Friday, August 12, 2005

Guns of August
Russ Baker
Guns of August

Can you hear the footsteps growing louder?

Mounting anecdotal evidence suggests that civil libertarians were not exaggerating when they began long ago to worry about prospects for dangerous excess in the ‘response’ to 9/11. If it ever was just about the government poking into our requests for library books on the history of timing devices, those days are long past. In the past week alone, the following troubling developments and revelations were reported, but not necessarily widely discussed or appreciated for their collective import:

-On August 7, we could read in the New York Times (Metro Section) about the case of a longtime naturalized American citizen, a New York area-translator, an apparently peaceable fellow, working on a doctorate, with no personal involvement with or sympathies with terror activity, who has been convicted of providing material aid to terrorism and conspiring to deceive the government – and faces a possible 20 years in prison. His boss, Lynne Stewart, defense attorney for the jailed Sheikh Abdul Rahman, was convicted of passing along communications from the cleric. But the translator claims he was simply following her instructions. And it’s far from clear that he understood that anything he did could be seen as aiding terrorism – or that this was his intention.

-On August 8, the Washington Post reported on plans being developed by the Pentagon to have normal military troops intervene domestically in various crisis scenarios. No matter that the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 severely restricts the use of troops in domestic law enforcement. The big concern here is that, of course, introducing active-duty troops into the streets of the United States could at least in theory lead to military government. Beyond that, one could raise credible concerns about the transferability of skills troops utilize in war zones, in highly volatile situations where civil liberties and other niceties play little or no role, to the streets of, say, Washington, D.C. or Cleveland. The article contains various reassurances that there’s no cause for alarm. But the Post got this story from “officers who drafted the plans.” Assuming they spoke to the reporter with the permission of their superiors, that means the military is floating the idea to see whether it actually bothers anyone.

-On August 9, we learned about an Illinois student from Qatar being held as an enemy combatant under conditions that, if true, channel Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo. Except that he’s in a navy brig in Charleston, SC. His lawyer claims that he is held in isolation, nearly round-the-clock, in a dark 6-by-9-foot cell; being deliberately exposed to extreme cold, and denied basic necessities like a toothbrush, toilet paper, adequate bedding, and medical and psychological care, an denied any contact with his family. He further claims to be denied access to any books, newspapers, radio, television or religious material except for the Koran (which he says was placed on the floor, with other items heaped atop it), and says that threats have been made against his family.

-On August 10, we learned that the US government has been seizing foreign citizens who simply change planes at airports in the United States -- detaining them for days without charges, depriving them of access to a lawyer or the courts, and even denying basic necessities like food. One naturalized Canadian citizen alleges that he was grabbed at JFK Airport, held in solitary confinement in a Brooklyn detention center and then shipped off to his native Syria to be interrogated under torture because officials suspected that he was a member of Al Qaeda. Since then, Syrian and Canadian officials have said that the man had no terrorist connections, but US officials steadfastly maintain otherwise. According to the New York Times, they are seeking dismissal of his lawsuit, in part through the rare assertion of a "state secrets" privilege.

Personally, I have twice been pulled into an interrogation room after coming off foreign flights. The first time, the officers involved released me soon after, but declined to explain why I had been flagged. The second time, one confessed that my name was ‘similar’ to that of someone on a watch list (“Sheikh Ras al-Bakr”?) – this despite a unique passport number and a history of decidedly nonjihadist overseas travel. Can I – or any of us – learn more about what is going on?

No, we can’t. No administration in history has come close to the Bush White House in its zeal to block the routine release of information, and to stamp “classified” on pieces of paper – millions upon millions. It’s worth noting that this policy went into effect long before 9/11 – indeed, within days of Bush taking office in early 2001.

One has to wonder when a hero will emerge from among our elected officials to loudly take up the cudgel for freedom and liberty – the protection of which is presumably the purpose for which we all fight. When will someone (ideally from the party in power) boldly begin demanding answers about how the growing police state is substantively protecting our ‘national security’ – and insist that the government be forced to publicly define that vague term with much, much greater specificity?