Karen J. Greenberg – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Fri, 26 May 2023 05:53:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.9 Torture, American Style; and the Cover-UP https://www.juancole.com/2023/05/torture-american-style.html Fri, 26 May 2023 04:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=212216 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – In the Blindman’s Buff variation of tag, a child designated as “It” is tasked with tapping another child while wearing a blindfold. The sightless child knows the other children, all able to see, are there but is left to stumble around, using sounds and knowledge of the space they’re in as guides. Finally, that child does succeed, either by bumping into someone, peeking, or thanks to sheer dumb luck.

Think of us, the American public, as that blindfolded child when it comes to our government’s torture program that followed the 9/11 disaster and the launching of the ill-fated war on terror. We’ve been left to search in the dark for what so many of us sensed was there.

We’ve been groping for the facts surrounding the torture program created and implemented by the administration of President George W. Bush. For 20 years now, the hunt for its perpetrators, the places where they brutalized detainees, and the techniques they used has been underway. And for 20 years, attempts to keep that blindfold in place in the name of “national security” have helped sustain darkness over light.

From the beginning, the torture program was enveloped in a language of darkness with its secret “black sites” where savage interrogations took place and the endless blacked-out pages of documents that might have revealed more about the horrors being committed in our name. In addition, the destruction of evidence and the squelching of internal reports only expanded that seemingly bottomless abyss that still, in part, confronts us. Meanwhile, the courts and the justice system consistently supported those who insisted on keeping that blindfold in place, claiming, for example, that were defense attorneys to be given details about the interrogations of their clients, national security would somehow be compromised.

Finally, however, more than two decades after it all began, the tide may truly be turning.

Despite fervid attempts to keep that blindfold in place, the search has not been in vain. On the contrary, over these last two decades, its layers have slowly worn away, thread by thread, revealing, if not the full picture of those medieval-style practices, then a damning set of facts and images relating to torture, American-style, in this century. Cumulatively, investigative journalism, government reports, and the testimony of witnesses have revealed a fuller picture of the places, people, nightmarish techniques, and results of that program.

First Findings

The fraying of that blindfold took endless years, starting in December 2002, when Washington Post writers Dana Priest and Barton Gellman reported on the existence of secret detention and interrogation centers in countries around the planet where cruel, unlawful techniques were being used against war-on-terror captives in American custody. Quoting from a 2001 State Department report on the treatment of captives, they wrote, “The most frequently alleged methods of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions and extended solitary confinement.”

Less than a year later, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with other groups, filed a Freedom of Information Act request (the first of many) for records pertaining to detention and interrogation in the war on terror. Their goal was to follow the trail leading to “numerous credible reports recounting the torture and rendition of detainees” and our government’s efforts (or the lack thereof) to comply “with its legal obligations with respect to the infliction of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Then, in 2004, the blindfold began to show some initial signs of wear. That spring, CBS News’s 60 Minutes II showed the first photographs of men held at Abu Ghraib, an American-controlled prison in Iraq. They were, among other things, visibly naked, hooded, shackled, and threatened by dogs. Those pictures sent journalists and legal advocates into a frenzied search for answers to how such a thing had happened in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. By that fall, they had obtained internal government documents exempting any war on terror captives from the usual legal protections from cruelty, abuse, and torture. Documents also appeared in which specific techniques of torture, renamed “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), were authorized by top officials of the Bush administration. They would be used on prisoners in secret CIA locations around the world (119 men in 38 or more countries).

None of this, however, yet added up to “Tag! I found you!”

Senator Feinstein’s Investigation

Before George Bush left office, Senator Dianne Feinstein began a congressional investigation into the CIA interrogation program. In the Obama years, she would battle to mount a full-scale one into the torture program, defying most of her colleagues, who preferred to follow President Obama’s advice to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

But Feinstein refused to back down (and we should honor her courage and dedication, even as we witness the present drama of her insistence on remaining in the Senate despite a devastating process of aging).  Instead of retreating, Feinstein only doubled down and, as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, launched an in-depth investigation into the torture program’s evolution and the grim treatment of those prisoners at what came to be known as “CIA black sites.”

Feinstein’s investigator, Daniel Jones, spent years reading through six million pages of documents. Finally, in December 2014, her committee issued a 525-page “executive summary” of his findings. Yet his full report — 6,700 pages with 35,300 footnotes — remained classified on the grounds that, were the public to see it, national security might be harmed. Still, that summary convincingly laid out not just the widespread use of torture but how it “proved not to be an effective means of obtaining accurate information.” In doing so, it dismantled the CIA’s justification for its EITs which rested on “claims of their effectiveness.”

Meanwhile, Leon Panetta, Obama’s director of the CIA, conducted an internal investigation into torture. Never declassified, the Panetta Review, as it came to be known, reportedly found that the CIA had inflated the value of the information it had gotten with the use of torture techniques. For example, in the brutal interrogation of the alleged mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Agency claimed that those techniques had elicited information from him that helped thwart further terrorist plots. In fact, the information had been obtained from other sources. The review reportedly acknowledged that EITs were in no way as effective as the CIA had claimed.

The Cultural Sphere

In those years, bits of light from the cultural world began to illuminate the dark horror of those enhanced interrogation techniques. In 2007, after President Bush had acknowledged the use of just such “techniques” and had moved 14 detainees from the CIA’s black sites to Guantánamo, his infamous offshore prison of injustice in Cuba, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney directed Taxi to the Dark Side. It told the story of Dilawar, a taxi driver in Afghanistan who died in American custody after severe mistreatment. That film would be one of the earliest public exposés of cruelty and mistreatment in the war on terror.

But such films didn’t always yield doses of light. In 2012, for instance, Zero Dark Thirty, a movie heavily influenced by CIA advisers, argued that those harsh interrogations had helped keep America safer — specifically by leading U.S. authorities to bin Laden, a meme often repeated by government officials. In fact, reliable information leading to bin Laden had been obtained without those techniques.

Increasingly, however, films began to highlight the voices of those who had been tortured. The Mauritanian, for example, was based on Guantánamo Diary, a memoir by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a tortured Mauritanian held at that prison for 14 years. Slahi, never charged, was finally released and returned to Mauritania. As New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg summed up his experience, “The confessions he made under duress [were] recanted [and] a proposed case against him [was] deemed by the prosecutor to be worthless in court because of the brutality of the interrogation.”

Abu Zubaydah

Last year, award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney once again gave us a film on torture, The Forever Prisoner, focused on a Guantánamo detainee, Abu Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Husayn. On him, the CIA first tested its harsh interrogation techniques, claiming he was a leading member of al-Qaeda, an assumption later disproved. He remains one of only three Gitmo detainees neither charged by the military commissions at that prison, nor cleared for release.

Nothing captures the futility of the blindfold — or sometimes even the futility of lifting it — more than Zubaydah’s story, which was at the heart of the story of torture in these years. The Senate Select Committee’s 525-page executive summary referred to him no less than 1,343 times.

Captured in Pakistan in 2002 and first taken to a series of black sites for interrogation, Zubaydah was initially believed to be the third highest-ranking member of al-Qaeda, a claim later abandoned, along with the allegation that he had even been a member of that terrorist organization. He was the detainee for whom enhanced interrogation techniques were first authorized by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, relying in part on the Justice Department’s greenlighting of such techniques as “lawful” rather than as torture (legally forbidden under both domestic and international law). Joe Margulies, Zubaydah’s lawyer, summarized the horrific techniques used on him this way:

“His captors hurled him into walls and crammed him into boxes and suspended him from hooks and twisted him into shapes that no human body can occupy. They kept him awake for seven consecutive days and nights. They locked him, for months, in a freezing room. They left him in a pool of his own urine. They strapped his hands, feet, arms, legs, torso, and head tightly to an inclined board, with his head lower than his feet. They covered his face and poured water up his nose and down his throat until he began to breathe the water, so that he choked and gagged as it filled his lungs. His torturers then left him to strain against the straps as he began to drown. Repeatedly. Until, just when he believed he was about to die, they raised the board long enough for him to vomit the water and retch. Then they lowered the board and did it again. The torturers subjected him to this treatment at least eighty-three times in August 2002 alone. On at least one such occasion, they waited too long and Abu Zubaydah nearly died on the board.”

In addition, as Dexter Filkins reported in the New Yorker in 2016, Zubaydah lost his left eye while in CIA custody.

As the Feinstein committee’s torture report makes clear, CIA personnel present at that black site cabled back to Washington the importance of erasing any information about the nature of Zubaydah’s interrogation, implicitly acknowledging just how wrongful his treatment had been. The July 2002 cable asked for “reasonable assurance that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” CIA higher-ups assured the agents that “all major players are in concurrence that [Abu Zubaydah] should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

Sadly enough, that promise has been kept to this very day. In 2005, CIA officials authorized the destruction of the tapes of Zubaydah’s questioning and, never charged with a crime, he is still in Guantánamo.

And yet, despite the promise that he would remain incommunicado, with each passing year we learn more about what was done to him. In October 2021, in fact, in the United States v. Zubaydah, the justices of the Supreme Court for the first time openly discussed his treatment and Justices Sonia Sotomayer, Neil Gorsuch, and Elena Kagan publicly used the word “torture” to describe what was done to him.

Elsewhere as well, the blindfold has been shredded when it comes to the horror of torture, as ever more of Zubaydah’s story continues to see the light of day. This May, the Guardian published a story about a report done by the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University Law School that included a series of 40 drawings Zubaydah had made and annotated at Guantánamo. In them, he graphically depicted his torture at CIA black sites and at that prison.

The images are beyond grotesque and, like a cacophonous symphony you can’t turn off, it’s hard to witness them without closing your eyes. They show beating, shackling from the ceiling, sexual abuse, waterboarding, confinement in a coffin, and so much more. In one picture that he titled “The Vortex,” the techniques were combined as Zubaydah — in a self-portrait — cries out in agony. Attesting to the accuracy of the scenes he drew, the faces of his torturers have been blacked out by the authorities to protect their identities.

As the Guardian‘s Ed Pilkington reported, Helen Duffy, Mr. Zubaydah’s international legal representative, highlighted how “remarkable” it was that his drawings had ever seen the light of day even though he hasn’t “been able to communicate directly with the outside world” in all these endless years.

Calls for Action

In the years of the Biden presidency, the international community has focused on Guantánamo in unprecedented ways. In January 2022, “after 20 years and well over 100 visits,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) called for the release of as many of the remaining prisoners there as possible and, more recently, raised alarm over the failing health and premature aging of its 30 aging inmates.  

Recently, the United Nations carved out new ground as well. In April, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion condemning the brutality long used against Mr. Zubaydah and called for his immediate release. That group further noted that the continued detention of the prisoners at Guantánamo could potentially “constitute crimes against humanity.”

With each passing year, ever more details about Washington’s torture programs have come to light. Yet, even now, ferocious attempts are still being made to keep the blindfold in place. As a result, to this day we’re left searching, arms extended, while those who have crucial information about this country’s nightmarish commitment to torture do their best to avoid us, hoping that the endless passage of time will keep them out of reach until we pursuers finally run out of energy.

To this day, much still remains in darkness, while Congress and American policymakers continue to refuse to address the legacy of such wrongdoing. But as the constant dribble of information suggests, the story simply won’t go away until, someday, the United States officially acknowledges what it did — what, if others were now doing it, would be instantly denounced by the same lawmakers and policymakers. That history of torture won’t go away, in fact, until this country apologizes for it, declassifies as much of the Feinstein report as possible, and provides for the rehabilitation of Abu Zubaydah and others whose physical and psychological health was savaged by their mistreatment at American hands.

It’s one thing to say, as Barack Obama told Congress a month into his presidency, that the United States “does not torture.” It’s another to expose the misdeeds of the war on terror and accept the costs as deterrence against it ever happening again.

Via Tomdispatch.com

Will it Never Stop? From Forever War to Eternal War https://www.juancole.com/2023/04/never-forever-eternal.html Wed, 12 Apr 2023 04:02:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=211294 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – “It is time,” President Biden announced in April 2021, “to end the forever war” that started with the invasion of Afghanistan soon after the tragic terror attacks on this country on September 11, 2001. Indeed, that August, amid chaos and disaster, the president did finally pull the last remaining U.S. forces out of that country.

A year and a half later, it’s worth reflecting on where the United States stands when it comes to both that forever war against terrorism and war generally. As it happens, the war on terror is anything but ended, even if it’s been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and simmering conflicts around the globe, all too often involving the United States. In fact, it now seems as if this country is moving at breakneck speed out of the era of Forever War and into what might be thought of as the era of Eternal War.

Granted, it’s hard even to keep track of the potential powder kegs that seem all too ready to explode across the globe and are likely to involve the U.S. military in some fashion. Still, at this moment, perhaps it’s worth running through the most likely spots for future conflict.

Russia and China

In Ukraine, as each week passes, the United States only seems to ramp up its commitment to war with Russia, moving the slim line of proxy warfare ever closer to a head-to-head confrontation between the planet’s two great military powers. Although the plan to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia clearly remains in effect, once taboo forms of support for Ukraine have over time become more acceptable.

As of early March, the United States, one of more than 50 countries offering some form of support, had allocated aid to Ukraine on 33 separate occasions, amounting to more than $113 billion worth of humanitarian, military, and financial assistance. In the process, the Biden administration has agreed to provide increasingly lethal weaponry, including Bradley fighting vehicles, Patriot missile batteries, and Abrams tanks, while pressure for even more powerful weaponry like Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs) and F-16s is only growing. As a recent Council on Foreign Relations report noted, Washington’s aid to Ukraine “far exceeds” that of any other country.

In recent weeks, the theater of tension with Russia has expanded beyond Ukraine, notably to the Arctic, where some experts see potential for direct conflict between Russia and the U.S., branding that region a “future flashpoint.” Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently raised the possibility of storing tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, perhaps more of a taunt than a meaningful gesture, but nonetheless another point of tension between the two countries. 

Leaving Ukraine aside, China’s presence looms large when it comes to predictions of future war with Washington.  On more than one occasion, Biden has stated publicly that the United States would intervene if China were to launch an invasion of the island of Taiwan. Tellingly, efforts to fortify the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region have ratcheted up in recent months.

In February, for example, Washington unveiled plans to strengthen its military presence in the Philippines by occupying bases in the part of that country nearest to Taiwan. All too ominously, four-star Air Force General Mike Minihan went so far as to suggest that this country might soon be at war with China. “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me [we] will fight in 2025,” he wrote in a memo to the officers he commands in anticipation of a future Chinese move on Taiwan. He also outlined a series of aggressive tactics and weapons training maneuvers in preparation for that day. And the Marines have been outfitting three regiments for a possible future island campaign in the Pacific, while war-gaming such battles in Southern California.  

North Korea, Iran, and the War on Terror

North Korea and Iran are also perceived in Washington as simmering threats.

For months now, North Korea and the U.S. have been playing a game of nuclear chicken in parallel shows of missile strength and submarine maneuvers, including the North’s mid-March launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and, at least theoretically, reaching the U.S. mainland. In its leader Kim Jong-un’s words, it was intended to “strike fear into the enemies” of his country. In the last days of March, his military even launched a reputed underwater nuclear-capable drone, taking the confrontation one step further. Meanwhile, Washington has been intensifying its security commitments to South Korea and Japan, flexing its muscles in the region, and upping the ante with the biggest joint military drills involving the South Korean armed forces in years.

As for Iran, it’s increasingly cooperating with an embattled Russia when it comes both to sending drones there and receiving cyberweapons from that country. And since Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA nuclear treaty with Iran in May 2018, tensions between Washington and Teheran have only intensified. International monitors have recently concluded that Iran may indeed be approaching the brink of being able to produce nuclear-grade enriched uranium. At the same time, Israel has been ramping up its threats to attack Iran and draw the United States into such a crisis.

Meanwhile, smaller conflicts are sizzling around the globe, many seemingly tempting Washington to engage more actively. On President Biden’s agenda in his recent meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, was the possibility of deploying a Canadian-led multinational force to Haiti to help quell the devastating gang violence ravaging that country. “We believe that the situation on the ground will not improve without armed security assistance from international partners,” a National Security Council official told NPR’s Morning Edition ahead of the summit. Trudeau, however, backed away from accepting such a role. What Washington will now do — fearing a wave of new immigrants — remains to be seen.  

And don’t forget that the forever war on terror persists, even if in a somewhat different and more muted form.  Although the U.S. has left Afghanistan, for instance, it still retains the right to conduct “over the horizon” air strikes there. And to this day, it continues to launch targeted strikes against the al-Shabaab terror group in Somalia, even if in far lower numbers than during the Trump years when drone strikes reached an all-time high of more than 200. So far, the Biden administration has launched 29 such strikes in the last two years.

American drone attacks persist in Syria as well. Only recently, in retaliation for a drone attack against U.S. troops there that killed an American contractor and wounded another, as well as five soldiers, the Biden administration carried out strikes against Iranian-backed militias. According to National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, President Biden has still not ruled out further retaliatory acts there. As he told Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation at the end of March, referring to ISIS in Syria, “We have under 1,000 troops [there] that are going after that network, which is, while greatly diminished, still viable, and still critical. So we’re going to stay at that task.”

Other than Syria and Iraq (where the U.S. still has 2,500 troops), the war on terror is now particularly focused on Africa. In the Sahel region, the swath of that continent just below the Sahara Desert, including Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania, and Sudan, among other countries, the legacies of past terrorism and the war in Ukraine have reportedly converged, creating devastatingly unstable and violent conditions, exacerbating what USAID official Robert Jenkins has called “decades of undelivered promises.”

As journalist Walter Pincus put it recently, “With little public notice, the two-decades-long U.S. war on terrorism continues in the Sahel.” According to the 2023 Global Index for Terrorism, that region is now the “epicenter of terrorism.” The largest U.S. presence in West Africa is in Niger, which, as Nick Turse reports, “hosts the largest and most expensive drone bases run by the U.S. military,” intended primarily to counter terrorist groups like Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. Weapons from the war in Ukraine have found their way to such terrorist groups, while climate-change induced weather nightmares, deepening food insecurity, and ever more dislocated populations have led to an increasingly unstable situation in the region. Complicating things further, the Wagner group, the Russian mercenary paramilitary outfit, has been offering security assistance to countries in the Sahel, intensifying the potential for violence. U.S. military forces and bases in the region have grown apace as the war on terror in Africa intensifies.

Legislative Support for Eternal Warfare

Legislative moves in Congress unabashedly reflect this country’s pivot to Eternal War. Admittedly, the push for an ever-expanding battlefield didn’t start with the great-power conflicts leading today’s headlines. The 2001 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which paved the way for the invasion of Afghanistan, gave the president essentially unlimited authority to take offensive action in the name of countering terrorism by not naming an enemy or providing any geographical or time limits. Since the fall of 2001, just as Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) predicted while casting the only vote against it, that AUMF has served as a presidential “blank check” when it comes to authorizing the use of force more or less anywhere.

Former State Department lawyer Brian Finucane has pointed out that the perpetuation of “much of the legal, institutional, and physical infrastructure that underpin this decades-long” war on terror is now being extended to the Sahel, no matter the predictable results. As Soufan Group terrorism expert Colin Clarke told me, “A global war on terrorism has never been winnable. Terrorism is a tactic. It can’t be fully defeated, just mitigated and managed.”

Nevertheless, the 2001 AUMF remains on the books, available to be tapped in ever-expansive ways globally. Only this month, Congress once again voted against its repeal.

Admittedly, the Senate did recently repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of force that undergirded the Iraq War of 1991 and the 2002 invasion of that country. Notably, a new amendment proposed by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to also create an AUMF against Iran-backed militias in the region was defeated. As recent military engagements in Syria have shown, new authorizations have proven unnecessary.

Congress seems to be seconding the move from Forever War to Eternal War without significant opposition. In fact, when it comes to funding such a future, its members have been all too enthusiastic. As potential future war scenarios have expanded, so has the Pentagon budget which has grown astronomically over the past two years. In December, President Biden signed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which granted the Pentagon an unprecedented $816.7 billion, 8% more than the year before (with Congress upping the White House’s suggested funding by $45 billion).

And the requests for the 2024 budget are now in. As Pentagon expert William Hartung reports, at $886 billion dollars, $69 billion more than this year’s budget, Congress is on a path to enacting “the first $1 trillion package ever,” a development he labels “madness.” “An open-ended strategy,” Hartung explains, “that seeks to develop capabilities to win a war with Russia or China, fight regional wars against Iran or North Korea, and sustain a global war on terror that includes operations in at least 85 countries is a recipe for endless conflict.”

Whatever Happened to the Idea of Peace?

When it comes to the war in Ukraine, there is a widely shared sense that it’s going to last and last — and last some more. Certain experts see nothing short of years of fighting still on the horizon, especially since there seems to be little appetite for peace among American officials.

While French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have reportedly urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to consider peace talks, they seem to have few illusions about how long the war is likely to go on. For his part, Zelensky has made it clear that, when it comes to Russia, “there is nothing to talk about and nobody to talk about over there.” According to Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the mood in both Moscow and Kyiv could be summed up as “give war a chance.”

China is, it seems, an outlier when it comes to accepting a long-term war in Ukraine. Even prior to his visit to Russia in late March, President Xi Jinping offered to broker a ceasefire, while releasing a position paper on the perils of continued warfare and what a negotiated peace might aim to secure, including supply-chain stability, nuclear power plant safety, and the easing of war-caused global humanitarian crises. Reportedly, the summit between Xi and Putin made little headway on any of this.

Here in the U.S., calls for peace talks have been minimal. Admittedly, last November, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley reportedly told the Economic Club of New York, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.” But there has been no obvious drive for diplomatic negotiations of any sort in Washington. In fact, John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, responded to President Xi’s proposal this way: “We don’t support calls for a ceasefire right now.” The Russians, he claimed, would take such an opportunity “to only further entrench their positions in Ukraine… [and] rebuild, refit, and refresh their forces so that they can restart attacks on Ukraine at a time of their choosing.”

Disturbingly, American calls for peace and diplomacy have tended to further embrace the ongoing war. The New York Times editorial board, while plugging future peace diplomacy, suggested that only continued warfare could get us to such a place: “[S]erious diplomacy has a chance only if Russia accepts that it cannot bring Ukraine to its knees. And for that to happen, the United States and its allies cannot waver in their support [of Ukraine].” More war and nothing else, the argument goes, will bring peace. The pressure to provide ever more powerful weapons to Ukraine remains constant on both sides of the aisle. As Robert Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee put it, “[T]his approach of ‘more, better, faster’ would give the Ukrainians a real shot at victory.”

Whether in Ukraine, in the brewing tensions of what’s being called a “new cold war” in Asia, or in this country’s never-ending version of the war on terror, we now live in a world where war is ever more accepted as a permanent condition.  On the legal, legislative, and military fronts, it has become a mainstay for what passes as national security activity. Some of this, as many critics contend, is driven by economic incentives like lining the pockets of the giant weapons-making corporations to the tune of multibillions of dollars annually; some by what passes for ideological fervor with democracy pitched against autocracy; some by the seemingly never-ending legacy of the war on terror.

Sadly enough, all of this prioritizes killing and destruction over life and true security. In none of it do our leaders seem to be able to imagine reaching any kind of peace without yet more weapons, more violence, more conflicts, and more death.

Who even remembers when the First World War was known as “the war to end all wars”? Sadly, it seems that the era of Eternal War is now upon us. We should at least acknowledge that reality.

Via Tomdispatch.com

The Real Failure of January 6th: How America’s Insurrectionists Crossed the Rubicon of History https://www.juancole.com/2023/01/failure-americas-insurrectionists.html Mon, 30 Jan 2023 05:02:30 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=209765 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Americans tuning into the television news on January 8th eyed a disturbingly recognizable scene. In an “eerily familiar” moment of “déjà vu,” just two years and two days after the January 6th Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., a mob of thousands stormed government buildings in the capital city of another country — Brazil. In Brasilia, what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ominously labelled “the first major international imitation of our Capitol riot” seemed to be taking place.

As the optics suggested, there were parallels indeed, underscoring a previously underappreciated fragility in our democratic framework: the period of transition between presidencies.

Wreaking Havoc

Those January 8th rioters in Brazil were protesting the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, the politician Barack Obama once referred to as “my man.”

Like President Trump, Lula’s predecessor, rightwing autocrat Jair Bolsonaro, had been voted out of office by a slim margin. Deemed “the Trump of the tropics,” he had followed the former U.S. president’s lead in seeding doubt as to election integrity in the months leading up to the vote. Like Trump, he also predicted election fraud and spread stories about rigged voting machines. Small wonder given his team’s ties to former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon who had consulted with the Bolsonaro team and insisted that Brazil’s election, too, would be stolen, while afterwards praising the rioters as “Brazilian freedom fighters.”

The fervent Bolsonaro supporters, like their American counterparts, wreaked havoc, destroying furniture at their Supreme Court, works of art in the presidential palace, and generally leaving the insides of the buildings they stormed, including that country’s congress, “in ruins.” 

Far more overtly than in the United States, many in the security forces in Brazil seemed to sympathize with the protesters. A Brookings report found that “while the attack unfolded, Bolsonaro supporters met surprisingly limited resistance. Police officers… were caught on camera chatting with protesters and buying coconut water.” It added that “several military officials reportedly participated in the vandalism” and called the apparent “total complacency of local government and public security officials” alarming.

Still, if you peek beneath the surface, you’ll find some important differences.

As a start, Lula had already been installed as president when that presidential palace was stormed — and he wasn’t there — while Joe Biden was still 15 days away from his inauguration when the January 6th uprising occurred.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of that. The riots in Brasilia did not, in fact, disrupt the actual transfer of power. Although there had been protests in the run-up to Lula’s installation as president, including significant numbers of Bolsonaro supporters who refused to accept the election results and camped in protest tent cities for weeks in the capital, Lula, unlike Joe Biden, accepted the presidency without disruption. In addition, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro had actually authorized the transfer of power to the new president. He then headed for Florida before Lula’s inauguration, leaving his supporters without a leader in their ongoing protests. “We either live in a democracy or we don’t,” he told them. “And no one wants an adventure.”

Donald Trump, of course, did anything but leave town. He had already tweeted to his followers, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th… Be there, will be wild!” On that day, he then inspired the attack by personally urging an armed mob assembled at Washington’s Ellipse Park to march on the Capitol and disrupt the vote meant to certify the election results. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told them. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

Nearly two years later, the congressional January 6th report would, as the legal blog Just Security summarized it, conclude: “Without that speech, without that mob… the assault on the Capitol would not have happened.” Moreover, although the Brazilian rioters broke windows, destroyed computers, and ransacked art, and although reports suggested weapons had been stolen from the presidential palace during the attack, there were, as the Associated Press noted, “no immediate reports of deaths or injuries” amid the rampage. Quite the contrary, there was some degree of camaraderie between many of the police and the rioters.

In Washington, on the other hand, seven deaths would be associated with the assault on the Capitol, 140 police officers would be wounded, and several individuals were hospitalized. Meanwhile, the insurrectionists, including significant numbers of militia members and both retired and still serving U.S. military personnel, quite literally demanded the heads of politicians like Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. (Some of the protesters even constructed a gallows in front of the Capitol.) In Brazil there were no similar threats to elected officials and the buildings under attack were largely empty.

Calling in the Troops — or Not

The attempts to quell the attacks in both countries differed as well. At the outset, given the levels of violence, sufficient law enforcement was lacking in both countries, though in different ways, as the insurrectionists in each instance passed through police barricades with surprising ease. Stephen Sund, the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, reported his horror at witnessing a “mob like nothing I have seen in my law enforcement career.” He watched his officers being “hit with pipes, wooden sticks, flag poles, and sprayed with mace and bear spray, all while trying to defend themselves against projectiles being directed at them.” Meanwhile, two pipe bombs were found in the vicinity of the riot, one each near Democratic National Committee headquarters and Republican National Committee headquarters. 

But within a short period of time, a major difference emerged. In Brazil, the leader was absent. Bolsonaro was out of touch and, though surprisingly few police were initially on the scene and those that were seemed sympathetic to the former president’s rioting defenders, when President Lula called for backup from his security forces, they arrived in significant numbers.

In the United States, President Trump didn’t go anywhere. He simply continued — as he does to this day — to contest the election results, while watching developments on TV. That was true despite calls for help from longtime allies in Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who bitterly told the president that his followers were “trying to f—— kill” him. Trump, in fact, waited hours before telling the insurrectionists to go home, adding, “We love you. You’re very special.”

Chief Sund called for backup immediately but was rebuffed. The Capitol police, he later explained in a letter to Congressional leaders, “does not have the manpower, the training, or the capabilities to handle an armed insurrection involving thousands of individuals bent on violence and destruction at all costs.” He reached out and received help from the Secret Service, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, and others. But what he needed was the National Guard.

In fact, Sund had requested that the Guard be put on standby in the lead-up to January 6th. In a later interview, he told reporter Aaron Davis that he also had identified the need for the National Guard on January 3rd. On the day of the attack, he reported, he literally begged for them, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

According to the rules, the chief does not have the power to request the Guard without the approval first of the Capitol Police Board, which took more than an hour to obtain, and then of the Pentagon whose first responders recommended against approving the request, objecting to the “visual of the National Guard standing in a line with the Capitol in the background.” Chief Sund continued to plead for help and eventually an embattled Vice President Mike Pence ordered the D.C. National Guard dispatched to the capitol. Once they arrived — at approximately 5:30 p.m. — it still took two hours to fully quell the violence.

The Aftermath

In Brazil, an aggressive strategy to identify leaders and followers began immediately.  Authorities detained 1,500 people within 24 hours of the attack while individuals who had aided the protest from inside were quickly suspended and placed under further investigation. Higher-ups who might have abetted the riots were removed as well. Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro ally, was suspended and his chief of security and the head of the police were arrested. Lula has pledged to continue to root out Bolsonaro allies from his security forces, while the former president is reportedly under investigation for any role he might have had in the uprising.

Some, including Tyler McBrien at the Lawfare blog, have ascribed the swiftness and efficiency of the response in Brazil to lessons learned from January 6th. The differences are certainly telling. In the United States, it took six weeks after the insurrection for the Capitol Police to reportedly suspend six officers (with pay) for their actions that day, while putting 29 more under investigation. As for the rioters, the Department of Justice has focused on those who breached the Capitol’s perimeter and the building itself, many of them armed with “deadly or dangerous weapons,” ranging from baseball bats to guns. Two years later,  at least 972 individuals have been charged with crimes related to the attack. Of those, 495 have reportedly pled guilty and six, including founder of the Oath Keepers militia Stewart Rhodes, have been found guilty of seditious conspiracy. At least 378 have received sentences and at least 55% received prison time. The longest sentence meted out so far is 10 years, though none of those convicted of seditious conspiracy has yet been sentenced.

As for the higher-ups who failed to defend the capitol adequately, the push for accountability has been meager at best. Sund resigned, as did at least two members of the Capitol Board. Other than that, there has been little to no responsibility taken for what happened.

Looking to identify the leaders of the insurrection and not just its foot soldiers, the Senate convened a select committee to investigate the events surrounding January 6th. Almost seven months later, on June 30, 2021, they went to work, hearing from more than 1,000 witnesses, and on December 22, 2022 (just before the Republicans were to take back the House of Representatives), finally issuing a report that focused primarily on the misdeeds of Donald Trump. In addition to calling for charges against him, the committee recommended criminal charges against his election lawyer John Eastman. But while Attorney General Merrick Garland has promised “justice without fear or favor,” no indictments have yet been announced for either the former president or any of his chief allies.

While such steps towards accountability remain crucial, another issue warrants attention as well: the period of the presidential transition, between election day on the second Tuesday in November and inauguration day, January 20th. That 10-week period is, we now know, fraught with possibilities for the abuse of power and the undermining of democratic norms.

And this is not the first time that the potential for disruption — or even disaster — has come to the fore.

Presidential Transitions, Then and Now

As it happens, the 2020 election was hardly the first time the results of a presidential contest had been in question. As early as 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr squared off for six days and 35 ballots in the House of Representatives before Jefferson was finally declared president. Or consider the “corrupt bargain” election of 1824 in which Andrew Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams in a stand-off decided in the House after neither of them won a majority of the electoral college votes. Or Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 after which, by inauguration day in 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union. And then there was the Samuel Tilden-Rutherford B. Hayes election of 1876 in which Tilden was one vote shy of a majority in the electoral college. That led to a transition period of intense fighting over voting violations. After the passage of the Electoral Commission Act, Republican Hayes, caving in on the post-Civil War Reconstruction program, garnered additional support from Democrats and became president.  More recently, of course, there was the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore in which a Florida recount delayed the results for several weeks.

During any presidential transition period, much has to happen. Money has to be transferred to the incoming team for equipment; offices need to be set up; and perhaps most important, nominations to top positions need to be made. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which governs “the orderly transfer of the executive power,” noted that “any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.” 

The 9/11 Commission underscored the dangers of a poorly executed transfer of power, suggesting that failure to be prepared for the attacks of September 11, 2001, was connected, at least in part, to a truncated transition period. By the time the Supreme Court finally intervened and stopped the Florida recount, making George Bush president on December 12th, that period had been reduced to 39 days, half the normal time, with damaging repercussions. The commission concluded that the delay had “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” thereby hindering National Security Council efforts to prevent those terrorists from attacking the following September.

In response to such concerns, in 2010 and again in 2019, Congress lengthened the time allotted for the transfer of information between administrations and put earlier deadlines on top government appointments. The fraught transition period after Joe Biden’s election, however, provided clear evidence that more was needed. On December 22, 2022, Congress passed the Presidential Transition Improvement Act which deals specifically, among other things, with the problems created by a contested election.

But no legislation is likely to deal adequately with what Donald Trump and his cadre of election deniers (and insurrectionists) tried to do on January 6, 2021. Whether or not that signals a new and more perilous future for the American system remains to be seen. One thing is clear: on that day, the United States failed to transfer power peacefully. While the new president was indeed finally certified, it was on a transition day of historically lethal violence.

Yes, had it not happened, it’s hard to imagine that events in Brazil would have occurred the way they did — such is the global effect of social media — but the Brazil comparison, for all its obvious similarities (and even the element of imitation), falls short. After all, despite those violent protestors, Brazil’s actual transfer of power did indeed occur peacefully in a way that this country’s didn’t — a reality that no one should sweep under the rug.

The United States came within a hair’s breadth of a successful coup attempt and the actual blocking of the lawful election of a president. Despite the active prosecutions of that day’s insurrectionists, despite whatever charges might sooner or later be leveled at Donald Trump and his accomplices, and despite legislation aimed at plugging the loopholes that led to the crisis, it’s important never to forget that a daunting historical threshold has been crossed, one we can’t afford to witness again.

Via Tomdispatch.com

Will America’s Forever Prison Finally Close on Biden’s Watch: The Fate of Guantánamo https://www.juancole.com/2022/12/americas-forever-guantanamo.html Fri, 09 Dec 2022 05:02:08 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=208682 ( Tomdispatch.com) – As of December 8, 2022, Guantánamo Bay detention facility — a prison offshore of American justice and built for those detained in this country’s never-ending Global War on Terror — has been open for nearly 21 years (or, to be precise, 7,627 days). Thirteen years ago, I published a book, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days. It told the story of the military officers and staff who received the prison’s initial detainees at that U.S. naval base on the island of Cuba early in 2002. Like the hundreds of prisoners that followed, they would largely be held without charges or trial for years on end.

Ever since then, time and again, I’ve envisioned writing the story of its ultimate closure, its last days. Today, eyeing the moves made by the Biden administration, it seems reasonable to review the past record of that prison’s seemingly never-ending existence, the failure of three presidents to close it, and what if anything is new when it comes to one of the more striking scenes of ongoing injustice in American history.  

The Beginning

When, in January 2002, those first planes landed at Guantánamo (which we came to know as Gitmo), the hooded, shackled, goggled, and diapered prisoners in them were described by the Pentagon as “the worst of the worst.” In truth, however, most of them were neither top leaders of al-Qaeda nor, in many cases, even members of that terrorist group. Initially housed at Camp X-Ray in open-air cages without plumbing, dressed in those now-iconic orange jumpsuits, the detainees descended into a void, with little or no prison policies to guide their captors. When Brigadier General Michael Lehnert, the man in charge of the early detention operation, asked Washington for guidelines and regulations to run the prison camp, Pentagon officials assured him that they were still on the drawing board, but that adhering in principle to the “spirit of the Geneva Conventions” was, at least, acceptable.

Those first 100 days left General Lehnert and his officers trying to provide some modicum of decency in an altogether indecent situation. For example, Lehnert and those close to him allowed one detainee to make a call to his wife after the birth of their child. They visited others in their cells, talked with them, and tried to create conditions that allowed for some sort of religious worship, while forbidding interrogations by officials from a variety of U.S. government agencies without a staff member in the interrogation hut as well. Against the wishes of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, a lawyer working with the general even called in representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

By the end of March 2002, the U.S. had installed prefab prisons at Guantánamo in which those detainees could be all too crudely housed and had brought in a new team of officers to oversee the operation while pulling Lehnert and his crew out. The new leadership included people reporting directly to Rumsfeld as they put in place a brutal regime whose legacy has lasted, in all too many ways, to this day.

Despite General Lehnert’s efforts, in the nearly 21 years since its inception, Guantánamo has successfully left the codes of American law, military law, and international law in the dust, as it has morality itself in a brazen willingness to implement policies of unspeakable cruelty. That includes both physical mistreatment and the limbo of allowing prisoners to exist in a state of indefinite detention. Most of its detainees were held without any charges whatsoever, a concept so contrary to American democracy and legality that it’s hard to fathom how such a thing could happen, no less how it’s lasted these 7,627 days.

Bush’s Prison

As the 35 prisoners still in Guantánamo illustrate, no president has yet found a way to close that prison completely. George W. Bush, who opened it, did eventually acknowledge that it would be best to shut it down. As he put it to a German television audience in May 2006, “I very much would like to end Guantánamo. I very much would like to get people to a court.”

He was, however, anything but decisive on the subject. As he told a White House press conference that June, “I’d like to close Guantánamo, but I also recognize that we’re holding some people that are darn dangerous, and that we better have a plan to deal with them in our courts. And the best way to handle — in my judgment, handle these types of people is through our military courts.” That month the Supreme Court invalidated the ad hoc military tribunals that had by then been formed at Gitmo and, in the fall of 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, formally creating the courts Bush had imagined.

Pointing out that shuttering the prison was “not as easy a subject as some may think on the surface,” the president then began pursuing another approach — namely, releasing uncharged prisoners and returning them to their home countries or transferring them elsewhere. And his administration did, in the end, release about 540 of the 790 prisoners held there. Gitmo accepted its last prisoner in March 2008.

Meanwhile, a 2008 Supreme Court ruling granting detainees the right to challenge their detention by filing habeas corpus petitions in federal court opened a new path toward future freedom. Twenty-three of those detainee petitions were granted before Bush left office, but the prison, of course, remained open.    

Obama’s Well-Intentioned but Failed Efforts

Barack Obama initially signaled his desire to close Guantánamo on the campaign trail and then, in one of his first acts as president, issued an executive order calling for it to be shut down within a year. “If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantánamo at the time of closure of those detention facilities,” it read, “they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.” With new energy, the Obama administration plunged ahead on the two fronts Bush had halfheartedly pursued: establishing military commissions and transferring certain prisoners directly to their home countries or others willing to accept them.

On Obama’s watch, a reformed version of the Guantánamo tribunals was authorized by the passage of the 2009 Military Commissions Act, resolving five cases, all with guilty pleas. In addition, his administration edged toward closure by transferring nearly 200 more prisoners to willing countries in a vigorous effort over the final year and a half of his presidency.  Still, he encountered unanticipated opposition within Congress. Although the military commissions did start anew under Obama, so many years later, their trial of the five prisoners alleged to have been actual 9/11 co-conspirators has still not been scheduled.

In addition, under Obama, numerous habeas corpus petitions were filed in federal court, often falling victim to defeat in appellate courts. As Shayana Kadidal, the Center for Constitutional Rights’ senior managing attorney for Gitmo litigation, summed it up at Just Security: “By 2011, the then sharply conservative D.C. Circuit had rendered it more or less impossible for detainees to prevail on their habeas petitions.”

Obama’s team did seem to add a new possibility for aiding the closure process by transferring one detainee to federal court for trial on terrorism charges. In 2010, Ahmed Ghailani stood trial in New York City for participating in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on U.S. soil. But in the end, the trial proved fraught with problems, including the fact that the defendant was acquitted on 284 of 285 charges and so it would prove to be not just the first but the last such trial. In fact, in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress included a ban on the transfer to the United States of any further Gitmo detainees for any reason whatsoever.

All told, though the Obama administration poured far more energy into the effort to close Gitmo than the Bush administration had, the president failed during his terms in office to do so. In his last year, Obama continued to push hard with the rallying cry, “Let’s go ahead and get this thing done!” He called for renewed federal trials on U.S. soil and prisoner incarceration in the United States, noting that Guantánamo was “contrary to our values” and “undermines our standing in the world” — not to mention the $450 million annual price tag for keeping it open.

He put the blame for failure squarely on the growing political divide in the country and openly worried about what it meant not to succeed. “I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next President, whoever it is,” he said. And, of course, we know just who he was.

Trump’s “Bad Dudes”

Not surprisingly, passing Guantánamo on to Donald Trump fulfilled whatever misgivings he had. Unlike Presidents Bush and Obama, Trump displayed no interest whatsoever in closing it. His instinct was to reaffirm its standing as a legal black hole. On the campaign trail in 2016, in fact, he swore that “we’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up.” On taking office, he almost instantly signed an executive order to keep Gitmo open. 

Still, no new detainees were actually added during his term in office. In 2020, he even suggested it should house people infected with Covid, but as it turned out, expanding its activities was as elusive a goal for Trump as closing it had been for his predecessors.

While his threats of adding inmates amounted to naught, his presidency basically put that prison camp on pause. He even stopped the process of transferring five detainees cleared for release by the Obama team. Only one prisoner, Ahmed Muhammad Haza al-Darbi, who had pleaded guilty in 2014 in the military commissions, was released during Trump’s time in office. Meanwhile, the military commissions remained essentially stalled on his watch and Congress continued the ban on moving any of the detainees to the U.S.

Biden’s Gitmo

When Joe Biden entered office, 40 prisoners remained at Guantánamo Bay. In his first weeks, his aides called for a formal review of their cases and his spokesperson Jen Psaki announced the administration’s intention to close the prison camp before he left office. Having learned from Obama’s mistakes, however, Biden made no sweeping public promises.

His administration nonetheless put renewed energy into both transfers and trials. The military commissions have indeed ramped up in recent months. Pretrial hearings have recently been held in the four pending military tribunal cases. In addition, plea deals that would take the death penalty off the table are reportedly being negotiated for the five 9/11 defendants.

Three of the five detainees cleared for release by the Obama administration have finally been transferred to other countries, while all but three of the 27 prisoners not cleared when Biden took office have been greenlighted to go home or to a third country. In doing so, several previously blocked thresholds were crossed. As of early 2021, when the government cleared detainee Guled Hassan Duran, it signaled that, for the first time, there was a willingness to release even those who had been subjected to torture while held at CIA “black sites” in the early years after 9/11. The point was made even more strongly three months later when Mohammed al Qahtani, who experienced some of the worst treatment at American hands, was also finally released.

Meanwhile, in September 2022, President Biden appointed former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and former ambassador to Kosovo, Tina Kaidanow, to oversee the transfer of prisoners cleared for release. While her position doesn’t replicate the formidable office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure that Obama established and Trump nixed, it is a promising move. The job of arranging each prisoner transfer, assuring the security of the detainee, and assessing that the release will not pose a danger to the United States is challenging but achievable, as prior releases have demonstrated. All told, recidivism rates for Guantánamo detainees, as reported by the Director of National Intelligence, have been 18.5%, though only 7.1% for those released under Obama.

In the End…?

The last question, these 7,627 nightmarish days later, might be this: Are there any options for the final Gitmo prisoners? In 2017, military defense lawyers Jay Connell and Alka Pradhan, joined by researcher Margaux Lander, pointed out that, under international law, victims of “torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” have the right to full rehabilitation. In addition to seeking the removal of the death penalty in their cases, the 9/11 defendants at Gitmo have reportedly asked for access to a torture rehabilitation program.

Pradhan, who represents 9/11 defendant Ammar al Baluchi has summed the situation up well:

“The United States has utterly failed to give these men either a fair trial or medical treatment for their torture in violation of their legal obligations. Most of the evidence in the 9/11 case is torture-derived, and the men are deteriorating quickly from the brain and other injuries inflicted by U.S. torture nearly 20 years ago. The Department of Defense has confirmed that they don’t currently have the ability to provide complex medical care at Guantanamo, so the most ethical solution is to transfer the men to locations where they can obtain the care they require.”

In fact, after all these years in prison, releasing those who might otherwise still stand trial and putting them in rehabilitation centers might indeed be a good idea.

There are many ways to address a wrong. Arguably, the greater its magnitude, the more leeway should be given for subsequent actions. As the Biden administration has taken steps towards closing Gitmo, perhaps the gesture of sending the defendants in the military commissions to rehabilitation programs is a good one. 

For years, General Lehnert has told Congress, media outlets, and anyone who would listen that it remains imperative, however difficult, to finally shut the prison down. As he has written,Closing Guantánamo is about reestablishing who we are as a nation.” It might not quite accomplish that, but it would certainly be a formidable step in that direction. After all, its legacy of torture, indefinite detention without charges or trials, and the reckless disregard for the rule of law will no doubt haunt us for years.

There is no way to fathom the harm caused by the torture, cruel treatment, legal limbo, injustice, and dehumanization that has become the definition of Guantánamo. But for the first time in all these years, its actual closure might realistically be on the horizon. One can always hope, right?

Via Tomdispatch.com

The Ukraine Moment: Lessons from the War on Terror https://www.juancole.com/2022/10/ukraine-moment-lessons.html Fri, 21 Oct 2022 04:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=207695 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Ukraine is obviously a powder keg. With each passing day, in fact, the war there poses new threats to the world order. Only recently, Vladimir Putin’s Russia intensified its attacks on civilian targets in that beleaguered land, while threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons and adding Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus to its side on the battlefield. And don’t forget the Russian president’s decision to draft hundreds of thousands of additional civilians into his military, not to speak of the sham referendums he conducted to annex parts of Ukraine and the suspected cyberattack by a pro-Russian group that disrupted airline websites at hubs across the United States.

President Biden has repeatedly pledged not to enter the war. As he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times last May (and has continued to signal): “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.” Washington has instead carved out a cautious but decidedly engaged response to the war there.

So far, that conflict has not posed a threat to this country and the Biden administration has held fast to the president’s commitment not to engage directly in that fight. But the war does continue to escalate, as do the taunts of an increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin. To date, the U.S. has pledged $15.2 billion in military assistance to Ukraine and its neighbors, an investment that has included arms, munitions, equipment, and training. The Biden administration had also imposed sanctions against more than 800 Russians as of June with additional ones announced in late September, while blocking oil and gas imports from that country.

At such a moment of ever-increasing international tension, however, it seems worthwhile to recall what lessons the United States learned (or at least should have learned) from its own wars of this century that fell under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, or GWOT.

Lessons Learned?

We certainly should have learned a great deal about ourselves over the course of the war on terror, the global conflicts that followed al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks of September 11, 2001.

We should have learned, for instance, that once a war starts, as the war on terror did when the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan, it can spread in a remarkable fashion — often without, at least initially, even being noticed — to areas far beyond the original battlefield. In the end, the war on terror would, in its own fashion, spread across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, with domestic versions of it lodging in both European countries and the United States in the form of aggressive terrorism prosecutions, anti-Muslim policing efforts, and, during the Trump administration, a “Muslim ban” against those trying to enter the U.S. from many largely Muslim countries.

In the process, we learned, or at least should have learned, that our government was willing to trade rights, liberties, and the law for a grim version of safety and security. The trade-off would, in the end, involve the indefinite detention of individuals (some to this very day) at that offshore prison of injustice, Guantánamo; torturing captives at CIA black sites around the world; launching “signature drone strikes” which regularly made no distinction between civilians and combatants; not to mention the warrentless surveillance that targeted the calls of staggering numbers of Americans. And all of this was done in the name of keeping ourselves safe, even if, in the end, it would help create an America in which ever less, including democracy, seems safe anymore.

Finally, we should have learned that once a major conflict begins, its end can be — to put the matter politely — elusive. In this way, it was no mistake that the war on terror, with us to this day in numerous ways, informally became known as our “forever war,” given the fact that, even today we’re not quite done with it. (U.S. troops are, for instance, still in Iraq and Syria.) According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, that conflict has cost this country at least $8 trillion — with an additional estimated $2.2-$2.5 trillion needed to care for the veterans of the war between now and 2050.

Given all of this, there are, at least, three lessons to be taken from the war on terror, each sending a strong signal about how to reckon with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Beware Mission Creep

The war on terror was in large part defined by mission creep. What started as an incursion into Afghanistan to rout al-Qaeda and the perpetrators of 9/11 grew exponentially into a global set of conflicts, including a full-scale invasion of Iraq and the use (largely) of air power in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries across Africa and the Middle East. This was all deemed possible thanks to a single joint resolution passed by Congress a week after the attacks of September 11th, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which included neither geographical areas nor specific adversaries other than those who conspired to bring about (or supported in some fashion) the 9/11 attacks. It was, in other words, so vague as to allow administration after administration to choose its enemies without again consulting Congress. (A separate 2002 authorization would launch the invasion of Iraq.)

The war in Ukraine similarly continues to widen. The 30 nations in NATO are largely lined up alongside that country against Russia. On October 11th, the Group of Seven, or G7, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, pledged “financial, humanitarian, military, diplomatic, and legal support… for as long as it takes.” On that same day, the U.N. met to consider responses to Russia’s escalating missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities as well as its claim to have won a referendum supposedly greenlighting its annexation of four Ukrainian regions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. commitment to support Ukraine has grown ever more geographically extensive. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained during a visit to Kyiv in September, the American mission encompasses an effort “to bolster the security of Ukraine and 17 of its neighbors; including many of our NATO Allies, as well as other regional security partners potentially at risk of future Russian aggression.” Moreover, the United States has acted on an ever more global scale in its efforts to levy sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs, while warning of retribution (of an undefined sort) against any nation that provides a haven for them, as did China when it allowed a superyacht owned by a Russian oligarch to dock in Hong Kong’s harbor.

Buy the Book

When it comes to Ukraine, the imperative of defining and limiting the scope of American involvement — whether in the areas of funding, weapons supplied, training, or even the deployment of U.S. troops near Ukraine or secret operatives in that country — couldn’t (in the light of GWOT) be more important. So far, Biden has at least kept his promise not to send U.S. troops to Ukraine. (In fact, just before the Russian invasion, he actually removed national guardsmen who had been stationed there in the late fall of 2021.)

It is perhaps a sign of restraint that the Biden administration has so publicly specified just what weaponry it’s providing to that country and which other countries it’s offering assistance to in the name of security concerns over the war. And in making decisions about which munitions and armaments to offer, the administration has insisted on deliberation and process rather than quick, ad-hoc acts. Still, as the GWOT taught us, mission creep is a danger and, as Putin’s Russia continues to expand its war in Ukraine, it’s important to keep a watchful eye on our expanding involvement, too.

Honor the Law

Notably, the war has been defined by Russia’s escalating abuses of international law and human rights. To begin with, that country violated international law with its unprovoked invasion, an act of straightforward aggression. Since then, reports of atrocities have mounted. An Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine issued a report last month to the U.N.’s Commissioner for Human Rights citing the use of explosives in civilian areas; evidence of torture, rape, and brutal executions; and the intentionally cruel treatment of those in custody. The massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian towns of Bucha and Izyum signaled Russia’s intent to continue its gruesome violations of the laws of war despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeal to the U.N. for accountability.

That this is the road to lasting problems and an escalating threat environment is a lesson this country should have learned from its own war on terror in this century. The atrocities carried out by terrorist groups, including 9/11, led top officials in the Bush administration to calculate that, given the threat facing the country, it would be legitimate, even imperative, to ignore both domestic and international legal restraints. The greatest but hardly the only example of this was the willingness of the Central Intelligence Agency to use torture, which it relabeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, exposure to extreme cold, sleep deprivation, and painful, prolonged forms of shackling at CIA black sites scattered around the world. That brutal program was finally laid out in 2014 in a nearly 600-page executive summary of a Senate investigation. Other illegal actions taken during the war on terror included setting up Guantánamo offshore of American justice and the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq based on a lie: that autocrat Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

When it comes to Ukraine, the war-on-terror experience should remind us of the importance of restraint and lawfulness, no matter the nature of the Russian threat or the cruel acts Putin has countenanced. “Russian forces were likely responsible for most casualties, but so too Ukrainian troops — albeit to a far lesser extent,” the U.N. commissioner for human rights said in a video message last spring. In August, Amnesty International issued a report which held that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.”

Plan for an Ending

Despite Vladimir Putin’s predictions that the war would end quickly with a Russian triumph and despite his continuing escalation of it, there has been no dearth of scenarios for such an ending. Early on, observers saw the possibility of a negotiated peace in which Ukraine would agree not to seek future membership in NATO, while Russia withdrew its troops and dropped its claims to Ukrainian territory (Crimea excepted). Soon thereafter, another scenario forecast “a new iron curtain” after Russian gains in eastern and southern Ukraine left “two antagonistic blocs staring each other down over a lengthy militarized border.” Others have predicted endless further escalation, including a possible Russian tactical nuclear strike in that country causing the West to retreat — or counter with its own nuclear gesture.

Only recently, almost eight months into the war, 66 nations at the U.N. General Assembly called for its end, while even retired American Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I think we need to back off [the war] a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing.” Others agree that the conflict should be ended sooner rather than later.

And for good reason! This country’s war on terror should be an apt reminder that planning for an ending is imperative, sooner rather than later. From the beginning, you might say, the forever war had no sense of an ending, since Congress’s authorization for the use of force lacked not only geographical but temporal limits of any sort. There was, in fact, no sense of what an end to hostilities might involve. Not even the killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, in 2011 was seen as ending anything, nor was the death of autocrat Saddam Hussein imagined as a conclusion of that American war. To this day, that 2001 authorization for war remains in place and one of the main symbols of the excesses of the war — Guantánamo Bay — remains open.

Right now, despite any calls by former warriors like Mullen or diplomats for an end to the war in Ukraine, it’s proving a distinctly elusive proposition not just for Vladimir Putin but for the U.S. and its NATO allies as well. As a senior administration official told the Washington Post recently, speaking of Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and his draft of new Russian conscripts, “It’s definitely a sign that he’s doubling down, that we’re not close to the end, and not close to negotiations.”

In a speech delivered at the U.N. in late September, Secretary of State Antony Blinken caught the forever-war mood of the moment on all sides by expressing doubts about diplomacy as a cure-all for such a war. “As President Zelensky has said repeatedly,” Blinken told the Security Council, “diplomacy is the only way to end this war. But diplomacy cannot and must not be used as a cudgel to impose on Ukraine a settlement that cuts against the U.N. Charter, or rewards Russia for violating it.”

Given the lessons of the war on terror, casting doubt on the viability of future negotiations risks setting the stage for never-ending warfare of a distinctly unpredictable sort.

The Stakes

Though the war in Ukraine is taking place in a different context than the war on terror, with a different set of interests at stake and without the non-state actors of that American conflict, the reality is that it should have yielded instructive lessons for both sides. After all, America’s forever war harmed the fabric of our political life in ways almost too numerous to name, many of them related to the ever-expansive, extralegal, never-ending nature of that conflict. So imagine what this war could do to Russia, to Ukraine, and to our world.

The war in Ukraine offers Washington an opportunity to push the international community to choose a new scenario rather than one that will expand into a frighteningly unknown future. It gives the Biden administration a chance to choose law over lawlessness and emphasize a diplomatic resolution to that still-escalating crisis.

This time around, the need to exercise restraint, caution, and a deep respect for the law, while envisioning how the hostilities might actually end, could not be more important. The world of our children lies in the balance.

Copyright 2022 Karen J. Greenberg

Via Tomdispatch.com .

Donald Trump’s Document Grab and the Dismantling of Democracy https://www.juancole.com/2022/09/document-dismantling-democracy.html Wed, 21 Sep 2022 04:02:24 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=207094 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Thanks to Donald Trump, secrecy is big news these days. However, as political pundits and legal experts race to expose the layers of document-related misdeeds previously buried at his Mar-a-Lago estate, one overlooked reality looms large: despite all the coverage of the thousands of documents Trump took with him when he left the White House, there’s been next to no acknowledgment that such a refusal to share information has been part and parcel of the Washington scene for far longer than the current moment.

The hiding of information by the former president, repeatedly described as “unprecedented” behavior, is actually part of a continuum of withholding that’s been growing at a striking pace for decades. By the time Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, the stage had long been set for removing information from the public record in an alarmingly broad fashion, a pattern that he would take to new levels.

The “Secrecy President”

As recent history’s exhibit number one, this country’s global war on terror, launched soon after the 9/11 attacks, was largely defined and enabled by the withholding of information — including secret memos, hidden authorizations, and the use of covert methods. During President George W. Bush’s first term in office, government lawyers and officials regularly withheld information about their actions and documents related to them from public view, both at home and abroad.

Those officials, for instance, legalized the brutal interrogations of war-on-terror prisoners, while conveniently replacing the word “torture” with the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” and so surreptitiously evading a longstanding legal ban on the practice. The CIA then secretly utilized those medieval techniques at “black sites” around the world where its agents held suspected terrorists. It later destroyed the tapes made of those interrogations, erasing the evidence of what its agents had done. On the home front, in a similarly secretive fashion, unknown to members of Congress as well as the general public, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to set up an elaborate and far-reaching program of warrantless surveillance on Americans and others inside the United States.

Consider that the launching of an era of enhanced secrecy techniques. No wonder Bush earned the moniker of the “secrecy president.” Only weeks after the 9/11 attacks, for instance, he put in place strict guidelines about who could brief Congress on classified matters, while instituting new, lower standards for transparency. He even issued a signing statement rebuking Congress for requiring reports “in written form” on “significant anticipated intelligence activities or significant intelligence failure.” To emphasize his sense of righteousness in defying calls for information, he insisted on the “president’s constitutional authority to… withhold information” in cases of foreign relations and national security. In a parallel fashion, his administration put new regulations in place limiting the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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President Obama also withheld information when it came to war-on-terror efforts. Notably, his administration shrouded in secrecy the use of armed drones to target and kill suspected terrorists (and civilians) in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Official reports omitted reliable data about who was killed, where the killings had taken place, or the number of civilian casualties. As the American Civil Liberties Union concluded, administration reporting on civilian harm fell “far short of the standards for transparency and accountability needed to ensure that the government’s targeted killing program is lawful under domestic and international law.”

And well beyond the war-on-terror context, the claim to secrecy has become a government default mechanism. Tellingly, the number of classified documents soared to unimaginable heights in those years. As the National Archives reports, in 2012, documents with classified markings — including “top secret,” “secret,” and “confidential” — reached a staggering 95 million. And while the overall numbers had declined by 2017, the extent of government classification then and now remains alarming.

Erasing the Record Before It’s Created

President Trump’s document theft should be understood, then, as just another piece of the secrecy matrix.

Despite his claim — outrageous, but perhaps no more than so many other claims he made — to being the “most transparent” president ever, he turned out to be a stickler for withholding information on numerous fronts. Taking the war-on-terror behavioral patterns of his predecessors to heart, he expanded the information vacuum well beyond the sphere of war and national security to the purely political and personal realms. As a start, he refused to testify in the Mueller investigation into the 2016 presidential election. On a more personal note, he also filed suit to keep his tax records secret from Congress.

In fact, during his time in office, Trump virtually transformed the very exercise of withholding information. In place of secrecy in the form of classification, he developed a strategy of preventing documents and records from even being created in the first place.

Three months into his presidency, Trump announced that the White House would cease to disclose its visitor logs, citing the supposed risk to both national security and presidential privacy. In addition to hiding the names of those with whom he met, specific high-level meetings took place in an unrecorded fashion so that even the members of his cabinet, no less the public, would never know about them.

As former National Security Advisor John Bolton and others have attested, when it came to meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump even prohibited note-taking. In at least five such meetings over the course of his first two years in office, he consistently excluded White House officials and members of the State Department. On at least one occasion, he even confiscated notes his interpreter took to ensure that there would be no record.

Congress, too, was forbidden access to information under Trump. Lawyers in the Department of Justice (DOJ) drafted memos hardening policies against complying with congressional requests for information in what former DOJ lawyer Annie Owens has described as “a policy that approached outright refusal” to share information. In addition, the Trump administration was lax or even dismissive when it came to compliance with the production of required reports on national security matters. Note as well the reversal of policies aimed at transparency, as in the decision to reverse an Obama era policy of making public the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. possessed.

But don’t just blame Donald Trump. Among the most recent examples of erasing evidence, it’s become clear that the Secret Service deleted the text messages of its agents around the president from the day before and the day of the January 6th insurrection. So, too, the phone records of several top Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were wiped clean when they left office in accordance with directives established early in the Trump presidency. Similarly, the phone records of top Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security officials were scrapped. In other words, recent reports on the way Trump regularly shredded documents, flushed them down the White House toilet, and generally withheld presidential papers — even classified documents, as revealed during the Mar-a-Lago search — were of a piece with a larger disdain on the part of both the president and a number of his top officials for sharing information.

Erasing the record in one fashion or another became the Trump administration’s default setting, variations on a theme hammered out by his predecessors and taken to new levels on his watch.

A Perpetual Right to Secrecy?

Admittedly, before Trump arrived on the scene, there were some efforts to reverse this pattern, but in the long run they proved anemic. Barack Obama arrived at the White House in January 2009 acknowledging the harm caused by excessive government secrecy. Emphasizing transparency’s importance for accountability, informed public debate, and establishing trust in government, the new president issued an executive order on his first full day in office emphasizing the importance of “transparency and open government” and pledging to create “an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

Nearly a year later, he followed up with another executive order setting out a series of reforms aimed at widening the parameters for information-sharing. That order tightened guidelines around classification and broadened the possibilities for declassifying information. “Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government,” it read. Six years later, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper produced a report on the “principles of Intelligence transparency for the intelligence community” and a “transparency implementation plan” that again aimed at clarifying the limits, as well as the purposes, of secrecy.

And Obama’s efforts did indeed make some headway. As Steven Aftergood, former director of the Federation of American Scientists, concluded, “The Obama administration broke down longstanding barriers to public access and opened up previously inaccessible records of enormous importance and value.” Among other things, Aftergood reported, Obama “declassified the current size of the U.S. nuclear arms arsenal for the first time ever,” as well as thousands of the president’s daily briefs, and established a National Declassification Center.

Still, in the end, the progress proved disappointing. As Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan put it, the Obama administration’s record on transparency was among “the most secretive” in our history. She also castigated the president’s team for “setting new records for stonewalling or rejecting Freedom of Information Requests.” As an Associated Press analysis of federal data verified, the Obama administration did indeed set records in some years when it came to not granting those FOIA requests.

Executive distaste for sharing information is certainly nothing new and has often been linked, as during the war on terror, to misrepresentations, misdeeds, and outright deceit. After all, half a century ago, the administration of President Richard Nixon (of Watergate fame) defended the right to withhold information from the public as an effective way of covering up the American role in Vietnam. Those withheld materials, eventually released by the New York Times, showed that, over the course of four administrations, the national security state had misled the public about what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam, including hiding the secret bombing of neighboring Cambodia and Laos.

Still, let’s recognize what Donald Trump has, in fact, done. Though no longer president, he’s now taken the withholding of government information well beyond the borders of the government itself and deep into his private realm. In doing so, he’s set a dangerous precedent, one that brought the FBI to his doorstep (after months of attempts to access the documents in less intrusive ways). The challenge now is to address not just Trump’s clumsy efforts to unilaterally privatize a government practice, but the systemic overreach officials have relied on for decades to withhold staggering amounts of information from the public.

The Biden administration is alert to this issue. Notably, President Biden reversed several of Trump’s classification decisions, including his policy of not reporting the number of American nuclear weapons. More systematically, the National Security Council recently launched an effort aimed at revising the nation’s unwieldy classification system, while Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has stated her intention to review the excessive classification of government documents.

In a 2022 letter to Congress, Haines pointed to the downside of a government that refuses to share information. “It is my view,” she wrote, “that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner, be that sharing with our intelligence partners, our oversight bodies, or, when appropriate, with the general public.”

True to her word, in the three months following that statement of allegiance to transparency, Haines has released a steady flow of material on controversial topics, including unclassified reports on everything from the origins of Covid to climate change to an assessment of the “Saudi government’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Still, despite such efforts, the powers that be are arguably being hoisted on their own petard. After all, Donald Trump followed in the wake of his predecessors in sanctioning expansive secrecy, then made it a be-all and end-all of his presidency, and now claims that it’s part of his rights as a former president and private citizen. As the head of a political movement, now out of office, he’s done the once unthinkable by claiming that the veil of secrecy, the right to decide what should be known and who should know it, is his in perpetuity.

The horror of his claim to untethered secret authority — no wonder some of his MAGA followers refer to him as their “god-emperor” — violates the very idea that a democracy is a pact between individual citizens and elected officials. The valid response to the holding of documents at Mar-a-Lago shouldn’t just be reclaiming them for the public record or even the clear demarcation of the law as it applies to a private citizen as opposed to a president (though both are essential). What’s needed is a full-throated demand that policies of secrecy, allowed to expand exponentially in this century without accountability or transparency, are destructive of democracy and should be ended.

Copyright 2022 Karen J. Greenberg

Via Tomdispatch.com

The State of Disgrace in Washington https://www.juancole.com/2022/07/state-disgrace-washington.html Mon, 18 Jul 2022 04:02:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=205838 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Well before the House select committee’s January 6th investigation began, trust in the classic American system of checks and balances as reliable protection against executive (or, more recently, Supreme Court) abuses of power had already fallen into a state of disgrace. A domestically shackled Biden presidency, a Congress unable to act, and a Supreme Court that seems ever more like an autocratic governing body has left American “democracy” looking grim indeed.

Now, those hearings are offering the country (and the Justice Department) what could be a last chance to begin restoring the kind of governance that once underlay a functioning democracy. There is, however, a deeply worrisome trend lurking just under this moment’s attempt to garner accountability — namely, the way loyalty to institutional Washington (even outside the law) perpetuates a flight from accountability that’s become a crucial part of American political life.

So far, the January 6th hearings have inspired a cascade of takeaways. With each televised session, new evidence about the acts of Donald Trump and crew have come to light, among them that the former president was all too tight with the far right and that he knew the crowd approaching the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was armed and dangerous. So, too, those watching have learned about witness tampering and also the lengths White House lawyers and others went to in trying to restrain the former president’s engagement with the January 6th rioters. Overall, many Americans (though not so many Republicans) have learned that January 6th was part of a far larger Trumpian effort to negate the results of the 2020 presidential election, no matter the facts or the law.

Beyond chronicling what happened and assigning blame, something else in those hearings is worth noting: namely, they are exposing the ever-growing contradiction between Washington institutionalists, whose first loyalty is to the agencies and departments they served or are serving, and the supposed purpose or mission of those very institutions. And all of this will take the U.S. even further from the democracy it still claims to be, if those who have served in them and in the White House can’t be held accountable for their abuses of power and violations of law.

Over the Cliff of False Institutionalism

For a long time now, the mechanisms of our democratic system of government meant to ensure accountability have been at the edge of collapse, if not obliteration. Who could forget how — something I’ve written about over the years at TomDispatch — the government officials who, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, led us into the Global War on Terror found myriad ways to evade or defang the checks and balances of the courts and Congress? In the process, they managed to escape all accountability for their crimes. To offer a striking example: the top officials in the administration of President George W. Bush lied about Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, which was their main excuse for their assault on his country in 2003.

According to the invaluable Costs of War Project, a year and a half after invading Afghanistan in 2001, the top officials of the Bush administration took this country into a war in Iraq that would cost the lives of more than 4,500 American service members and nearly as many U.S. military contractors. Almost 200 journalists and aid workers would also die in that conflict, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The Costs of War Project estimates that the overall war on terror those officials launched will, in the end, have a price tag of nearly eight trillion dollars. Add to that the impossible-to-calculate costs of their acts to the rule of law, since they dismantled individual liberties and made a mockery of human rights. After all, the top officials of that administration oversaw the secret rewriting of the law to make torture at CIA “black sites” legal, while imprisoning individuals, including Americans, without access to lawyers, due process, or the courts at a prison they built in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a system distinctly offshore of what until then had been known as American justice.

When Barack Obama took over the White House in 2009, his administration failed either to mount a course correction or punish any of the torturers or jailers and those who gave them the green light to do so. As the president put it then, he chose to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” He refused even to hold an investigation into the misdeeds of Bush administration policymakers and lawyers who had rendered us a nation of torture, while secretly implementing warrantless surveillance policies on a mass scale, keeping Guantánamo open, and failing to bring the disastrous American presences in Afghanistan and Iraq to an end.

Ironically, in explaining his reasons for not shining a light into those CIA black sites or so much else that preceded him, Obama pointed to the importance of honoring institutionalism. It was crucial, he argued, for the Agency to be able to continue to function in ways that an investigation might impede. “And part of my job,” the president explained, “is to make sure that, for example at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.”

Consider that an early sign of a toxic default to the version of institutionalism that threatens us today.

In the Trump years, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 presidential elections stopped short of indicting the former president. Mueller’s task was to investigate potential Russian interference with that election and possible coordination with Trump in that endeavor. Mueller ultimately backed away from indicting the president for obstruction of justice, despite the evidence he had, citing an obscure 1973 Department of Justice memo from the Watergate era (reaffirmed in 2000). The memo argued that such an act would distract the president from the pressing affairs of his office. “The spectacle of an indicted president still trying to serve as Chief Executive boggles the imagination,” the memo said, and Mueller’s mind was evidently still boggled when it came to Donald Trump and the coming 2020 election.

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And then there was the failure to investigate the institutional problems that accompanied the country’s initial handling of the Covid pandemic. There has never been the slightest accountability for the denialism that greeted its initial stages, nor any attempt to document what went wrong then. In June 2021, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) called for the creation of “an independent 9/11-style commission” to understand how the public had been left so unprotected by the Trump administration in those early pandemic months and to discuss what lessons should be drawn from it for a future pandemic. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sponsored such an approach in the Senate, but nothing ever happened.

Such a narrative of accountability and blame might have exposed “the vulnerabilities of our public health system and issue[d] guidance for how we as a nation can better protect the American people.” But no such luck. The institutionalists prevailed and the bills are still lying dormant in Congress.

In these years, a continual distaste for self-examination and institutional reform has eviscerated notions of accountability, while leaving the nation unprepared and unprotected not only from future pandemics, but from abuses of power aimed directly at our democracy. So far, Donald Trump, in particular, has paid no price for his attacks on democracy, as the January 6th committee has made all too clear.

Institutionalists vs. Accountability

The January 6th hearings have only underscored the reticence of Attorney General Merrick Garland when it came to mounting a case against Donald Trump or any of his top officials. As former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has written, “[W]e’ve seen no signs of such an investigation. Ordinarily, 17 months after a crime, one would expect to see some signs of an inquiry.” And yet Department of Justice (DOJ) veterans continue to attest to their faith that the institution and Attorney General Garland will rise to the occasion.

Harvard law professor and former DOJ official Jack Goldsmith recently asked readers to sympathize with the difficult decisions the attorney general has to deal with. Garland “arguably faces a conflict of interest,” Goldsmith wrote. He then added that Garland would not only have to be convinced that he had enough evidence to get a conviction in federal court, but would have to ask himself “whether the national interest would be served by prosecuting Mr. Trump.” Goldsmith does recognize that a failure to indict could send a message that the president, even Donald Trump, “is literally above the law.” Yet he still ends his piece with a plea for trust in the AG’s decision-making.

And Goldsmith is anything but alone in putting his faith in the institution above the dire necessity of holding top officials accountable. Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general, a 10-year DOJ veteran, has, in the end, weighed in similarly. “I’m an institutionalist,” he told Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation, signaling his credentials as a trusting servant of that department. “My initial thought was not to indict the former president out of concern [for] how divisive it would be. But given what we have learned, I think that he probably has to be held accountable.” A mere two weeks later he, too, had backtracked, saying “we should have faith” in Garland and the prospect of future indictments of Trump and top members of his administration.

In reality, this embrace of institutionalism, far from being a badge of honor, has become a millstone around the neck of the Department of Justice and the nation as a whole. Throughout the tenure of William Barr as Trump’s attorney general, veterans of that department and career officials there assuaged the fears of those worried that he would contribute to its further politicization. As department veteran Harry Litman reassured Americans on NPR, “That would never be Bill Barr. He’s a[n] institutionalist. He understands the important values of the Department of Justice. He has integrity. He has stature. He’s nobody’s toady.”

As it turned out, until the very end of Trump’s presidency, Barr proved to be an institutionalist bent on twisting the definition to fit his needs. His numerous stints in the White House, going back to the early 1990s, turned his form of institutionalism into an embrace of loyalty to the president over any form of accountability. Before the report of Special Counsel Mueller was even released, Barr provided his own spin, contrary to its findings. As he told NPR:

“After carefully reviewing the facts and legal theories outlined in the report… the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense.”

This, despite the fact that, as Mueller testified, he had concluded otherwise.

Such shout-outs to institutionalism have become an essential part of the post-Trump political scene as well, extending to the very nature of America’s governing principles. For example, institutionalists who oppose expansion of the Supreme Court argue that such a move would constitute “serious violations of norms” and ultimately “undermin[e] the democratic system” and “diminish [the court’s] independence and legitimacy,” or so a report on potential Supreme Court reform, commissioned by Biden in 2021, concluded. And even after the disastrous Supreme Court decisions repealing abortion rights and expanding gun rights, President Biden, the consummate self-declared institutionalist, indicated that expanding the court “is not something that he wants to do,” as if the traditions of our institutions are more important than fairness, the representation of the majority, or even justice itself.

Biden has similarly shown an impassioned reluctance to challenge Congress, refusing, for instance, to lead the way when it comes to ending the filibuster in the Senate. Earlier this year he did finally (and unsucessfully) support a carve-out from the filibuster in order to try to get a voting rights bill passed and more recently in support of passing abortion-rights legislation. But his belated and tepid words were at best mere gestures and utterly without effect.

Could the January 6th Hearings Be a Game-Changer?

The House select committee investigating January 6th has been making its case directly to a remarkably substantial audience (mainly of Democrats and independents) — 20 million viewers for its opening evening session and 13 million for the daytime testimony of former White House aide to chief of staff Mark Meadows, Cassidy Hutchinson, who attracted the largest daytime audience yet for the hearings, far exceeding even the most watched cable news shows at that hour. And keep in mind that those viewers are, of course, potential voters this November.

In addition to the public, the Department of Justice has been a target audience for those hearings. As Congresswoman and Vice Chairperson of the committee Liz Cheney has said, “The Justice Department doesn’t have to wait for the committee to make a criminal referral. There could be more than one criminal referral.”

There’s another target audience, too: American history and the possibility that the integrity of our institutions can someday be restored. The hearings themselves project the hope that, despite the disastrous failures of American democracy and institutional Washington in this century, there are still guardrails capable of protecting us and fortifying the mechanisms of accountability.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), a member of the select committee, has summed up the matter this way:

“[F]or four years, the Justice Department took the position that you can’t indict a sitting president. If the Department were now to take the position that you can’t investigate or indict a former president, then, a president becomes above the law. That’s a very dangerous idea that the founders would have never subscribed to.”

Given Washington’s reliance in these years on loyalty to institutions rather than to democracy, it’s little wonder that polls of Americans show a waning trust in those very institutions. A recent Gallup poll typically “marks new lows in confidence for all three branches of the federal government — the Supreme Court (25%), the presidency (23%) and Congress” which ranked at a truly dismal 7%.

The question is: Can a revival of accountability as a cherished element of governance help to rebuild those institutions and trust in them or are we headed for a far grimmer America in the near future?

The January 6th hearings offer a certain hope that accountability might put institutionalism in its place. Restoring it (and so the faith of the American people in our democracy) should be the sine qua non for a post-Trumpist future. Whatever virtues our institutions may have, their true value can only persist if they are accountable to the principles of democracy they were created to uphold.

Copyright 2022 Karen J. Greenberg

Via Tomdispatch.com

The Empire’s New Clothes: The Veneer of Accountability Is Wearing Thin in Twenty-First-Century America https://www.juancole.com/2022/05/empires-clothes-accountability.html Wed, 11 May 2022 04:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=204576 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – If you watched TV in the 1960s and 1970s as I did, you would undoubtedly have come away with the idea that this country’s courts, law enforcement agencies, and the laws they aimed to honor added up to a system in which justice was always served.

In those years, for instance, Perry Mason was a much-loved staple from coast to coast. In each episode, Perry, that intrepid, tall, dark, kindly genius of a defense attorney, would face off against Hamilton Burger, a small-boned, pointy faced, sanctimonious prosecutor — and justice would always be served. He had what seemed then to be an all-American knack for uncovering exactly the right evidence of misdeeds that would lead justice directly to the doorstep of the true perpetrator of any crime and bring him or her to account. The takeaway caught the mood of the time: the courts and the legal system were powerful platforms for serving justice, sorting out right from wrong, punishing the criminals, and exonerating the innocent.

A few years later, Colombo would portray a police investigator whose reputation resided in his ability to sift through misleading facts and intentional subterfuge, unearth reliable evidence as well as the true culprits in any crime, and — without fail — bring them to justice.

Those two shows caught the essence of how most Americans then felt about the justice system in this country. We trusted it. Today, it’s not just that you can’t find such shows on TV anymore, it’s that trust in the legal system, fictional or otherwise, is rapidly fading, succumbing to the dangerous poison of this partisan moment and an ever more partisan Supreme Court. As Americans watch from the sidelines, the courts and the legal system continue to visibly fumble in the dark for legitimacy of any sort.

Yes, pundits and experts (like the rest of us) tend to focus on disastrous individual cases that interest them like the one in which those who plotted to kidnap and kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer managed to escape conviction or, say, the acquittal of the youthful Kyle Rittenhouse who used an assault rifle to kill two men at a Black Lives Matter protest. But here’s the truth of our moment: the larger picture of American (in)justice has become far more damning than any case could be. Ultimately, after all, the issue isn’t the outcome of any specific case, but trust (or increasingly, the lack of it) in the system that’s supposed to administer, adjudicate, and legitimate the law in America.

Despite the recent scandal over the Supreme Court’s coming decision to overrule Roe v. Wade, nowhere is this clearer than in the cases surrounding the January 6th Capitol riot.

The January 6th Investigation

It’s hard to describe the Justice Department’s handling of the insurrection on January 6, 2021, as anything other than appalling. Nearly a year and a half later, despite more than 800 indictments of individuals involved in the assault on the Capitol, no charges have yet been filed against either former President Donald Trump or any of his close allies who helped plan, fund, and execute the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Instead, Attorney General Merrick Garland appears to have thrown up his hands in defeat, as if to suggest that the controversy around holding Trump and his associates accountable has simply been more than he can handle.

From law schools, lawyers, and legal theorists have called for the Justice Department to face that threat to democracy and act have only grown louder. In March, for instance, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut urged Garland to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the former president based on evidence already presented in other lawsuits. No such appointment has yet been forthcoming.

To underscore the mounting evidence in the public record against those former officials, Ryan Goodman, Mari Dugas, and Nicholas Tonckens at Just Security played prosecutor (as Garland hasn’t) and laid out their own timeline of dozens of incriminating acts, beginning a year before the riot, that could collectively justify charges against Trump and crew of incitement to violence. In April, according to New York Times reporters Michael Schmidt and Luke Broadwater, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol had “concluded that they have enough evidence” to make a criminal referral about the former president to the Justice Department, though they have yet to vote to do so. Meanwhile, a federal judge in California ruled in a civil suit that Trump “likely attempted to obstruct the joint session of Congress” meant to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory, adding that “the illegality of the plan was obvious.”

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Sadly, the Teflon coating on Trump and his associates has been striking. After all, in January, the House Select Committee voted to back contempt charges against former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows for refusing to comply with a subpoena for his testimony. To date, however, Attorney General Garland hasn’t followed up. More recently, the House Select Committee voted to hold in contempt former White House advisers Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino for a similar refusal to comply with subpoenas. The results will likely be the same.

Even where there has been some willingness to indict, the courts have been remarkably stymied when it comes to forward momentum on cases involving Trump’s crew. In November, for instance, Steve Bannon, one-time senior aide to the president, was indeed indicted on contempt of Congress charges for his refusal to respond to subpoenas from the House Select Committee. Bannon promptly pushed back, arguing that longstanding Justice Department memos held former presidential advisers immune from such congressional subpoenas. In March, a federal judge finally asked to see those memos. And so it goes — and goes and goes. And as time passes, so, too, does the likelihood that justice will ever be done.

As for the former president’s business affairs involving the Trump Organization, the process has faltered in a remarkably similar fashion. Earlier this year, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg dropped an investigation of the former president. He was reportedly convinced that, in the end, he wouldn’t be able to prove that Trump and his closest employees were motivated by theft when they lied about the value of his businesses. Bragg decided not to pursue charges against Trump despite the aggressive efforts of his predecessor, Cyrus Vance, to uncover just such a record and the opinion of a respected lawyer brought in to shepherd the investigation through who, in an outraged letter of resignation, insisted that Trump had indeed committed “numerous [financial] felony violations.” (It had taken Vance years and a Supreme Court decision just to get the company tax records for his case against Trump.)

In early May, a grand jury that had been convened to consider charges against Trump expired. Now, it seems that New York State Attorney General Letitia James’s efforts to bring charges of fraud could crumble as well.

Of course, even a president who tried to mount a coup to cancel the results of an election should be able to avail himself of the American system’s legal protections and defenses. That said, in failing to hold Trump accountable for more or less anything, a message is being sent about justice in this century: that accountability is just not in the cards for American officials who commit crimes. (Of course, one can still hope that the special investigative Georgia grand jury just seated to look into Trump’s possible attempts to disrupt the 2020 election in that state might prove more effective, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.)

Police Murders

Sadly enough, the incapacity of the courts and the legal system to administer accountability for terrible crimes is a phenomenon that’s hardly reserved for Washington politicians and their aides. Abuses of power throughout the country are regularly being overlooked, notably in the mounting examples of police killings of unarmed Black men and women. Across the U.S., courts have repeatedly proven unable to hold accountable police perpetrators whose racist actions had been videotaped and witnessed. Though there have been rare exceptions as, for instance, in the case of the killing of George Floyd, where police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and three police officers were convicted of “violating his rights,” the impunity of so many policemen accused of killing Blacks has become a theme of American life. The list is long. Prosecutors in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for instance, decided not even to file charges against the officer who shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in August, 2020; none of the police who stormed into Breonna Taylor’s house in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020 and killed her for doing nothing whatsoever were even charged; and no policemen in Minneapolis earlier this spring were held accountable for shooting and kililng Amir Locke. And that’s just to begin a list that goes on and on.

The War on Terror

And let’s face it, when it comes to the slow erosion of justice and accountability in this country, there’s nothing new or simply Trumpian about that. In fact, there’s been a slow erosion of the viability of the mechanisms of justice and accountability for all too long. For two decades now, the offshore American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has stood as a stunning symbol of American injustice, as well as of the inability to convict anyone for the attacks of 9/11 (as opposed to simply holding them endlessly in prison cells offshore of American justice). Nor has there been the slightest accountability for public officials, from the president on down, who gave the green light to a wholesale torture program at CIA “black sites” around the world. Nor, for that matter, were President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other top officials of their administration ever held accountable for knowingly relying on a lie — the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — as a pretext for invading a distant land.

For Bush, it was a matter of embracing horrifying misdeeds in the name of national security. For Barack Obama, it was a matter of not wanting to spend the political capital required to hold his predecessor accountable. As he famously said in the days leading up to his inauguration, this country needed “to look forward as opposed to looking backward” when it came to the Bush administration’s use of torture and warrantless surveillance in the war on terror. The ability of the CIA to function effectively in the future, he argued, should not be undermined. Merrick Garland’s profound passivity when it comes to January 6th may, in fact, just be an extension of that very philosophy.

So profound has the distaste for pursuing accountability been in these years that administration after administration and Congress after Congress have forfeited any trust in the federal courts even to try those accused of perpetrating the 9/11 attacks, leaving the case instead to the broken and incapacitated military commissions at Guantánamo. What would Perry Mason or Columbo have made of that?

Once Upon a Time

There was a time, not that long ago, when the courts still held accountable those in high office who abused power. A president and an attorney general, for instance, authorized a secret and illicit intelligence unit to spy on the Democratic National Committee, to break into Democratic headquarters, and then to cover-up that very break-in. For this, of course, President Richard Nixon and his top advisers were held accountable in the famous Senate Watergate hearings. Nixon resigned; 40 members of his administration were indeed indicted; many, including top officials, were jailed, among them the president’s chief of staff, his attorney general, his White House legal counsel, and some of his top advisers. Not only were they convicted, but they were found guilty in a timely fashion, the trials and guilty pleas coming within two years of the crime itself.

John Dean, a top Nixon aide convicted of obstruction of justice — he served four months in prison for it — recently made a prediction that underscores the gap between then and now. His testimony at the Watergate hearings had been pivotal in exposing the administration’s cover-up of the break-in. This March, he weighed in on reports that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, had on seven occasions visited the offices of Manhattan prosecutors working on the criminal investigation into Trump’s finances. As Dean tweeted then, “From personal experience as a key witness I assure you that you do not visit a prosecutor’s office 7 times if they are not planning to indict those about whom you have knowledge. It is only a matter of how many days until DA Vance indicts Donald & Co.”

And yet the days went by and nothing happened until the case was dropped. Dean had miscalculated in thinking that the past was relevant to the present.

Still, is there any hope that, in the long run, he might prove correct? After all, New York Attorney General Letitia James has not yet dropped her possible case against Trump and his company. Better yet, recently a New York supreme court justice found the former president in contempt of court for failing to comply with a subpoena to produce documents from his personal files. His initial appeal having failed, he’s being penalized $10,000 a day until the records are turned over.

So, between New York and Georgia,hope, however minimal, remains when it comes to holding Donald Trump accountable for something. Still, there’s so much more at stake than the case of one president, many police officers, or even an ever more partisan and political Supreme Court. Whether most Americans realize it or not, the future legitimacy of the courts themselves are now in play. Without a functioning court system, one that can stand up effectively to illegal political machinations, as well as partisan and ideological attacks, the law belongs solely to those in power.

And it’s not just here at home that the legitimacy of the courts is coming into question. In the international context, too, the potential anemia of criminal courts is being challenged by the war in Ukraine. Calls for bringing war-crimes charges against Russian President Vladimir Putin and members of the Russian military have been persistent. Reports of summary executions, the targeting of civilians, and mounting evidence of cruelties and atrocities have led to multiple accusations of violations of the laws of war. The chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has already joined with the European Union to conduct an investigation into possible war crimes. But as many experts have pointed out, it’s hard to say how long that investigation might take and whether or not charges will ever be leveled, no less brought effectively to bear. In this regard, Washington’s failure to hold its officials accountable in the past or even to join the ICC should be noted.

And that’s just one more arena where, on a planet increasingly pushed to the brink, the rule of law may prove to be ever more of an aspiration and ever less of a reality.

At the moment, we find ourselves at an all-too-dangerous crossroads. Without our courts and the system of law they represent being truly functional, citizens could be left to settle things for themselves in true Trumpian fashion. In the international context, war defies the courts and the rule of law. In the domestic context, unregulated violence plays a similar role. As it stands now, when it comes to our system of justice, its veneer of effectiveness is wearing ever thinner.

Merrick Garland and other Americans would do well to consider that it’s not just the cases before our courts that are at issue, but the future viability of the institutions of justice themselves. In the world we now find ourselves in, the very idea of a Perry Mason could prove all too once upon a time.

Copyright 2022 Karen J. Greenberg

Via Tomdispatch.com

Our Ukraine Wake-Up Call: The Global Age is Upon Us https://www.juancole.com/2022/03/ukraine-wake-global.html Wed, 09 Mar 2022 05:02:03 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203382 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – In recent days, experts have begun laying out the potential hardships the Russian invasion of Ukraine might inflict here in the United States, thousands and thousands of miles from the battle zone. As former White House national security official Richard Clarke bluntly put it, “Russia will bring the war to our homeland.” He pointed to potential damage in two particular realms, possible Russian cyberattacks and disinformation meant to unsettle our domestic politics. Similarly, economists and financial firms are predicting what an ongoing war in Ukraine could mean in terms of rising prices for wheat, vegetable oil, and oil and gas, among other commodities.

How different this sense of potential damage is than that expressed when, in the wake of 9/11, America went to war globally with its invasion of Afghanistan and its war on terror. As the president of that moment, George W. Bush, insisted so confidently in 2001, Americans should simply “go shopping” and not be distracted by the country’s distant battles. As he later put it, “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”

At the heart of those claims was the thought that foreign wars could be fought by a great power without damage at home — or put another way, that the theaters of conflict for the Global War on Terror were somehow eternally separable from the daily lives of Americans. But tell that to the country that elected Donald Trump as president 15 years later and has been coming apart at the seams ever since.

With the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a possible Potemkin superpower, it already seems clear that Bush’s notion no longer holds (if it ever did) when it comes to war on this planet, no matter where it takes place or which power initiates it. Even though the current conflict isn’t directly our war, one thing is guaranteed: its outcome will be of major significance to the well-being of this country and the international order, thanks to an all-too-basic reality — that the global and the local in today’s world are now virtually indistinguishable. This will, in fact, be the key lesson the ongoing war in Ukraine holds for us as a nation.

The Twenty-First Century

From the American perspective, the inseparable and dangerous nature of the relationship between the U.S. and the world has been creeping up on us ever since this century began. The post-9/11 installation of airport screenings, perpetually reminding us of the threat of the global war on terror, was one early sign. Since then, the number of life-threatening dangers has swelled immeasurably.

After all, our children, like those the world over, have been going to school for nearly two years now wearing masks. While the discomfort and distancing those face shields represented may have been burdensome, the underlying reality was the fear of becoming infected with Covid-19, given the six million deaths it has caused worldwide. And among other dangers in our American world, even the wave of shootings at our schools and other public places in these years has had a global dimension, linked as some of them were to white extremist attacks abroad. Notably, in April 2019, the synagogue shooter in California praised an avowed white supremacist who had murdered Muslims in Christ Church, New Zealand, earlier that year (as did the gunman in the 2019 Walmart shootings in El Paso, Texas). And since then, the global ties among white supremacists bent on anti-immigrant violence have only escalated.

Within such a context of war, disease, and fear in which the local and the global continue to merge, there are now some simmering realities the Russian war in Ukraine has exposed in new and powerful ways.

The Nuclear Threat

Like the pandemic, the threat of nuclear warfare has long recognized neither boundaries nor borders. Remember, for instance, that President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was premised on the lie manufactured as a pretext for war that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Beyond that the Iran nuclear deal and concern about North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities have been constant themes in the international news in these years.

Ukraine, however, threatens to take the fear of a nuclear disaster to a new level. There was, of course, Vladimir Putin’s ominous announcement that he was putting the Russian nuclear arsenal on “high alert,” as well as the drills the Russians conducted with land-based missiles and nuclear subs. As spokespeople for the Nuclear Threat Initiative pointed out, that was his grim way of trying to “deter outside interference with his invasion of Ukraine.”

Unfortunately, such a threat only increases the risk of catastrophic mistakes. In addition, within 24 hours of the invasion, Russian troops had gained access to the still-dangerous remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant buried in concrete after a meltdown in 1986 that took 47 lives, devastated crops in Ukraine and neighboring countries, and led to an estimated exposure of 530,000 people to nuclear fallout. Later, they seized and burned part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclearplant, which happens to be the largest in Europe.

Imagine that, in our future, the equivalent of the duck-and-cover drills of my childhood may once again become a reality.

Climate Change and Clean Energy

The Ukraine crisis has exposed the inseparability of the local and the global in another way: energy policy and threats from climate change. As much as this conflict may be about the post-Cold War order, NATO, and Putin’s appetite for heightening the stakes, it’s also about oil and gas. The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline Russia has built to Germany was specifically intended to bypass Ukraine and so deny it the profits that might come from transporting Russian fossil fuels to Europe. (Under the auspices of Nord Stream 2, by the way, the profits of the oil and gas industry in the region were expected to double, enriching both Russia and Western oil enterprises.) Opponents have argued that the pipeline “would make Germany and a few other countries slaves to Russian gas.” As Eric Reguly, the Berlin-based European bureau chief for the Globe and Mail, explained, the move to build Nord Stream 2 was seen as “intensifying Europe’s fossil fuel reliance when it should be devoting its might and creativity to renewable energy.”

It’s no mistake that Putin launched this campaign during the cold of winter. He was well aware of Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas for its heating in a world in which the threat of climate change has failed to substantially redirect the energy policies of either our country or so many others in significant enough ways. Despite President Biden’s attempts to address climate change — including rejoining the Paris climate accord, empowering the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, and aiming to get the U.S. to “net-zero” by 2050 — his remedies have not been equal to the task. Many of his moves have been thwarted, of course, by Republican opposition in Congress, with even worse possibly to come in the near future from a right-wing Supreme Court.

Democrats have proposed a Climate Civilian Corps to address the climate emergency and our younger generations have indeed displayed an urge to counter the warming of our world. In May of 2021, a Pew Research poll showed that “32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally) to help address climate change in the last year.” Significantly, the poll indicated that, even among Republicans, 49% of Gen Zers and 48% of Millennials “say action to reduce the effects of climate change needs to be prioritized today, even if that means fewer resources to deal with other important problems.”

Yet the move to clean energy in this country is, at best, creeping along at a snail’s pace. And no matter how forward-thinking the green-energy movement itself may be, the megadrought in the Southwest (of a sort not seen in 1,200 years) and California’s raging mega-fires that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands are indications of just how far short this country (and the rest of the world) are falling in terms of responding to climate change.

Whatever else happens, the pressing need for energy independence and non-greenhouse-gas-producing fuels should be one of the key lessons learned from the Ukraine-Russia crisis. With nuclear threats in the air, profits seem to diminish in importance. With the onset of this conflict, in fact, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was halted by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has brought energy policy to the forefront of world affairs not because of fires or flooding or the erosion of beaches or intolerable temperatures or even the recent devastating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, but because the threat Russia poses to world stability has suddenly clarified the stakes involved in not prioritizing clean energy.

Cyber Threats

A third issue of both local and global importance to which the Ukraine crisis has instantly lent a new level of awareness is the potential damage cyberattacks could cause — in Ukraine, of course, but far beyond as well, including in the United States. As Richard Clarke pointed out recently, Vladimir Putin could bring the global danger of cyberattacks home to each and every one of us. “Russia could attempt to prevent anyone’s online access to key parts” of the global and local financial system, he pointed out. Cyberattacks could similarly target our power grids and so the electricity that runs our homes, businesses, trains, and more.

Beyond fears of running out of cash or losing electricity, there’s yet another danger posed by the weaponizing of cyberspace — information warfare. “Russian trolls, bots, and disinformation experts,” Clarke reminds us, have been used to stoke conflict in American politics for years now. Old videos of bloodshed, published as if they were part of the current Ukraine conflict, have started filling social-media sites as Russia attempts to use disinformation to counter resistance in that country with its own online version of military successes.

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Dealing with such social-media disinformation is a global problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later via laws, international accords, and new regulations. For now, Facebook’s parent company Meta and several other social media giants have actively thwarted with the spread of false information on Ukraine, removing both accounts and websites. But far more will need to be done.

Displaced Persons

Yet another arena where the overlap of the global and local has been highlighted by the Russian war is the world’s ever-expanding population of displaced people, including refugees. In November 2021, there were an estimated 84 million of them worldwide.

The plight of Ukrainian refugees is increasing those numbers exponentially. In just the first days of that conflict, they have already reached an estimated million and a half. Experts are currently predicting that such refugee flows could hit five million as the war plays out. Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Moldova have offered to take in such refugees, largely women and children, for the time being, but their long-term sustenance will undoubtedly pose significant challenges, especially if the situation in Ukraine isn’t settled soon.

The United States, too, has been challenged by a refugee response recently. Dozens of American agencies have become involved in helping the 76,000 Afghans who have arrived here since the U.S. withdrew its troops in August, after defeat in our war there. Across the country, from Philadelphia to Texas to Seattle, help has been offered for their sustenance, shelter, medical care, and even schooling. However, in a country that, in the Trump era, has been increasingly riven by the very idea of refugees and immigrants coming here, tensions may only continue to rise.

Once again, in the context of refugees, the local and the global are merging in worrying ways, underscoring the urgent need for new strategies and policies.

Facing the Future from the Present, Not the Past

In search of explanatory paradigms for the current crisis, experts and pundits keep rummaging through the past — Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland at the beginning of World War II, the Soviet incursions into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, not to mention the Cold War paradigm that infuses Vladimir Putin’s thinking and increasingly Washington’s as well. In all too many ways, unfortunately, such invocations of the past fail to offer us help. They are distractions rather than guideposts.

The current conflict in Ukraine demands that we look to the present and the future on this increasingly endangered planet of ours. It’s time to recognize that, whether you’re talking about nuclear weapons, cyberattacks, refugees, pandemics, or the fate of a fast-warming planet, that conflict stands in for the most pressing global and local realities of this century, not the previous one.

The war there should be a wake-up call. Its unmistakable directive: accept the realities of the twenty-first-century world. We are so much more interconnected than we care to acknowledge and, with that in mind, we need new norms and protections in place of those that have led us to this point on an all-too-new and dangerous planet.

Copyright 2022 Karen J. Greenberg

via Tomdispatch.com