? Note that these guys were held in NYC during their trials.

3. The 1998 embassy bombers

Wadih el-Hage, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed are all serving life sentences in U.S. federal prison for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

4. Recent al-Qaeda characters, 2001-2009

All of these al-Qaeda-affiliated convicts rounded up in this decade also reside in U.S. prisons: Zacarias Moussaoui (not 'the twentieth highjacker'), Richard Reid ('the shoe bomber'), Jose Padilla ('the dirty bomber'), John Walker Lindh ('the American talib'), et al.

(For more notable prisoners at the Colorado 'supermax' prison, see Wikipedia's list.)

How is it that we can sleep safe and sound every night with these bad guys on U.S. soil, but the detainees at Guantánamo are too—too what exactly?—to be brought here? If they really have super-powers, wouldn't they have busted out of their cabanas by now? Are they really more secure in a camp set up in a couple of weeks than they would be in a federal prison? It's time to put down the comic books and act like reasonable people again. America's supermax prisons could probably hold Superman. Fortunately, Kal-El is not among the detainees at Guantánamo and neither is Lex Luthor.

As an institution, the supermax stands as a monument to a generation whose politics and priorities were warped by fears of crime. Now, at a time when a different set of fears has done great damage to the republic, putting our faith in the prison-industrial complex might actually bring us back to our senses. In the end, the Phantom Zone could not hold General Zod and his cronies, as we saw in Superman II (1980). Yet, thanks to the billions we spent on prison construction rather than schools over the past twenty years, no one has ever broken out of ADX Florence, the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado.

The men at Guantánamo—men, not supermen—are not going to break out either. If we don't trust our prisons to hold them, then I think we should get those billions of taxpayer dollars back and build schools instead. Perhaps if we educated our children better, they would build better prisons, or better yet, not need as many.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

demand the facts on al-Libi

In my blog item of Friday, May 15, I connected some dots to the curiously timed alleged suicide of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda member captured by the U.S. and, for reasons not at all clear, imprisoned in Libya. Newsweek has now uploaded an article dated May 16 that takes the story further. According to the article, my suspicions were well-founded:

'Two weeks earlier, al-Libi was visited for the first time by human-rights workers investigating allegations that he had been tortured into making false claims connecting Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda. (Those claims, which al-Libi later retracted, were used by the Bush administration to bolster its case for the Iraq War.) Al-Libi also had been identified recently by U.S. defense lawyers as a possible key witness in upcoming trials of top terror suspects.'
The article also says that the Obama administration is demanding answers from the Libyan government about al-Libi's death. One question I would like answered is, did any members of the Bush-Cheney administration communicate with Libyan authorities about al-Libi since January 20, 2009, the date of President Obama's inauguration? Any such contacts should be catalogued and investigated. Another is, what information did al-Libi share with his recent visitors, and who had access to that information?

Closer to home, and regardless of the truth or falsity of the suicide, we should demand answers to the following questions:
—Why was al-Libi, a high-value detainee, never brought to Guantánamo?
—What so-called CIA 'black sites' was al-Libi brought to before being turned over to Libya?
—Whose decision was it to transfer al-Libi from a U.S.-controlled 'black site' to Libya, and what were the official reasons for doing so?

I have e-mailed Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, to get some answers to questions about al-Libi. I will follow up with phone calls to him and other senators this week and will report on my progress, if there is any.

We have a right to know the truth and to demand justice. If it turns out that anyone acted to induce the Libyan government to kill al-Libi in order to thwart justice and accountability in the States, that person must be tried and punished in a court of law. President Obama has regrettably shown reluctance to allow anyone to be prosecuted for illegal torture-related actions undertaken in government service. Would that same reluctance apply to actions possibly undertaken after individuals have left government service?

I have a bad feeling that the worst revelations are yet to come. Will they be matched by commensurately serious investigation? That depends in part on us and how forcefully we demand justice.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

the long arm of the lawless

New facts about torture in the Bush-Cheney years continue to emerge, thanks in part to Dick Cheney's unending torture roadshow. Cheney himself has nothing new to add. Instead, he has provoked others to come forward, like Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired army colonel and Colin Powell's chief of staff when he was secretary of state. On May 13, Wilkerson wrote an article for The Washington Note which included the following passage:

'Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002—well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion—its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.'
Why is that significant? If true, it demonstrates that torture was not used simply by supposedly well-meaning agents and contractors trying to stop the supposed ticking timebombs, but that torture was used to provide cover for one of Bush and Cheney's bogus arguments for war: that Iraq bore responsibility for the attacks of September 11, 2001.

That much is plain from what Wilkerson himself said. But that's not all we learned on Wednesday. Meanwhile in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts held an important hearing called 'What Went Wrong: Torture and the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Administration'. I watched it on C-SPAN and will try to post a link to the transcript when it becomes available.

One of the witnesses at the hearing was Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent who interrogated Abu Zubaydah, the high-value al-Qaeda detainee recently revealed to have been waterboarded eighty-three times in one month. Soufan testified that he got Zubaydah to reveal extremely valuable information without using torture. His interrogation was then stopped and contractors were brought in who then used torture on Zubaydah. The result: the contractors did not get anything valuable out of him. In short, the introduction of the ineffective torture techniques impeded the collection of information from Zubaydah.

The walls are closing in on Cheney and his gang, and there's nothing they can do about it—or is there? There was one more major piece of news this week, one that has received the least public attention but may deserve the most. All but one of the major captured al-Qaeda members are in U.S. custody: Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, Abu Zubaydah, and, at a federal 'supermax' prison in Colorado, Ramzi Yousef. The only one missing from U.S. custody is al-Libi, the guy whose torture produced the bogus information about Iraq's links to al-Qaeda. Where have they been hiding al-Libi? According to Newsweek for May 28, 2007, al-Libi was secreted away to Libya. Libya?! From the Newsweek article by Michael Isikoff:
'But Noman Benotman, a former Afgan jihad fighter who knew al-Libi and who is now a London-based Libyan political opposition leader, told NEWSWEEK that during a recent trip to Tripoli, he met with a senior Libyan government official who confirmed to him that al-Libi had been quietly returned to Libya and is now in prison there. Benotman said that he was told by the senior Libyan government official-whom he declined to publicly identify-that Al Libi is extremely ill, suffering from tuberculosis and diabetes. "He is there in jail and very sick," Benotman told NEWSWEEK. He also said that the senior official told him that the Libyan government has agreed not to publicly confirm anything about al-Libi-out of deference to the Bush administration. "If the Libyans will confirm it, it will embarrass the Americans because he is linked to the Iraq issue," Benotman said.'
Do you suppose al-Libi has been in Libya these past few years so that he could not answer anyone's questions? They could always call him back, no? No. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that al-Libi had just, ahem, committed suicide:
'A Libyan militant whose false information about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda was used by the Bush administration as part of its justification for war in Iraq has died in a prison in Libya, a Libyan newspaper reported. The militant, Ali Mohammed Abdel-Aziz al-Fakheri, known by his nom de guerre, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, hanged himself late last week, the newspaper, Oea, said.'
The one person whose existence most deeply contradicted Bush and Cheney's lies, whose continued torture was personally demanded by Cheney, whose story could potentially wreck their defense in a criminal trial if it ever comes to that, just happened to commit suicide in a Libyan prison just as the Congress begins its investigation and as the facts about torture come cascading down on the heads of the previous administration. Draw your own conclusions. All I've got to say is, Dick Cheney is a very dangerous man.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

everything happens again

David Byrne has released a live EP from his current tour. Proceeds benefit Amnesty International. Buy it here. The live songs are great, but you knew I was going to say that.

Once more, here is my review of the tour.


Monday, May 11, 2009

what the Supreme Court needs now

In my contribution to 3 Quarks Daily this month, I consider the retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter and make the case for his replacement. Who is it? Read the article to find out.

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