Good news! Efforts to safeguard Americans are working perfectly—if you read
last week’s new report from the Justice Department’s inspector general.
The report says the Justice Department received no complaints in the first six
months of this year related to misconduct by department employees carrying out
the USA Patriot Act—a key component of the campaign to prevent domestic
acts of terror.
If you take that statement about the lack of complaints out of context—and
many Americans probably will, thanks to the Bush administration's prowess at
spinning and news-managing—you might conclude that the homeland security
operation has been a resounding success.
But you get a very different impression if you piece together scattered reports
from a variety of sources about the impact of the Bush administration’s
domestic “War on Terror.” In early August alone, a number of disturbing
articles suggested that measures designed to protect Americans are seriously
undermining the most basic civil rights of both citizens and guests in this
country—in an ostensibly still-free society.
Here’s a sampling of the bad news:
On August 7, The New York Times reported the case of a longtime naturalized
American citizen—a New York area-translator, an apparently peaceable fellow,
working on his doctorate, with no personal involvement in or sympathies with
terror activity. He has now been convicted of providing material aid to terrorism
and conspiring to deceive the government. His crime: Translating material into
and out of Arabic for defense attorney Lynne Stewart and her client, the jailed
Sheikh Abdul Rahman. A jury found Stewart guilty of passing along violent messages
from the cleric, but the translator claims that in his own actions he was simply
following her instructions. It’s far from clear that he understood that
anything he did could be seen as aiding terrorism or that this was his intention—yet
he now faces a possible 20 years in prison.
The grim spectre of American troops in American streets is not just
a nightmare scenario any longer. On August 8, The Washington Post reported on
Pentagon plans to have normal military troops intervene domestically in various
crisis scenarios, despite the fact that the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 severely
restricts the use of troops in domestic law enforcement. The long-range concern
here is that introducing active-duty troops onto American streets could lead
to military involvement in politics and eventually, under the cloak of some
future crisis, to military government. In the meantime, worries arise about
the transferability of skills that troops need in war zones where civil liberties
and other niceties play little or no role, to political demonstrations on 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 the officers 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. Do the words
“Kent State” mean nothing to today’s Pentagon planners?
People may be incarcerated right here in the United States in conditions
as harsh as those that exist or existed in places like Abu Ghraib, Bagram and
Guantanamo. On August 9, we learned about an Illinois student from Qatar being
held as an enemy combatant—in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. His lawyer
claims that he is held in isolation, nearly round the clock, in a dark 6-by-9-foot
cell; deliberately exposed to extreme cold; denied basic necessities like a
toothbrush, toilet paper, adequate bedding and medical and psychological care;
and 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.
The U.S. government is seizing foreigners who are simply changing
planes at U.S. airports, detaining them without charges, depriving them of access
to a lawyer or the courts and even denying basic necessities like food. On August
10, I read how one naturalized Canadian citizen is suing the U.S. government
over the practice known as ''extraordinary rendition.'' He 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.
U.S. officials maintain otherwise. According to The New York Times , they are
seeking dismissal of his lawsuit, in part through the rare assertion of a "state
One wonders, of course, if these are just isolated examples, an unavoidable
byproduct of a system that, overall, is protecting our lives. But is it?
The government steadfastly refuses to reveal how many people have been arrested
in this country on suspicion of terror-related activity, though legal and human
right experts say the numbers may be as high as 5,000. Now, it’s understandable
that in the climate following 9/11, errors would be made. Still, one might reasonably
expect a certain percentage of those incarcerations to be justified in the end.
Yet, according to a statistical analysis released early this year by the NYU
Center on Law and Security, based on the 120 terrorism-related cases it could
identify, only two cases resulted in convictions for actual or planned terrorist
acts. One involved shoe bomber Richard Reid, who was only apprehended (by fellow
passengers) when he unsuccessfully tried to blow up a plane. The other involved
Iyman Faris, a Kashmir-born Ohio truck driver sentenced to 20 years in prison
for planning to sabotage Brooklyn Bridge trains—who has a history of mental
illness, attempted suicide and spent some time in a mental hospital in the late
'90s. Not your typical Al Qaeda operative.
In addition, the authorities have required more than 80,000 foreign men, from
predominantly Arab or Muslim countries, to register, be fingerprinted and photographed;
called in around 8,000 for FBI interviews; and prioritized more than 6,000 for
deportation, says David Cole, professor at Georgetown University Law Center
and expert on civil liberties and national security. As of now, he says, not
a single one of those has been charged with anything terror-related.
The reason the number actually arrested is a mere guess is that there are no
records—indeed, no public scrutiny at all. Even the families and the detainees
themselves are sometimes denied access to court documents. “The simple
fact is: nobody knows—and I’m not sure we’ll ever know the
number of people that have gone through U.S. custody,” says Jumana Musa,
Advocacy Director of Domestic Human Rights and International Justice, at Amnesty
But why don’t we know? “The government was announcing the number
of people that they had taken into custody until they got to around 1,200,”
says Musa. “And people started asking the question ‘well, how many
of those people were charged with September 11?’, and the answer was zero.
So they stopped giving numbers in custody.”
If this still sounds too remote to trouble you, consider this: You don’t
have to be Muslim or even appear to fit any profile to come close to personal
peril. 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, albeit as a journalist who has found
many occasions to criticize the current administration.
Can I—can any of us—learn more about what is going on? No, we can’t.
Because 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.
Since then, of course, the claimed justification for opaqueness has grown.
And so have the dangers to democracy.