Truthout Stories Sun, 25 Jan 2015 07:22:05 -0500 en-gb US Army Special Forces Officially Recruit for "Mission for God"

(Image Copyright 2015, Military Religious Freedom Foundation.)(Image Copyright 2015, Military Religious Freedom Foundation.) "That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time."

(2nd paragraph, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, composed by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, enacted into Virginia law on January 16, 1786)

"Get this U.S. Army and get it well: The United States armed forces may surely fight and kill "for Country" and our legitimate national security interests. But our troops do NOT fight and kill for ANYONE'S "God" or related supernatural deity. In the preparation of this Op Ed, I exposed a number of senior active duty U.S. military leaders to the photo of this poster, including several active duty chaplains. To a man and woman, they were collectively ALL aghast that it was actually real and being used to lure young Americans into the Army's special forces."

C'mon, seriously? That freaking picture just says it ALL.

What an abysmal affront to "National Religious Freedom Day" which is to be celebrated tomorrow, January 16, 2015.

Having headed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) for nearly a decade, we've been exposed to all sorts of unholy, unconstitutional cocktails inextricably mixing the intoxicating aroma of fundamentalist religion (almost always a wretched thing called "Dominion Christianity") with the dense and deep-pocketed foundations of the State. However, even WE at MRFF were hardly prepared for the stunning, unconstitutional disgrace we confirmed from client reports as recently as yesterday.

There it was; an in-your-face, proselytizing, U.S. Army officially-approved ( recruiting poster on prominent display at an Armed Forces Career Center in Phoenix, Arizona. That outrageously ghastly graphic encapsulates precisely that which we've been ceaselessly calling the attention of the American people to for all this time. The poster astoundingly displays the shoulder tabs of the U.S. Special Forces (i.e. Green Berets), Rangers and Airborne troopers accompanied by the seethingly sectarian slogan "ON A MISSION FOR BOTH GOD AND COUNTRY."

(Wait a damn minute. Phoenix? Arizona? Army Special Forces? "Mission For......God"? My first thoughts were of Pat Tillman.)

Excuse me? "GOD and country?" Ahem, well, just WHOSE "god" might that be, U.S. Army?

Let me fairly go out on a limb here and gamble that it is neither the god of Islam nor the god(s) of Hinduism? No way it's Buddhist, Sikh, Shinto, Native American Spiritualist or The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I believe it's a very safe bet to presume that the Army is pretending to refer to the "Judeo-Christian" god, and by THAT worn out and duplicitously deceptive label, of course, I really mean what the Army REALLY means; only the "Christian" god, Jesus. Unfortunately, as the experts will tell you, there are literally multiple tens of thousands of distinctly separate denominations of Christianity in existence. So, once again, the question is begged as to exactly WHICH "God" the U.S. Army Special Forces are boldly, publicly and eagerly recruiting for?

The military chaplaincy's motto is "Pro Deo et Patria" (Latin, meaning "For God and Country") but, hey, that's for noncombatant chaplains. THIS revolting Army recruiting poster is VERY specifically designed for the elite Special Forces universe of Green Berets, Rangers, Delta Force, Airborne etc. These recruiting targets populate the far, far end of the Army universe, indeed light years away, from the recruitment of non-weapons carrying chaplains.

It has consistently been MRFF's experience through the many years that there is always a greater population of Constitution-breaching, fundamentalist/Dominionist Christians in the special forces of the DoD; Navy SEALs, Air Force PJs, USMC Force Recon and the Army's designated recruiting targets of this very poster. (Remember the international controversy about those VERY same words being spoken by the Navy SEAL who shot Bin Laden in conjunction with "Geronimo, Geronimo"?)

Even the Pope himself has decried on multiple occasions the reprehensible, medieval idea that one can kill in God's name – even going so far as to say that the concept, "simply, is blasphemy". Yet here we have the most lethal killing machine devised in the history of humankind proudly extolling the virtue of what can only be described as "Holy Wars."

This unconstitutional catastrophe comes at a time, no less, when world leaders as diverse as Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu are marching together, arm in arm, in Paris and uniting behind the values of secular respect, religious tolerance, freedom of the press and all related basic civil rights. However, this incomprehensibly STUPID, and brazenly sectarian poster of American religious dominance at Marine Corps Recruiting Substation Paradise Valley universally destroys any credibility that the United States government is wholly devoted to these very basic democratic and human values.

Get this U.S. Army and get it well: The United States armed forces may surely fight and kill "for Country" and our legitimate national security interests. But our troops do NOT fight and kill for ANYONE'S "God" or related supernatural deity. In the preparation of this Op Ed, I exposed a number of senior active duty U.S. military leaders to the photo of this poster, including several active duty chaplains. To a man and woman, they were collectively ALL aghast that it was actually real and being used to lure young Americans into the Army's special forces.

In fact, this Poster of Shame lends incredible and irrefutable credence to what MRFF has been insisting from our very inception, which is that there exists a brutal, sectarian, Christian fundamentalist reign exercised within the United States Armed Forces, constituting a de facto Dominionist fifth column. In fact, it's often so brazen that it's not even very "fifth columny" anymore. Facts have borne out this assertion, in absolute spades. For example, we've seen the distribution of millenarian Left Behind video games to active-duty troops serving in Iraq. We've heard the anguished cries of servicemembers forced to attend hokey "Christian Rock" concerts on pain of "lockdown" and other forms of military retribution. We've seen the so-called "Jesus Rifles" which MRFF blew the whistle on, where Trijicon riflescopes were inscribed with specific New Testament Bible references engraved into the metal casings on nearly a million high-powered rifle sights. Oh, and if "Jesus Rifles" isn't enough of a bafflingly bizarre and contemptible example, there was the "Jesus Loves Nukes" mandatory indoctrination course that was used to train USAF nuclear missile launch officers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Time and time again, we've been forced to go toe-to-toe with the United States Air Force Academy administration over its practically countless, savage offenses against the United States Constitution. Likewise, a recurring battle of ours has been one waged against the persistent usage of "Crusader" symbolism, evoking the brutal Western Christian colonization and merciless subjugation of Muslim nations during the Middle Ages. Our foundation submitted a very comprehensive accompanying document when I testified before the House Armed Services Committee in the United States Congress this past November. Our MRFF testimony unequivocally shows that all of the unconstitutional wickedness above is just a mere taste, indeed only the nuanced tip of a very large and exceedingly precarious iceberg of colossal, national security dangers.

Does our aggressive fight against fundamentalist Christian extremism, triumphalism and supremacy in our nation's armed forces, as so vividly displayed in this official Army recruiting poster, infuriate those who promote such bloody rancor and discord? Always and of course. Comes with the territory. You can decide whether it's worth it because we at MRFF already have decided that it most assuredly IS.

Yet here we find ourselves, ignominiously once again, faced with a disgracefully sectarian message of religious exceptionalism bearing the official U.S. Army stamp of approval. This painfully pathetic poster will no doubt serve, generally, as a red flag of limitless propaganda and, more specifically, as a recruiting bonanza of unbridled proportions for precisely those villains whom the world has united against in Paris, i.e. the Salafi-Jihadists such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Islamic State, and myriad other backwards fundamentalists. As if immeasurably emboldening our Islamic enemies wasn't bad enough, this deplorable poster will enrage our Islamic allies and eviscerate our own service members' unit cohesion, good order, morale, discipline and military readiness.

Long story short, the poster at the Phoenix armed forces recruitment hub is an absolutely abominable slap in the face of everyone who's ever taken the time to digest, understand, and swear the servicemembers' sacred oath to protect and defend the United States Constitution, let alone those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the values, rights, and protections contained therein.

And speaking of "ultimate sacrifice," I wonder what Pat Tillman would have said about that stinking poster of unconstitutional malfeasance in his beloved city and state of Phoenix, Arizona? Somehow, I don't think he'd agree that he was on a "Mission For God" when he courageously gave his life for his country in combat as a proud member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, what might another Arizonan do about this; Senator John McCain, the brand new Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee? Don't hold your breath for him to lift a finger of even tepid protest against this recruiting poster. If anything, he'd likely applaud.

The world trembles in shock over the horrific crimes of murderous, fundamentalist, Islamic religiosity in one part of the globe. What of our own House here in America? Here in the States, we should spare no effort to aggressively investigate and ferociously uproot the vast legions of fundamentalist (Dominionist), Christian extremists who seek to smother our OWN secular, constitutional, American republic in the blood-drenched, theocratic "Crusader" memes of a once dark and distant era.

Sadly today, given our enormous arsenal of WMDs, even darker. And not so "distant" anymore.

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 13:44:12 -0500
Fighting Extremism With Schools, Not Guns

Karachi - As a wave of outrage, crossing Pakistan's national borders, continues a month after the Dec. 16 attack on a school in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, some citizens are turning away from collective expressions of anger, and beginning the hard work of building grassroots alternatives to terrorism and militancy.

While many millions of people are lashing out at the Taliban for going on a bloody rampage in a school in the province's capital, Peshawar, killing 141 people including 132 uniformed children in what is being billed as the group's single deadliest attack to date, The Citizens Foundation (TFC), a local non-profit, has reacted quite differently.

Rather than join the chorus calling for stiff penalties for the attackers, it busied itself with a pledge to build 141 Schools for Peace, one in the name of each person who lost their life on that terrible day.

"We dedicate this effort to the children of Pakistan, their right to education and their dreams of a peaceful future," Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, CEO of TCF, said in an email launching the campaign.

"With the formidable challenges facing the nation, we passionately believe that only education has the power to enlighten minds, instil citizenship and unleash the potential of every Pakistani," he added.

In their war against western, secular education, which the group has denounced as "un-Islamic", the Pakistan Taliban have destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012, claimed responsibility for the near-fatal shooting of teenaged education advocate Malala Yousafzai and issued numerous edicts against the right of women and girls to receive proper schooling.

In their latest assault on education, nine militants went on an eight-hour-long killing spree, throwing hand grenades into the teeming school premises and firing indiscriminately at any moving target. They claim the attack was a response to the military operation aimed at rooting out the Taliban currently underway in North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

While armed groups and government forces answer violence with more of the same, the active citizens who comprise TCF want to shift focus away from bloodshed and onto longer-term solutions for the future of this deeply troubled country.

The charity, which began in 1995, has completed 1,000 school 'units', typically a primary or secondary institution capable of accommodating up to 180 pupils, all built from scratch in the most impoverished areas of some 100 towns and cities across Pakistan.

The 7,700 teachers employed by the NGO go through a rigorous training programme before placement, and the organisation maintains a strict 50:50 male-female ratio for the 145,000 students who are now benefitting from a free education, according to TCF Vice President Zia Akhter Abbas.

In a country where 25.02 million school-aged children – of which 13.7 million (55 percent) are girls – do not receive any form of education, experts say TCF's initiative may well act as a game changer in the years to come, especially given that the government spends just 2.1 percent of its GDP on education.

"Our job is to ensure that wherever we have our schools, there are no out-of-school children, especially girls," Abbas told IPS. "We believe the change in society will come automatically once these educated and enlightened children grow up into responsible adults."

He added that the schools are designed to "serve as a beacon of light restricting the advance of extremism in our society."

The project has received widespread support from a broad spectrum of Pakistani society. Twenty-four-year-old Usman Riaz, a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston who recently donated the proceeds of his jam-packed concerts in Karachi to TCF's efforts, says the Schools for Peace are a "wonderful way to honor the innocent victims".

But it will take more than one-off charitable donations to make the scheme a reality. It costs about 15 million rupees (148,000 dollars) to build and equip each new school, so the total bill for all 141 institutions stands at some 21 million dollars.

With a track record of building 40-50 schools a year, however, the NGO is confident that it will honor its pledge within three years.

Combating extremism

Besides immortalizing the victims of the Taliban's attack, experts here say that shifting the focus away from terrorism and onto education will help combat a growing pulse of religious extremism.

The prominent Pakistani educationist and rights activist A.H. Nayyar told IPS that it is crucial for the country to begin educating children who would otherwise be turned into "fodder for extremists".

In fact, part of the government's 20-point National Action Plan – agreed upon by all political parties dedicated to completely eradicating terrorism – includes plans to register and regulate all seminaries, known here as madrassas, in a bid to combat extremism at its root.

With thousands of such religious institutions springing up across the country to fill a void in the school systems, policy-makers are concerned about the indoctrination of children at a young age, with distorted interpretations of religious texts and the teaching of intolerance playing a major role in these schools.

Some sources say that between two and three million students are enrolled at the nearly 20,000 madrassas spread across Pakistan; others say this is a conservative estimate.

While there is some talk about bringing these institutions under the umbrella of the public school system, experts like Nayyar believe this will do little to combat the "forcible teaching of [...] false and distorted history, excessive emphasis on Islamic teachings to the extent of including them in textbooks of all the subjects, explicit teaching of jihad and militancy, hate material against other nations, peoples of other faiths, etc, [and] excessive glorification of the military and wars."

Nayyar and other independent scholars have been at the forefront of calling for an overhaul of the public school curriculum, which they believe is at odds with the goals of a modern, progressive nation.

But until policy-makers and politicians jump on the bandwagon, independent efforts like the work of TCF will lead the way.

News Sat, 24 Jan 2015 13:22:16 -0500
Global Blackness

The following remarks were read at the Black Life Matters conference in Tucson, Arizona, on January 15, 2015.

Good morning, everyone. I'm sorry I couldn't be with you in person but am very glad to be part of this conversation.

My message here today is a message to the Black grassroots. I know there was some discussion about why this conference is taking place in the halls of a university or in Arizona. It may not be the best place to deliver a message to the Black grassroots but circumstances created this space and I know the organizers are committed to the conversations going beyond the halls of academia, so I share these comments in the hope that they reach Black people on a move.

Plainly, what I want to say is that we, Black people everywhere, see you and we are with you in the struggle.

It has been, for Africans outside of the U.S, significant and joyful to see the movement for Black life and dignity take hold, grow and capture the imagination in this moment there. The most recent uprisings and mass actions across the U.S have been the culmination, as I see it, of mobilizations and organizing that has been ongoing for decades and that were visible in response to the lack of government action to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, to the case of the Jena 6, of Troy Davis, of Trayvon Martin, and now of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as in the attempts to build viable alternatives as in Cooperation Jackson. This moment in the movement has been triggered by the revolts in Ferguson but the movement is a movement for Black lives, Black life[i], Black dignity and Black self-determination in the tradition of Black liberation struggles. Understood in this continuum, it has been wonderful to hear Assata Shakur present in the chants in Ferguson "it is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win," and indeed in this movement we must call out the names and organize to secure the freedom of the political prisoners that remain captive in U.S prisons for also demanding and defending Black life and dignity: Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur, Robert Seth Hayes, Albert Woodfox, Mumia Abu Jamal, Herman Bell, among too many others.

There has been an outpouring of global solidarity for the Black movement in the U.S by Black people in, to name but a few, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Brazil, the UK, France and from non-Black people who are also fighting against imperialism the world over, including in Palestine, where the historic solidarity between African and Palestinian peoples continues. Black people globally are claiming 'we are Ferguson' as an understanding of our linked fate and common oppression and in many cases because the manifestations of global anti-Black violence are so similar. In South Africa, for example, a booming prison industrial complex and accompanying State and non-State so-called 'security' apparatus is being established to protect capital from economically oppressed Black people (rather than protecting the masses of Black people from the violence of capitalism). In the U.S., a Black person is killed every 28 hours, and in Brazil approximately 118 Black people are murdered every day in what Afro-Brazilians are calling a silent genocide. One hundred and eighteen Black people are murdered every day!

The outpouring has highlighted not only the linked fate between us but also the asymmetry of how far the cries of indignation of les damnés carry. We have heard the cries of Ferguson echo across the globe. And yet, wherever we are we must listen hard to hear the resistance in Burkina Faso, in Guinea, in Colombia, in Sudan, in the DRC. To remix CLR James, the only place where Black people do not revolt is in the pages of the capitalist media. Just as anti-Black oppression is global and takes many forms that are embedded in systems of white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, ableist, capitalism, resistance by Black people is also global and it is all of our duties to ensure that we are seeing, listening, being inspired by one another and living our solidarity with one another.

In Colombia, Black women have been in permanent assembly in the offices of the Ministry of Interior of Giralda since November 27 as part of their fight to protect their lands and territories from mining, to end the war on their bodies and to resist displacement. In Madagascar, peasants and farmers resisted massive land grabs, their uprisings leading to an overturn of government. However, their gains are being reversed in the name of liberal democracy. More broadly, the fight against land grab in Africa is a fight for Black life and survival, for self-determined development and is a global fight for the future that we all need to be paying attention to. With the collaboration of African governments and elites, about 20 million hectares of farmland has been grabbed since 2008, using the all too familiar justification that the land is unoccupied or unused. The land claims of pastoralists, women, peasants and small-scale farmers are marginalized from formal land rights processes and access to law and institutions by the colonial framework of land ownership that favors markets and businesses. Land use that is non-commercial, including medicinal, spiritual or grazing for pasture, is ignored to make way for large-scale, high-yield 'production.' Biodiversity is being patented, flora and fauna commodified, and water grabbed – this is no longer the prediction of great writers like Octavia Butler but the terrifying reality. Significant public relations efforts, by, amongst others, Bill Gates in partnership with Monsanto, to persuade governments and farmers that GMOs offer the solution to food insecurity are obscuring the market-dependency that this and mono-cropping would create for already market-marginalized small scale farmers on the continent. The sustainable future that global capitalism is envisioning and aggressively creating is one in which technology beats nature to maintain the luxury of a few. Black lives and lands remain commodities and disposable. Despite the threat, communities across Africa have been resisting land grab, and women have been organizing beyond borders to claim 'we are the solution' to sustainable food production.

Globally, women and queer folk are resisting and building alternatives at the intersections of patriarchy and capitalism. In the U.S, I have been dismayed by the erasure of Black cis and trans women's lives even within the Black Lives Matter movement. Where was the mass mobilization when Tanisha Anderson was murdered by the police? Where was the mass mobilization when Deshawnda Bradley was killed? Where is the movement for the sixty four thousand Black women that are missing in the U.S? On the continent of Africa, we witness the attempt to disappear Black women and queer lives and life from the very narrative of African identity. Armed with imported religious fundamentalisms, the promise of capitalist prosperity and the necessity for diversion and division, an alliance has formed to enshrine patriarchy, heteropatriarchy and transphobia into the fabric of Africa. It's important that we not fall into the trap of asserting that oppression and oppressive practices are a manifestation of African culture or tradition. As Amilcar Cabral reminds us, culture is dynamic and perpetually being made. Culture can be used as a tool for liberation or for the purposes of domination: the choice sits with us. Patriarchy is not my culture even if the system of patriarchy dominates the practices of those around me. I choose the traditions of freedom, respect, love and self-determination that are just as much embedded in the history and practices of my people. Women and Queer Africans are choosing and creating an Africa outside of the bounds of patriarchy by mobilizing in Soweto for Pride, through hundreds of people taking to the streets of Nairobi in miniskirts when a woman was stripped naked for being indecently dressed and by demanding an end to violence against sex workers under the banner of Black lives matter.

Black people came out globally to 'Bring Back our Girls' after over three hundred children were abducted from school in Chibok, Nigeria in May. The response of the Chibok community and the Nigerian women's movement sounded the alarm and spurred global solidarity from Philadelphia to London, Cairo to Dakar and Johannesburg. But our girls are still missing eight months later and many more Black lives have since been lost to the proxy battlegrounds of a global war that has been raging in a barrage of silence. When the demand rang out that our three hundred abducted Black girls be brought back, the outcome was more U.S troops with 'boots on the ground' in Africa. Militarized responses from the U.S are not new, but the humanitarian justification for U.S military infiltration into Africa is nonetheless duplicitous, be it in the response to 'Bring Back our Girls' or to the Ebola epidemic that has taken nearly eight thousand lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ebola became an epidemic in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and not in Spain, the United States or the UK, where there were also cases, because of systemic and entrenched impoverishment and inequalities: in other words, the differential effects of Ebola are directly tied to capitalist systems of exploitation. And it is capitalist interests that have maintained the attention of pharmaceutical corporations backed by the U.S military in the Ebola crisis, not human solidarity. Because Black lives matter we must build ways of being that disrupt imperialism, patriarchy, militarism, disrupt the entire system and sustain Black life.

Despite the unprecedented Black presence in the U.S administration, the murder, mass incarceration and impoverishment of Black people continues. Similarly, for the last fifty years, African states have had African administrations that do not serve the interests of African peoples. When there is no justice, there is just us. In this moment when the attention of so many is on the Black liberation movement in the U.S., there is significant political mileage in claiming ally-ship with the movement – the woodworks will be full. But genuine solidarity requires 'fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives'[ii], co-conspiracy rather than empty declarations of ally-ship. Co-conspiracy will require long-term commitment, introspection, and practice. It might start with a hashtag or wearing a t-shirt, it certainly can't end there.

I have seen, admittedly with some glee, consternation amongst sections of the Black community in the U.S around the organizing tactics and methods of the mobilizations for Black life and lives. During the uprisings in Tunisia, a communist comrade recounted that every evening he wrote an analysis of what was happening and how it was happening. Every morning he tore up his analysis. In only a few hours, what he understood felt no longer applicable, relevant or even enough to understand what was happening. The people were creating revolution. Not from a text book, the red book or any other book, but from their own experience and knowledge. Learning in action was the order of the day and a leaderfull[iii] not leaderless, movement was being created in the image of the aspirations of the people involved. It was definitely not a perfect uprising, there have been significant losses over the last four years but revolution is a process and without a doubt the uprisings changed Tunisia, Africa and the rest of the world in significant ways. The uprisings in the U.S feel similar in that they are grounded on years of organizing and part of a transformative process, they are leaderfull not leaderless and they have swept the old guard to the side to make room for the articulation of the peoples' aspirations. In Tunisia, the call was for 'bread and dignity,' in the U.S it is for Black lives. Both have clear affirmations and both affirmations challenge the economic, social, and political global order in their demand.

The systems of oppression that we challenge locally are global and we have a global Black village. We have a duty not only to indict the system, to shut it down, but to build new ways of being, doing and sustaining. We must become, in the words of Assata, weapons of mass construction. Indeed, we have nothing to lose but our chains.


[i] Fred Moten makes an important distinction here on Black lives and Black life: "We need to understand what the state is defending itself from and I think that in this respect, the particular instances of Michael Brown's murder and Eric Garner's murder are worth paying some attention to. Because what the drone, Darren Wilson, shot into that day was insurgent Black life walking down the street. I don't think he meant to violate the individual personhood of Michael Brown, he was shooting at mobile Black sociality walking down the street in a way that he understood implicitly constituted a threat to the order he represents and that he is sworn to protect. Eric Garner on the every day basis initiated a new alternative kind of market place, another mode of social life. That's what they killed, ok? So when we say that Black lives matter I think what we do sometimes is obscure the fact that it's in fact Black life that matters. That insurgent Black social life still constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things." See more:

[ii] Samora Machel

[iii] "The only leadership I can respect is one that enables every man and woman to be his and her own leader" June Jordan, Civil Wars

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 12:25:56 -0500
Obama Tips His Hat to FDR

Whatever happens over the next two years, you can bet that 22nd century school children will know more about President Barack Obama than kids learn today about, say, Calvin Coolidge. He made history just by being the first non-white man to occupy the White House.

What else will tomorrow's kids learn about Obama?

Sure, the Affordable Care Act has delivered health coverage to millions of Americans who needed it, shrinking the uninsured rate to less than 13 percent. Yet that law didn't heal enough of what ails the nation's health care system. Compared with Social Security, one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's greatest achievements, it's no big deal.

The ACA's shortcomings are symptomatic of the first six years of Obama's presidency. He doled out one concession after another to ungrateful Republican lawmakers.

Then the drubbing Democrats took in November's midterm elections knocked some sense into him. Or he realized that he had nothing to lose. Or maybe he traveled in a time machine.

For now, Obama is channeling his inner FDR. What would FDR say about today's growing inequality and stagnant wages? Something like this:

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much," Roosevelt declared during his second inaugural address. "It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Sound familiar? Obama echoed that sentiment in his State of the Union address when he asked:

"Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well, or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?"

As FDR declared in 1937: "Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people."

Obama's says this more conversationally: "This country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

With his bundle of proposed tax tweaks slated to raise an estimated $320 billion in revenue and bring relief to millions of exhausted American families, Obama's "middle class economics" is forcing GOP lawmakers into an awkward corner.

Take Mitt Romney. He derided the public's growing concern about inequality as "envy" and "class warfare" during his losing 2012 presidential campaign.

Now that he's mulling another White House bid, Romney sounds different.

"Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty in American than ever before," the once and future candidate declared at a recent Republican gathering in San Diego.

It will take more than mouthing the word "inequality" to rebrand Mr. 47 percent.

Meanwhile, ponder FDR's words: "In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people."

And another thing Obama just said:

"Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another  —  or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?"

As a progressive, I'm still disappointed. I can't stomach Obama's addiction to drones, domestic snooping, and crummy trade deals. I wish he'd spoken more directly about enacting stronger gun laws and locking up fewer Americans  —  and uttered the word "racism."

As an environmentalist, I appreciate his tough climate talk. But I wish he'd fall out of love with fracking and start opposing the construction of new nuclear reactors.

Yet most modern progressives revere Roosevelt despite the creation of nuclear bombs and the internment of Japanese Americans on his watch.

And instead of being remembered for being the first president in a wheelchair, FDR is that guy who left the Depression in the dust.

That's why it's good to see that after years of riling his base instead of rallying it, Obama is rising above Washington's gridlock.

He has nothing to fear except...well, you know.

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 12:05:26 -0500
The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy

C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago that one important measure of the demise of vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life can be found in the increasing inability of a society to translate private troubles to broader public issues.

The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

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This is an excerpt from Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, by Henry Giroux.

C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago that one important measure of the demise of vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life can be found in the increasing inability of a society to translate private troubles to broader public issues. [1] This is an issue that both characterizes and threatens any viable notion of democracy in the United States in the current historical moment. In an alleged post-racist democracy, the image of the public sphere with its appeal to dialogue and shared responsibility has given way to the spectacle of unbridled intolerance, ignorance, seething private fears, unchecked anger and the decoupling of reason from freedom. Increasingly, as witnessed in the utter disrespect and not-so-latent racism expressed by Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman from South Carolina, who shouted "you lie!" during President Obama's address on health care, the obligation to listen, respect the views of others and engage in a literate exchange is increasingly reduced to the highly spectacular wed embrace of an infantile emotionalism. This is an emotionalism that is made for television. It is perfectly suited for emptying the language of public life of all substantive content, reduced in the end to a playground for hawking commodities, promoting celebrity culture and enacting the spectacle of right-wing fantasies fueled by the fear that the public sphere as an exclusive club for white male Christians is in danger of collapsing. For some critics, those who carry guns to rallies or claim Obama is a Muslim and not a bona fide citizen of the United States are simply representative of an extremist fringe, that gets far more publicity from the mainstream media than they deserve. Of course this is understandable, given that the media's desire for balance and objective news is not just disingenuous but relinquishes any sense of ethical responsibility by failing to make a distinction between an informed argument and an unsubstantiated opinion. Witness the racist hysteria unleashed by so many Americans and the media over the building of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero.

The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. An African-American president certainly makes the Rush Limbaughs of the world even more irrational than they already are, just as the lunatic fringe seems to be able to define itself only through a mode of thought whose first principle is to disclaim logic itself. But I think this dismissal is too easy. What this decline in civility, the emergence of mob behavior and the utter blurring in the media between a truth and a lie suggest is that we have become one of the most illiterate nations on the planet. I don't mean illiterate in the sense of not being able to read, though we have far too many people who are functionally illiterate in a so-called advanced democracy, a point that writers such as Chris Hedges, Susan Jacoby and the late Richard Hofstadter made clear in their informative books on the rise of anti-intellectualism in American life. [2] I am talking about a different species of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Illiterate in this instance refers to the inability on the part of much of the American public to grasp private troubles and the meaning of the self in relation to larger public problems and social relations. It is a form of illiteracy that points less to the lack of technical skills and the absence of certain competencies than to a deficit in the realms of politics — one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world. This type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions, it is also an excuse for glorifying the principle of self-interest as a paradigm for understanding politics. This is a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self, an illiteracy in which the act of translation withers, reduced to a relic of another age. The United States is a country that is increasingly defined by a civic deficit, a chronic and deadly form of civic illiteracy that points to the failure of both its educational system and the growing ability of anti-democratic forces to use the educational force of the culture to promote the new illiteracy. As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways.

Think of the forces at work in the larger culture that work overtime to situate us within a privatized world of fantasy, spectacle and resentment that is entirely removed from larger social problems and public concerns. For instance, corporate culture, with its unrelenting commercials, carpet-bombs our audio and visual fields with the message that the only viable way to define ourselves is to shop and consume in an orgy of private pursuits. Popular culture traps us in the privatized universe of celebrity culture, urging us to define ourselves through the often empty and trivialized and highly individualized interests of celebrities. Pharmaceutical companies urge us to deal with our problems, largely produced by economic and political forces out of our control, by taking a drug, one that will both chill us out and increase their profit margins. (This has now become an educational measure applied increasingly and indiscriminately to children in our schools.) Pop psychologists urge us to simply think positively, give each other hugs and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps while also insisting that those who confront reality and its mix of complex social issues are, as Chris Hedges points out, defeatists, a negative force that inhibits "our inner essence and power." [3] There is also the culture of militarization, which permeates all aspects of our lives — from our classrooms and the screen culture of reality television to the barrage of violent video games and the blood letting in sports such as popular wrestling — endlessly at work in developing modes of masculinity that celebrate toughness, violence, cruelty, moral indifference and misogyny.

All of these forces, whose educational influence should never be underestimated, constitute a new type of illiteracy, a kind of civic illiteracy in which it becomes increasingly impossible to connect the everyday problems that people face with larger social forces — thus depoliticizing their own sense of agency and making politics itself an empty gesture. Is it any wonder that politics is now mediated through a spectacle of anger, violence, humiliation and rage that mimics the likes of The Jerry Springer Show? It is not that we have become a society of the spectacle — though that is partly true — but that we have fallen prey to a new kind of illiteracy in which the distinction between illusion and reality is lost, just as the ability to experience our feelings of discontent and our fears of uncertainty are reduced to private troubles, paralyzing us in a sea of resentment waiting to be manipulated by extremists extending from religious fanatics to right-wing radio hosts. This is a prescription for a kind of rage that looks for easy answers, demands a heightened emotional release and resents any attempts to think through the connection between our individual woes and any number of larger social forces. A short list of such forces would include an unchecked system of finance, the anti-democratic power of the corporate state, the rise of multinationals and the destruction of the manufacturing base and the privatization of public schooling along with its devaluing of education as a public good. As the public collapses into the personal, the personal becomes "the only politics there is, the only politics with a tangible referent or emotional valence," [4] the formative educational and political conditions that make a democracy possible begin to disappear. Under such circumstances, the language of the social is either devalued, pathologized or ignored and all dreams of the future are now modeled around the narcissistic, privatized and self-indulgent needs of consumer and celebrity culture and the dictates of the allegedly free market. How else to explain the rage against big government but barely a peep against the rule of big corporations who increasingly control not only the government but almost every vital aspect of our lives from health care to the quality of our environment?
Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a space where private interests are displayed and the social order increasingly mimics a giant Dr. Phil show where notions of the public register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, tasks, conversations and problems. Most importantly, as the very idea of the social collapses into an utterly privatized discourse, everyday politics is decoupled from its democratic moorings and it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of a vibrant politics and democracy itself. This is worth repeating. Emptied of any substantial content, democracy appears imperiled as individuals are unable to translate their privately suffered misery into genuine public debate, social concerns and collective action. This is a form of illiteracy that is no longer marginal to American society but is increasingly becoming one of its defining and more frightening features.

The raging narcissism that seems to shape every ad, film, television program and appeal now mediated through the power of the corporate state and consumer society is not merely a clinical and individual problem. It is the basis for a new kind of mass illiteracy that is endlessly reproduced through the venues of a number of anti-democratic institutions and forces that eschew critical debate, self-reflection, critical analysis and certainly modes of dissent that call the totality of a society into question. As American society becomes incapable of questioning itself, the new illiteracy parades as just its opposite. We are told that education is about learning how to take tests rather than learning how to think critically. We are told that anything that does not make us feel good is not worth bothering with. We are told that character is the only measure of how to judge people who are the victims of larger social forces that are mostly out of their control. When millions of people are unemployed, tossed out of their homes, homeless or living in poverty, the language of character, pop psychology, consumerism and celebrity culture are more than a diversion: they are fundamental to the misdirected anger, mob rule and illiteracy that frames the screaming, racism, lack of civility and often sheer and legitimate desperation.

Authoritarianism is often abetted by an inability of the public to grasp how questions of power, politics, history and public consciousness are mediated at the interface of private issues and public concerns. The ability to translate private problems into social considerations is fundamental to what it means to reactivate political sensibilities and conceive of ourselves as critical citizens, engaged public intellectuals and social agents. Just as an obsession with the private is at odds with a politics informed by public consciousness, it also burdens politics by stripping it of the kind of political imagination and collective hope necessary for a viable notion of meaning, hope and political agency.

Civic literacy is about more than enlarging the realm of critique and affirming the social. It is also about public responsibility, the struggle over democratic public life and the importance of critical education in a democratic society. The US government is more than willing to invest billions in wars, lead the world in arms sales and give trillions in tax cuts to the ultra-rich but barely acknowledges the need to invest in those educational and civic institutions from schools to the arts to a massive jobs creation program — that enable individuals to be border crossers, capable of connecting the private and the public as part of a more vibrant understanding of politics, identity, agency and governance. The new illiteracy is not the cause of our problems, which are deeply rooted in larger social, economic and political forces that have marked the emergence of the corporate state, a deadly form of racism parading as color blindness and a ruthless market fundamentalism since the 1970s, but it is a precondition for locking individuals into a system in which they are complicitous in their own exploitation, disposability and potential death.

The new illiteracy is about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world. The challenge it poses in a democracy is one of both learning how to reclaim literacy so as to be able to narrate oneself and the world from a position of agency. But it is also about unlearning those modes of learning that internalize modes of ignorance based on the concerted refusal to know, be self-reflective and act with principled dignity. It is a problem as serious as any we have ever faced in the United States. At the core of any viable democratic politics is the ability to question the assumptions central to an imagined democracy. This is not merely a political issue but an educational issue, one that points to the need for modes of civic education that provide the knowledge and competencies for young and old alike to raise important questions about what education and literacy itself should accomplish in a democracy. [5] This is not an issue we can ignore too much longer.


1. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). See also the brilliant Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York; W.W. Norton, 1992).

2. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1966); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Vintage, 2009); Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009).

3. Chris Hedges, "Celebrity Culture and the Obama Brand," Tikkun (January/February 2010).

4. Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, "Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming," Public Culture 12:2 (2000), pp. 305-306.

5. Zygmunt Bauman, "Introduction," Society under Siege (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), p. 170.

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 11:48:22 -0500
EPA Sued Over Disclosure Rules for Toxic Pollution From Drilling and Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been sued over toxic chemicals released into the air, water and land by the oil and gas industry, a coalition of nine environmental and open government groups announced recently.

The extraction of oil and gas releases more toxic pollution than any other industry except for power plants, according to the EPA's own estimates, the coalition, which filed the lawsuit this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, noted.

But the industry has thus far escaped federal rules that, for over the past two decades, have required other major polluters to disclose the type and amount of toxic chemicals they release or dispose. The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) is a federal pollution database, established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and can be used by first-responders in the event of a crisis as well as members of the general public.

"People deserve to know what toxic chemicals are being used near their homes, schools and hospitals," said Matthew McFeeley, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"For too long, the oil and gas industry has been exempt from rules that require other industries to disclose the chemicals they are using, so communities and workers can better understand the risks. It's high time for EPA to stop giving the oil and gas industry special treatment."

Roughly one in four Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well, making the air emissions from the industry a matter of local concern to a fast-growing number of families.

Adam Kron, lead attorney in the lawsuit, told DeSmog that, given emerging evidence linking proximity to gas wells to health issues like respiratory disorders or skin conditions, residents in shale fields could find TRI data useful. "For those people, they might not know what's causing it, they might not know what's being released," he said. "You can bring the print-out to your doctor," he added.

"The information is just vital to people who live near those sites," Mr. Kron added.

The lawsuit follows a petition that the coalition of groups filed in October 2012, requesting that EPA require the oil and gas industry to participate in the TRI.

"In 2012," the groups, noted, "EPA estimated that the oil and gas extraction industry emits at least 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, all of which are TRI-listed toxic chemicals. These include benzene (a carcinogen), xylenes (which can cause headaches, fatigue, and cardiovascular problems), and hydrogen sulfide (which can cause nausea, coughing, and in high concentrations, rapid death)."

There are signs that the true levels of toxic releases are higher than EPA's official estimates. Air emission data, gathered by the Environmental Integrity Project from six major drilling states (Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming) showed a combined 8.5 million tons of TRI-listed toxic chemicals released annually, a report by the group released in January 2014 concluded.

That review focused on 395 oil and gas extraction facilities, which each released over 10,000 pounds of at least one toxic chemical. Roughly half of those sites had emitted over 10,000 pounds, the normal threshold for TRI reporting, for two or more years in a row, and over half were in Texas. These high-polluting sites included compressor stations for natural gas pipelines, processing plants, wastewater processing facilities, and emissions also spew from drilling and fracking operations, the groups found.

"Our research shows that many of these oil and gas plants emit tens of thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants every year, but that data was hard to get and incomplete," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project when research results were announced last year. "We need this industry to report that pollution to the Toxics Release Inventory where everyone can see it –– just like chemical plants and other facilities have done for more than 20 years."

Even using the EPA's more conservative estimates, the amount of toxic pollution emitted by the oil and gas industry is enormous. "EPA estimates that the industry emits at least 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, including benzene, xylenes, and hydrogen sulfide," noted a 2012 EPA fact sheet. "This is more than any TRI-reporting industry except electric utilities, and equivalent to thirty percent of the total release of hazardous air pollutants reported to the TRI for 2010."

The organizations the Environmental Integrity Project is representing in the lawsuit include the Center for Effective Government (formerly known as OMB Watch), the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture), the Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Responsible Drilling Alliance, and Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Congress established the TRI in 1986 to inform the public about the release of sometimes carcinogenic chemicals from industries in the wake of the deadly 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which toxic gases killed thousands of local residents.

The lawsuit, if sucessful, would not directly limit pollution from oil and gas extraction facilities, but it would require information to be made public.

"If knowledge is power, as the proverb goes, then the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is a powerful tool indeed," science writer Nancy Bazilchuk noted in a 2006 Environmental Health Perspectives paper. "Firefighters and first responders used this nearly 20-year-old public database of toxic chemical emissions to identify potential contamination hot spots after the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Residents have used it to find out what kinds of pollutants are being emitted by nearby industries. Investment companies use it to evaluate whether or not to purchase a company's stocks. Even the Internal Revenue Service uses it to collect a pollution tax from companies that release ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons."

In 1996, the EPA decided to "defer" any decision about including oil and gas extraction in the TRI, in part because of a dispute about whether the emissions from each individual well and piece of equipment should be considered separately, or whether all of the fumes from a single well pad should be tallied together. "This was kind of a different industry back then, you didn't have these major industrialized sites," Mr. Kron explained.

A similar legal distinction has kept the oil and gas industry exempt from hazardous air pollution regulations under the Clean Air Act, drawing the ire of environmentalists and many who live near well pads who suspect the fumes from fracking and drilling have caused health problems.

As the shale drilling boom has spread across the U.S., those concerns have grown.

"Those living or working closest to wells are at the highest risk," the NRDC concluded last month after reviewing scientific research. "In addition to the aforementioned health threats, they can also be exposed to diesel particulate matter and other toxics, including carcinogens. As a result, they are also at risk for eye, nose and throat irritation, brain and nervous system problems including headaches, lightheadedness and disorientation, blood and bone marrow damage leading to anemia and immunological problems, reproductive system effects, birth defects and harm to the developing fetus, and cancer."

Advocates now hope to prod the EPA to require drillers to make basic information about chemical releases available.

"The public disclosures in the Toxic Release Inventory have spurred companies across an array of industries to significantly reduce the toxic wastes they produce," said Sean Moulton, a director at the Center for Effective Government. "There is no reasonable rationale for exempting the oil and gas industry from these reporting requirements. Citizens have a right to know what wastes are being released in their communities."

News Sat, 24 Jan 2015 11:24:22 -0500
New Study Shows More Than Half of Abortion Clinics Face Threats

(Photo: Priya Deonarain)(Photo: Priya Deonarain)

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Today marks 42 years since the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal. Despite the long-ago ruling, anti-abortion lawmakers and extremists continue to target abortion access—both in the halls of Congress and on the ground at clinics.

New research from the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.) reveals that clinics and doctors are faced with daily threats and intimidation, reducing women's access to critical reproductive care and putting doctors' and clinic workers' lives on the line.

Says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation:

More than four decades after the Supreme Court ruled abortion legal, doctors and clinic workers should not have to fear extremists' attacks as they provide critical women's health care.

Below is an excerpt from the forthcoming Winter 2015 issue of Ms. highlighting some of FMF's most startling findings. Subscribe to Ms. to read more and never miss an issue!

Before Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, was shot to death by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009, he faced persistent threats and intimidation. Anti-abortion radicals stalked him and his family, harassed him at home and at his church (where he was eventually killed) and plastered "wanted" posters—featuring his name, photo and address—all over town.

At that time, a little more than one-quarter of abortion clinics reported similar kinds of threats and intimidation by anti-abortion extremists. But now, according to data from the Feminist Majority Foundation's 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey, those numbers have shot up to nearly 52 percent of clinics.

"The spike in serious threats and coordinated intimidation by extremists is of grave concern," says duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation's National Clinic Access Project. "We know there is a connection between threats like wanted-style posters, residential targeting of physicians and serious violence, because these types of threats preceded the murders of doctors in the '90s and Dr. Tiller in 2009."

The survey of 242 clinics by FMF (publisher of Ms.) shows that nearly 18 percent of clinics found that their doctors' pictures and personal information had been posted online, while 8.7 percent of clinics reported that doctors had been stalked.
Twenty-eight percent of responding clinics reported that pamphlets featuring photos of their doctors and clinic staff had been distributed, including some titled "TheKillers Among Us," and the use of wanted-style posters was reported by7.7 percent of clinics.

There's some heartening news, though: The survey found that the number of clinics experiencing the most severe types of anti-abortion violence—blockades, invasions, bombings, arson, chemical attacks, gunfire and more—decreased from 23.5 per-cent in 2010 to 19.7 percent in 2014.

Additionally, the survey found that a positive relationship with local law enforcement correlated with lower rates of violence and harassment. Of the surveyed clinics that highly rated their relationship with local law enforcement, 55 percent said they'd experienced no incidents of anti-abortion violence and harassment, while just 41 percent of clinics with a "fair" or "poor" police relationship said the same.

Still, nearly 1 in 5 clinics experienced severe anti-abortion violence, which is why Gaines says there's a "clear need" for law enforcement to vigorously prosecute criminal threats. She says, "Stopping the threat of violence before it becomes actual violence is critical."

News Sat, 24 Jan 2015 09:31:59 -0500
"Guantanamo of the Pacific": Australian Asylum Seekers Wage Hunger Strike at Offshore Detention Site

A massive hunger strike is underway at what some are calling "the Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific." The Manus Island detention center is paid for by the Australian government and run by an Australian contractor, Transfield Services, but located offshore on Papua New Guinea’s soil. The inmates are not accused of any crimes — they are asylum seekers from war-ravaged countries who are waiting indefinitely for their refugee status determinations. They are asking the United Nations to intervene against the Australian federal government’s plan to resettle them in Papua New Guinea, where they say they could face persecution. Some have barricaded themselves behind the detention center’s high wire fences; others have resorted to increasingly drastic measures such as drinking washing detergent, swallowing razor blades, and even sewing their mouths shut to protest their confinement. We speak with Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson and Alex Kelly, a social justice filmmaker who organized a New York City vigil in solidarity with the Manus Island detainees.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A massive hunger strike is underway at what some are calling "the Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific." The Manus Island detention center is paid for by the Australian government and run by an Australian contractor, Transfield Services, but located offshore on Papua New Guinea’s soil. The inmates are not accused of any crimes; they are asylum seekers from war-ravaged countries who are waiting indefinitely for their refugee status determinations.

Eighty detainees recently signed a letter to the Australian government, saying, in part, quote, "Here a disaster is about to happen, please prevent this disaster." They are asking the United Nations to intervene against the Australian federal government’s plan to resettle them in Papua New Guinea, where they say they could face persecution. Some have barricaded themselves behind the detention center’s high wire fences; others have resorted to increasingly drastic measures, such as drinking washing detergent, swallowing razor blades, and even sewing their mouths shut to protest their confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Alex Kelly, a social justice filmmaker, on Wednesday she organized a protest outside the Australian Consulate here in New York City. And Jennifer Robinson is with us, an Australian human rights lawyer, director of legal advocacy for the Bertha Foundation, also co-founder of International Lawyers for West Papua.

Alex and Jennifer, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Jennifer, explain why you were outside the Australian Consulate last night and what’s going on, for what many in the United States may never have heard of, at Manus Island.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, the description that this is the Pacific’s Guantánamo is apt. As an Australian, I feel a moral obligation to stand up and say, "Not in my name." The Australian government is indefinitely detaining asylum seekers, sending them to conditions that the U.N. has found to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, in breach of our international obligations. Consecutive Australian governments on both sides of the political divide have continued this practice. And it’s time that Australians stand up and say, "Enough. This is enough."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But could you explain, what is the status of Manus Island? Why are they—why does Australia keep potential asylum seekers in detention there?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Australia intercepts people arriving by boat seeking asylum in Australia. They are insisting on their international right to seek asylum. Australia is concerned about the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia, and is therefore intercepting them, sending them to PNG for process and resettlement there so they’ll never get to Australia. This is in clear breach of our international obligations.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex, explain who these asylum seekers are, how many are packed into this prison, and what’s the response in Australia.

ALEX KELLY: There’s over a thousand people currently being detained at the Manus Island detention center. We’ve got people there from Syria, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia. And these people have been in there—some people have been in there for up to 18 months. It’s indefinite detention. They don’t know when they’re going to be processed. In fact, there’s been no one that’s been processed and resettled.

So this latest protest is in response to the idea that they’re going to be resettled in Papua New Guinea. Among some of the detainees, we know that there are people who are homosexual, who have actually fled their home countries because of persecution, and now they’re very frightened of being resettled in Papua New Guinea, where homosexuality is illegal. There’s been huge conflicts between PNG locals and detainees. And we’re just seeing that it’s been ongoing violence, a huge number of incidents of self-harm, hunger-striking—

AMY GOODMAN: How long are people held?

ALEX KELLY: It’s indefinite. In some detention centers in Australia—we have some other offshore and onshore detention centers—there’s people who have been in there for up to four years.

AMY GOODMAN: And evidence of the hunger strike going on?

ALEX KELLY: The hunger strike is still continuing. The Australian government is saying that the hunger strike is over, but we’ve been seeing images today, and I’ve had messages from advocates and people inside today saying it’s continuing within the compounds.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Alex, you mentioned the conflict between the locals, PNG locals, and the detainees. Could you explain what happened? There have been two detainees who have been killed or who died within that detention facility at Manus Island. What happened to Reza Berati, his name is?

ALEX KELLY: Yes. There’s been ongoing tensions since the detention center was established. Manus Island, a lot of the community there are living in poverty. And it appears that there’s been a lot of incitement over tensions from people operating the center, so spreading rumors within and without about the tensions. But last February, there was a tragic incident where there was—guards attacked detainees, and there was one detainee who died. We still haven’t actually seen any prosecutions in response to the death of Reza Berati. There’s been two people arrested, but there’s allegations that Australians were involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Robinson, you’re an international human rights attorney. What’s the law here? You’ve been to PNG. You’ve been to this area.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I’ve been to PNG, and I’ve spent times in West Papuan refugee settlement camps, so I can speak with first-hand experience that PNG is not a state that is capable of accepting our asylum seekers and refugees. Ninety percent of these people who come by boat to Australia have been determined to be refugees in the past. The conditions in PNG are terrible. Australia is—it is unlawful for Australia to be continuing to send asylum seekers to conditions the U.N. has found to amount to inhuman, degrading treatment. We are in breach of our international obligations.

The problem is enforcement. Australia’s domestic law—the High Court of Australia has continually found that offshore detention is permitted under the terms of Australian law. When we had the Malaysian Solution under the Gillard government, it was challenged before the High Court and found to be inappropriate, because we had a provision in our law that you couldn’t send asylum seekers to a country that didn’t meet certain human rights standards. In response to that, the Australian government amended that to remove that from our domestic law, which means we are no longer constrained, and they upheld the constitutionality of offshore processing. This is a clear breach of our international obligations, but what we can do as a matter of law within Australia’s courts is limited.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Very quickly, Jennifer, what are the implications of the fact that this detention facility is run by an Australian company or private contractor?

AMY GOODMAN: You have five seconds.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Australia is clearly liable, as is its corporation, for the human rights obligations taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Robinson and Alex Kelly, thank you so much.

News Fri, 23 Jan 2015 13:21:30 -0500
Inside the US Torture Chambers: Prisoner's Guantanamo Diary Details 12 Years of Abuse, Terror

After a seven-year legal battle, the diary of a prisoner held at Guantánamo Bay has just been published and has become a surprise best-seller. Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s diary details his experience with rendition, torture and being imprisoned without charge. Slahi has been held at the prison for more than 12 years. He was ordered released in 2010 but is still being held. "The cell — better, the box — was cooled down so that I was shaking most of the time," he writes. "I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day. Every once in a while they gave me a rec time in the night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees. I was living literally in terror. I don’t remember having slept one night quietly; for the next 70 days to come I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping. Interrogation for 24 hours, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off." We air a clip of a Guardian video about Slahi’s case, which features actors Colin Firth and Dominic West reading from his diary. We speak with three guests: Slahi’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander; book editor, Larry Siems; and Col. Morris Davis, the former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay, who says Slahi is "no more a terrorist than Forrest Gump."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: After a seven-year legal battle, the diary of a prisoner held at Guantánamo Bay has just been published and has become a surprise best-seller. The diary was written by a Mauritanian man named Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been held at the base for more than 12 years. He was ordered released in 2010 but is still being held. Later in the show, we’ll be joined by his lawyer, Nancy Hollander, and Larry Siems, who edited the diary.

AMY GOODMAN: But first, let’s turn to a new video produced by The Guardian. It features interviews with Nancy Hollander, Siems and Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s brother, Yahid. It begins with the actor Dominic West, best known for his role as Detective Jimmy McNulty in the TV show The Wire, reading the diary writings of Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] The cell—better, the box—was cooled down to the point that I was shaking most of the time. For the next 70 days, I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping: interrogation 24 hours a day. I was living literally in terror.

NANCY HOLLANDER: There is no reason for Mohamedou to be in Guantánamo. Mohamedou has never been charged with a crime. He’s been in Guantánamo now 14 years. It’s not that they haven’t found the evidence against him; there isn’t any evidence against him. Mohamedou started writing in 2005. He had prepared 90 pages in a notebook that the guards had given him. That was the beginning of this manuscript.

LARRY SIEMS: For a number of years, his attorneys conduct litigation and negotiations to get that manuscript declassified.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Mohamedou is somewhat of a modern Renaissance man. He is from the country of Mauritania. He’s from a very poor family, but he won a scholarship to study in Germany as a very young man.

LARRY SIEMS: Mohamedou had joined al-Qaeda in the early 1990s. Like many young men, he had gone to Afghanistan as a student to join the fight against the communist government of Afghanistan. And to join the fight, you had to train at an al-Qaeda camp. And he had trained, and he had sworn loyalty to them. But, as he’s said repeatedly, he broke all ties; after the communist government collapsed and the various mujahideen factions started shooting each other, Mohamedou essentially said, "I’m out."

NANCY HOLLANDER: Mohamedou was at his mother’s house in November of 2001. And he gets a call from the police to come and be interviewed. And he literally, I’m sure, told his mother, "I’ll be right back." And he disappeared. And his family has never seen him again to this day.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] There were four of them when I stepped outside the door with my mom and my aunt. Both kept their eyes staring at me. It is the taste of helplessness when you see your beloved fading away like a dream and you cannot help him.

NANCY HOLLANDER: He realized he wasn’t going home when he got on an airplane, was stripped of his clothes. In August of 2002, he landed in Cuba, in Guantánamo. His family, of course, had no idea what had happened to him.

LARRY SIEMS: And it was only when Yahid, Mohamedou’s younger brother, who lives in Germany, picked up Der Spiegel and saw an article in October of 2002 that Mohamedou was in Guantánamo, did the family know where he had been held.

YAHID OULD SLAHI: [translated] We were all speechless. How can a government lie to us for so long and play such dirty games with us? We were all completely disheartened.

NANCY HOLLANDER: They were trying to frighten him so that he would tell them what they wanted to hear.

LARRY SIEMS: They would come to him, essentially, and say, "Well, we know what you did. We just need you to tell us."

NANCY HOLLANDER: "We know you were involved in 9/11. We know you know these people."

LARRY SIEMS: And they were on this kind of endless fishing expedition.

NANCY HOLLANDER: And there was no truth to tell them, but that’s what they kept saying.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] "I’m going to do everything I’m allowed to to break you. You will never see your family again." My answer was always: "Do what you got to do. I have done nothing." And as soon as I spit my words, he went wildly crazy, as if he wanted to devour me alive.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Mohamedou was subjected to a whole list of torture techniques that had been approved by the secretary of defense.

YAHID OULD SLAHI: [translated] They told him they had taken my mother from Mauritania and put her in a single cell in Guantánamo. And if he didn’t give officials the information they expected, she would be severely tortured.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Significantly, they included what in Guantánamo was known as the "frequent flyer program." And they called it that because they wouldn’t let people sleep. And they proceeded to torture him.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] "Blindfold the [expletive] if he tries to look." One of them hit me hard across the face, and quickly put the goggles on my eyes, ear muffs on my ears, and a small bag over my head. They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists; afterwards, I started to bleed. I thought they were going to execute me.

LARRY SIEMS: Just as Mohamedou had this remarkable journey, his manuscript has a fairly remarkable journey. He writes it in 2005.

NANCY HOLLANDER: We would get the book in bits and pieces.

YAHID OULD SLAHI: [translated] He started the book as a diary, and over the years the book became more detailed.

LARRY SIEMS: Every utterance of a Guantánamo prisoner is deemed classified from the moment of its creation.

NANCY HOLLANDER: What you have to do is send it back to what’s called a "privilege team." And they read it and decide what can be made unclassified.

LARRY SIEMS: What I got in the summer of 2012 was the version of the manuscript that was cleared for public release, that had had these, you know, layers of censorship grafted onto it. You know, the physical impression of a page full of redactions is a brick wall. The amazing thing about Mohamedou and his writing is he has an incredibly strong, clear voice.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] They brought me a chessboard so I could play against myself. When the guards noticed my chessboard, they all wanted to play me. And when they started to play me, they always won. The strongest among the guards taught me how to control the center. After that, the guards had no chance to defeat me.

NANCY HOLLANDER: He just hopes that someday he’ll be released. He’s in what I would consider a horrible legal limbo, and it’s just tragic. He needs to go home. If he gets out, he could come live with me. I would be happy to have Mohamedou in my house. He is just such a good, warm, caring human being. And somehow that strength keeps him going.

LARRY SIEMS: What’s remarkable about Mohamedou’s book is that we have a voice that’s come out of this void, and that it’s such a remarkable, humane and, I think, ultimately, forgiving voice. It’s a wonder.

YAHID OULD SLAHI: [translated] Sadly, this has taken so long. But we have never, and will never, lose hope. Never.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] A Mauritanian folktale tells us about a roosterphobe, who would almost lose his mind whenever he encountered a rooster. "Why are you so afraid of the rooster?" the psychiatrist asked him. "The rooster thinks I’m corn." "You’re not corn. You’re a very big man. Nobody can mistake you for a tiny ear of corn," the psychiatrist said. "I know that, Doctor. But the rooster doesn’t." For years, I’ve been trying to convince the U.S. government that I am not corn.

AMY GOODMAN: The actor Dominic West reading the diary of Guantánamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi. That video was produced by The Guardian. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s attorney, Nancy Hollander; the editor of the prison diary, the Guantánamo Diary, Larry Siems; and Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay. Back in a minute.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue to look at the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man who’s been held at Guantánamo for 12 years without charge. His writings were published this week as the book Guantánamo Diary. Slahi’s 466-page handwritten manuscript was initially classified by the U.S. government and heavily redacted before publication.

AMY GOODMAN: It was held for more than seven years before it’s been released. We’re joined now by three guests. Nancy Hollander is Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s lead lawyer. Larry Siems is editor of Guantánamo Diary. And Colonel Morris Davis is the former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay. He resigned in 2007, shortly shortly after he met with Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Colonel Morris Davis, talk about who Mohamedou was, how you met him there. And did your resignation have anything to do with him?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Yeah, I met him early in 2007. As we were preparing, you know, the prosecution of the military commission cases at Guantánamo, we were interested in potentially finding a detainee or detainees who would be cooperating witnesses. And I was told that Slahi and his partner, Tariq al-Sawah—they lived in a compound of their own—that the two of them were candidates, potential candidates, to cooperate with the prosecution. So I met with Mr. Slahi probably three or four times over a course of several months and got to know him probably as well as any of the detainees that I had contact with at Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your impression of him? How did he affect you?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, it was really an interesting contrast. He and Tariq al-Sawah lived together in a compound of their own. You know, at the time, back in 2007, Guantánamo was supposed to be this super-secret facility that you couldn’t really talk about, but you could go on Google Earth, and if you knew what you were looking for, you could drill down and see their compound where they lived and their vegetable garden that was between their two huts where they lived. They were a sharp contrast. Mr. Slahi is maybe five-foot-six and weighs about 110 pounds last time I saw him, and Mr. Sawah was probably six feet tall and weighed over 350 pounds. So just their physical appearance was like the odd couple. And personality-wise, as well. Mr. Sawah was polite and would—if you ask him something, he would respond, but he didn’t carry a conversation, where with Mr. Slahi the problem was—wasn’t getting him to talk, it was getting him to stop, because he was very, very gregarious. As you can see from the diary, he’s very articulate, very bright.

And, you know, it was always a pleasure to meet with him. I mean, every time I went—I mentioned in the article I wrote for The Guardian that every time I went, he had to make tea, using mint leaf from the garden. And, you know, Guantánamo was always hot and humid, and I was in uniform, and I’m not a tea drinker to begin with, but I’d have to sit and drink hot tea and sweat in the sun and chat with Mr. Slahi.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nancy Hollander, you’ve been Slahi’s legal representative since he’s been allowed legal representation—that is, since 2005. Can you tell us how you came to work on this case and how it is that he’s been held for 12 years and has yet to be charged with anything?

NANCY HOLLANDER: I came to work on this case because a lawyer in France, a lawyer named Emmanuel Altit, sent me an email saying that he had heard from a lawyer in Mauritania, Mr. Ebety, that the family of Mohamedou thought he was in Guantánamo, and that now that the prisoners could have lawyers, would I consider seeing if I could represent him. I found him. I found that he had been assigned to another lawyer by the Center for Constitutional Rights. That lawyer was Sylvia Royce. And although Sylvia left the team later on, at the beginning the two of us made arrangements to go to Guantánamo.

And our first visit was perhaps the one that sticks in my head the most. We went. It was our very first visit to Guantánamo for both of us. We walked into the hut. The guards opened the door, and there was Mohamedou. And he stood up, and he smiled, and he put his arms out as though to walk up to embrace us. But he didn’t move. And we stood there for a moment, and then I realized, to my horror, that he was chained to the floor, with chains around his ankle, and couldn’t move. So he could just stand there and smile. And we walked into his embrace, and he hugged us. I think we were the first people he had hugged in several years. And then he gave us these first 90 pages as a way for us to know about him, to know something about him and what had happened to him. And that’s how—that’s how this book began. And we encouraged him to keep writing, and then he continued to write.

AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Hollander—

NANCY HOLLANDER: He has never been charged with—I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s never—you were saying he’s never been charged with a crime. Nancy Hollander, can you describe what happened to him when the U.S. detained him, first before Guantánamo and then at Guantánamo? In Guantánamo Diary, Slahi’s book, he says one of the interrogators said, quote, "I know I can go to hell for what I do to you."

NANCY HOLLANDER: Well, what that guard was referring to was specifically not letting him pray. One of the things that was on the list of special interrogation techniques that the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, approved specifically for Mohamedou was that he not be allowed to pray. He was also put in what they called their "frequent flyer program," which meant he was not allowed to sleep. He was interrogated around the clock, and maybe he would get an hour or two of sleep, and then they would wake him up. So this went on for almost two months, or maybe even longer.

They dragged him out on a boat. First they came into his cell with a dog, terrified him, put a hood over him, put goggles on, put ear muffs on, dragged him. We were able to learn from his medical records that he complained that his ribs were broken, and in fact they were broken, on that, when they beat him. And they took him out, and he was, as he says in the book, afraid that they were going to dump him in the ocean or take him to some other place. For a long, long time, they did not tell him he was back in Guantánamo. They beat him. They terrified him. They put ice down his clothes. They kept him in cold rooms, then they kept him in hot rooms. They knew that he had a back issue from a previous injury and that the doctor in Guantánamo had ordered that he not have to stay in certain positions, and they used that. And those were the positions they put him in, precisely what they knew he was not supposed to be in. The litany goes on and on of what they did to him.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Nancy, even before Slahi got to Guantánamo, he had been detained for almost a year. He was picked up on his way from—I believe from Canada to Mauritania, he was picked up in Senegal. Then he was detained in Mauritania, then sent to Jordan, under the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, for seven-and-a-half months, then from there to Bagram, and from Bagram to Guantánamo. Can you describe what happened in the course of his going to Guantánamo?

NANCY HOLLANDER: Well, he was picked up twice, first in Senegal, when he left—when he left Montreal, he flew to Senegal, and that’s where his family was going to meet him to drive home to Nouakchott in Mauritania. He was detained there. Then later, he was detained again in Mauritania. And then, finally, he was at his mother’s house—and this was the third time—and he got another call from the police station, then the police chief. And they said, "Would you come and talk to us? And bring your own car. We’re sure you won’t be staying long." And he never went back.

They took him to Jordan. He was there for seven-and-a-half or eight months. He was interrogated there. He was not tortured in the same way, but he was put in a cell where he could hear other people screaming and crying, and was terrified every moment that he was there.

And then, suddenly, another plane comes. He thinks he’s going home. And in fact he ends up in Afghanistan for a couple of weeks and then goes to Guantánamo. And at that time, the government was claiming that it was taking people from the battlefield in Afghanistan, which of course wasn’t true—only about 5 percent of the people in Guantánamo were ever actually on a battlefield—but he came from Afghanistan in a harrowing airplane ride to Guantánamo and was interrogated as soon as he got there, and then was interrogated and tortured. And even after he agreed to tell them whatever they wanted to hear, they continued with their—what he called "the recipe of torture."

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to—

NANCY HOLLANDER: But he was never charged, ever charged with any crime.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a comment from Slahi’s brother, Yahid Ould Slahi. He spoke to the BBC and said he was most upset with the Mauritanian government about what happened to his brother.

YAHID OULD SLAHI: [translated] I think they sold him to the Americans, and they lied the whole time to us. They told us that Mohamedou was still in prison in Mauritania, while he was being tortured in Guantánamo Bay. I read the news in Der Spiegel magazine whilst I was at university in Germany, and I couldn’t believe it. My mother had been taking money and food to the jail every day in Mauritania, because they told her that Mohamedou was in there. I called my family, and I told them that my brother was actually in Guantánamo Bay, but they didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me until 2002, when they got a letter from my brother from the prison in Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Yahid Ould Slahi, the brother of Mohamedou, who is still in prison at Guantánamo, over 12 years without charge. Colonel Morris Davis, you have referred to Slahi as a kind of Forrest Gump. What do you mean?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, as was mentioned earlier, you know, he was a—went to Germany. He was in and around Hamburg. You know, the Hamburg cell of al-Qaeda was affiliated with 9/11. You heard, I think, Nancy mention that he was in Montreal, which was in and around Ressam and the millennium bombing plot. So, he turned up in places where there were significant events related to terrorism that were taking place, kind of like Forrest Gump. You know, anytime there’s a historical event, somewhere in the picture you’d see him in the background. And Slahi was kind of the same way. He showed up at the right time in the right places.

But when we were looking at him potentially being a cooperating witness, myself and some other members of the prosecution team went out to the National Counterterrorism Center with a group of other people, and we had a briefing from the agents that had spent years investigating Slahi’s case. And we went through the whole litany of, you know, where he’d shown up. But their conclusion was that there was a lot of smoke and no fire, that there are odd circumstances where he showed up in places, but there was absolutely no evidence that he had ever engaged in any acts of hostility towards the United States. And the conclusion was there was simply nothing that we could charge him with.

And as you said, you know, for more than a dozen years now, he’s been sitting at Guantánamo. And one of the real ironies is, there have been six men that have been convicted of war crimes at Guantánamo in the military commission. Five of those six are back home in their home countries. So it’s a sad commentary on America, where you’re better being a convicted war criminal than someone who’s never been charged at all.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Colonel Morris Davis, could you explain how it is that he was initially—Slahi was initially considered a high-value target, but then when it came to the point where an attempt was made to charge him or to prosecute him, as you point out, there wasn’t sufficient evidence? Could you talk specifically about the role of Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch and his role in this?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Right, yeah, I became the chief prosecutor in September of 2005. I was the third chief prosecutor. They’re currently up to the sixth chief prosecutor. But at the time I came on board, Lieutenant Colonel Couch had been a member of the prosecution team for a year or two before I got there. And one of the cases that he’d been assigned was the Slahi case. And after reviewing the evidence, you know, he was convinced that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges, and he was also convinced that Slahi had been tortured. So, for both reasons, he had concluded it was a case that couldn’t be prosecuted.

And when I came on board, you know, he briefed me on the case, and I came to the same conclusion. And that was just reinforced later, as I said, when we got the briefing at the National Counterterrorism Center and all of the agencies involved agreed that there just wasn’t a case to be had against Slahi. But again, he showed up at places, like Hamburg and Montreal, where there were significant events, and I think that’s what led to the suspicion that he had to be a high-value detainee, that he was in and around these places where significant events that took place, and if only we could torture him, and, you know, he would spill the beans, and we’d find bin Laden, and everything would work out fine. And that just simply wasn’t the case.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s just astounding. You quit eight years ago as the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo, having decided not to bring charges against him, and he is still there, actually there for more than 12 years, which brings us to Larry Siems, who is the editor of this astonishing book called Guantánamo Diary. You know, sometimes we get on the air, we say a book has just come out to rave reviews, it’s a best-seller, and we interview the author. We cannot interview the author, because he’s at Guantánamo. But we can talk to you, who worked on the text. The cover of Guantánamo Diary, you see his handwriting behind it. It’s in English. Where did Mohamedou learn English?

LARRY SIEMS: English is Mohamedou’s fourth language. He—born in Nouakchott in Mauritania, he spoke Arabic and French. He studied in Germany, and so he was fluent in German. He learned English in U.S. captivity. This is a language that he learned from the United States, from his captors.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Larry, on the back of the book, John le Carré describes this work as, quote, "A vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka." So, could you explain how you first came across his writing and what made you decide to work on this text?

LARRY SIEMS: Sure. I actually came to Mohamedou’s story through another set of documents entirely, which was the U.S. government’s own documents. From 2009 to 2012, I worked with the ACLU on this project called "The Torture Report." The ACLU had managed to excavate 100,000 pages of formerly classified government documents about the abuse of detainees in Guantánamo, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the CIA black sites. But it was kind of—it was just raw data. And my job was to try to sort of go through that and find stories, weave together stories of individual characters, to find the human beings that were, you know, involved in these documents.

And one of the people that emerged most clearly was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, because Mohamedou, as we’ve said, was one of the most abused prisoners in Guantánamo. He was one of two prisoners designated for this special project interrogation by defense intelligence agents. That interrogation, the plan of which was signed, as Nancy said, by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself, that plan was written, revised, meticulously. It involved everything that Nancy described—extreme isolation, sleep deprivation, cold rooms, loud music, strobe lights, death threats, threats—ultimately, a threat to his mother. They came to him—his chief interrogator came to him posing as a Navy captain who was an emissary from the White House, handing him a letter that said, "Mohamedou, we have your mother. We’re bringing her to Guantánamo. She’ll be the first woman in Guantánamo, and you can imagine what will happen to her in Guantánamo."

All of those things were calculated and written out ahead of time in government documents, and then, of course, meticulously detailed, as torturers are perversely prone to do, in all of the daily reports from those interrogations. We had all those documents by 2008, 2009, mostly because of two large government investigations, one by the Justice Department that was prompted by FBI agents inside of Guantánamo complaining about the treatment that the Pentagon interrogators were starting to mete out in Guantánamo, patterned on the CIA’s black site enhanced interrogations, and then from a Senate Armed Services Committee report. Both of those reports have many pages about Guantánamo—about Mohamedou’s story, so I knew the broad outlines of it.

I also had, in those—from those documents, little hints of his voice. And it’s very, very—you realize how absolute the censorship is around Guantánamo. And one of those things is—part of the reason is to keep us from hearing those voices. But in those documents, there were two in particular that were transcripts from his hearings before review boards in Guantánamo. And one of them was from 2005, his Administrative Review Board hearing. He’s quite a humorous guy. He makes a couple of good jokes in there. And then he tells the presiding officer, he said, "Oh, by the way, I’ve written a book. You know, they sent the book to Washington. You know, it’s classified, but it will be cleared for release. And when it’s cleared, you should read it. It’s a really interesting book, I think." He says this in 2005. As Nancy said, it’s held for seven years. And then, finally, after this process of—you know, of litigation and negotiation that Nancy’s team carried out, in 2012, after I had finished this torture report, I got a call from them, saying, "We have this manuscript. Would you like to see it?" And I said, "Yes, please."

AMY GOODMAN: And you take it from there. How much of it was redacted? Was he able to see the final edited version?

LARRY SIEMS: There are about 2,600 black bar redactions in the book, varying from one word to many pages. I was not able to communicate with him. I sent him a letter, at one point, introducing myself and saying that I had been asked to work on this and I hoped we could correspond, and I never heard anything. I have no idea whether he received that letter.

When I had finished my draft of an edit of the manuscript, I officially—I, you know, petitioned the Pentagon to be allowed to visit him just once, using—you know, according to whatever security protocols they wanted, just so I could sit with him and sort of go through and make sure that he approved of the shape of the final manuscript, because I think it’s a dead basic right, as Mohamedou would say, of any writer to have the final say about how his words appear in print. I had, for years, worked as the free expression director at PEN American Center, and I am, above all, a free expression advocate. So I thought he would have that right to do that. The Pentagon refused to allow me to visit him, citing, as they have done for every journalist and writer who’s tried to visit a detainee—citing, quite ironically, the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on making detainees into public curiosities. That was their basis for denying me the right to visit him.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamedou’s mother died in 2013. Nancy, can you talk about Mohamedou’s reaction and what he tried to do to see his mother?

NANCY HOLLANDER: It was really tragic, because we found out from his lawyer in Mauritania that his mother had died, and his family was really afraid to tell him that she had died. They were afraid of how—he was very close to his mother. Of course, that’s what the government knew, and that’s why they came up with this fake letter in the beginning. And they were afraid to tell him. We actually had the responsibility of telling him. We arranged for a phone call. To arrange for a phone call from counsel, you have to have an emergency, and then it takes about 15 days to get the call. We were able to make a call to him. It was a call with someone from the government on the line, so it was not a privileged call, attorney-client privilege. But we actually told him about his mother.

He was very upset. He was upset both, of course, that she had died and that his family had not told him. And they were so conflicted. They were so afraid that it would take him over the edge to know she had died. And as you can see, he dedicated this book to her, which I assumed he would want to do. And, you know, it’s really important to see that even though he wrote the book in 2005, if you read the little afterword, he wrote that in 2014 and gave it to another member of our team, Linda Moreno, when she went to visit him. And he’s still a forgiving person. He still wants to sit down and have a cup of tea with the people who are mentioned in this book. It’s so incredible that he is so compassionate even to this day. And I think that humanity in him is what keeps him going.

AMY GOODMAN: His relationship with his torturers, Larry. Joe Nocera of The New York Times review of books—in the New York Times’ review of his book, said he "come[s] across as fair to all, even [to] his torturers." And yet, you’ve described him as one of the most abused prisoners at Guantánamo.

LARRY SIEMS: I think that’s one of the most extraordinary things about this book. If you hear that you’re going to read a diary by one of the most abused prisoners in Guantánamo, you’re braced for a lot of darkness. No question about it. And the story that Mohamedou tells is very, very dark. But his personality is the opposite. He is an optimistic person. He’s a curious person. He’s constantly pulled out of himself by his surroundings, by the people he interacts with. He likes people. He has a fundamental ethic of treating everybody as an individual, no matter who they are or what team they’re supposedly playing for. He says, you know, he understands human beings are made up of a combination of good and evil—everybody is—it’s just a question of what percentage, you know?

And his interactions with—you know, the amazing thing about this book is how it gives us the human drama of Guantánamo. And it’s a very, very human drama. And for me, I think the revelation of the book is that this is our drama, as well. And the characters in this book are American servicemen and American servicewomen and intelligence officers whose voices we’ve never heard before, who are put in these positions, you know? And his portraits of our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters, you know, are remarkable. And you realize how much we’ve put on them and how much they must be suffering for what we’ve asked them to do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to Mohamedou Ould Slahi in his own words. This is the Oscar-winning British actor Colin Firth reading an excerpt from Guantánamo Diary.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Colin Firth] So has the American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks? I leave this judgment to the reader. As I am writing this, though, the United States and its people are still facing the dilemma of the Cuban detainees.

In the beginning, the U.S. government was happy with its secret operations, since it thought it had managed to gather all the evils of the world in GTMO, and had circumvented U.S. law and international treaties so that it could perform its revenge. But then it realised, after a lot of painful work, that it had gathered a bunch of non-combatants. Now the U.S. government is stuck with the problem, but it is not willing to be forthcoming and disclose the truth about the whole operation.

Everybody makes mistakes. I believe the U.S. government owes it to the American people to tell them the truth about what is happening in Guantánamo. So far, I have personally cost the American taxpayer at least one million dollars, and the counter is ticking higher every day. The other detainees are costing more or less the same. Under these circumstances, Americans need and have the right to know what the hell is going on.

Many of my brothers here are losing their minds, especially the younger detainees, because of the conditions of detention. As I write these words, many brothers are hunger-striking and are determined to carry on, no matter what. I am very worried about these brothers I am helplessly watching, who are practically dying and who are sure to suffer irreparable damage even if they eventually decide to eat. It is not the first time we have had a hunger strike; I personally participated in the hunger strike in September 2002, but the government did not seem to be impressed. And so the brothers keep striking, for the same old, and new, reasons. And there seems to be no solution in the air. The government expects the U.S. forces in GTMO to pull magic solutions out of their sleeves. But the U.S. forces in GTMO understand the situation here more than any bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., and they know that the only solution is for the government to be forthcoming and release people.

What do the American people think? I am eager to know. I would like to believe the majority of Americans want to see justice done, and they are not interested in financing the detention of innocent people. I know there is a small extremist minority that believes that everybody in this Cuban prison is evil, and that we are treated better than we deserve. But this opinion has no basis but ignorance. I am amazed that somebody can build such an incriminating opinion about people he or she doesn’t even know.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Oscar-winning British actor Colin Firth reading an excerpt from Guantánamo Diary. I wanted to end with Nancy Hollander. In 2010, Nancy, The Washington Post wrote, "Sawah, now 52, and Slahi, now 39, have become two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo. Today, they are housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live a life of relative privilege—gardening, writing and painting—separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect." Can you explain that?

NANCY HOLLANDER: Well, I’m really not at liberty to talk about Mohamedou’s living conditions. I can tell you that when he was tortured and when they finally brought him this fake letter from his mother, he said, "I’ll tell you anything you want." And then he told them anything they wanted to hear. But it was really information they fed him. "You did this, didn’t you? You did this, did you? We just need you to tell us that you did it." So he said, "I did it." And it was all lies, because he hadn’t done any of it. He lives in Guantánamo in a prison, in a prison cell every single day of his life. And since 2010, since the day that Judge Robertson ordered him to be released, he should have been released. And the government of the United States should stop fighting against that release and release him now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nancy Hollander, before we conclude, very quickly, what seems to be at issue then? Is it the case that the U.S. government still says that he has maintained his links to al-Qaeda, whereas he says he has severed them? How is it that he is still detained years after a judge has said he—a U.S. judge has said he should be released, or that there’s nothing to charge him?

NANCY HOLLANDER: Well, you’re correct that the government maintains that when he swore allegiance to fight in Afghanistan in 1990, which, I might add, the United States supported that fight financially and militarily, he—that that was it, that he still maintains—the government still maintains that he’s part of al-Qaeda. And the court of appeals has made the test so broad and so loose that it’s almost impossible to fight against that. And the government keeps forcing that standard to be looser and looser. So, it’s really the government, it’s the Obama administration and the military, that need to step up and stop fighting these habeas cases, particularly in Mohamedou’s case, where the district judge found that in 2010, after he had already been held for many years, the government had already gathered all the evidence it was ever going to gather, that it didn’t have the evidence to even object to this habeas, which is a very low standard. So, the government needs to step up and release him.

AMY GOODMAN: Last seconds, Larry Siems?

LARRY SIEMS: I mean, for me, the most disturbing question is: To what extent has he been held all this time, simply that he’s not able—so he’s not able to tell the story of what happened to him? You know, Guantánamo is a story about secrecy. It’s created in secrecy. It was created in order to allow abuse to happen. Then it was perpetuated in order to cover up that those abuses had happened. It’s being prolonged, I think, finally, to prevent accountability for those abuses. And all that time, we’re perpetuating and prolonging grievous mistakes, and it needs to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Larry Siems is the editor of Guantánamo Diary. We hope soon to be speaking with the author; he is Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Larry Siems is the former director of the Freedom to Write and International programs at PEN American Center. Nancy Hollander, thanks so much for joining us, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s lead lawyer. And thank you so much to Colonel Morris Davis, retired Air Force colonel, former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay. He resigned in 2007, shortly after he met with Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute with what some are calling the Guantánamo Bay in the Pacific. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: "Shaker Aamer," a song written for another longtime Guantánamo prisoner by British musician PJ Harvey. Shaker Aamer has been held since 2001 without trial or charge, despite being cleared for release by President Bush in 2007 and President Obama in 2009. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

News Fri, 23 Jan 2015 13:13:05 -0500
Remembering Saudi's King Abdullah: "He Was Not a Benevolent Dictator, He Was a Dictator"

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia has died at the age of 90. Abdullah was one of the world’s most powerful men and a key U.S. ally in the region, controlling a fifth of the known global petroleum reserves. In a statement, President Obama praised Abdullah "as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond." Many analysts accused Abdullah of turning the uprising in Syria into a proxy war with Iran. In 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups. Abdullah also sent tanks to help squash pro-democracy uprisings in neighboring Bahrain. Saudi Arabia recently came under criticism for its treatment of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes to be carried out at a rate of 50 per week for charges including insulting Islam. Abdullah’s half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, has now assumed the throne. We are joined by Toby Jones, director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University and the author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Saudi Arabia.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, well, in Saudi Arabia, the funeral for the Saudi king, Abdullah, has begun. He died on Thursday at the age of 90. His brother Salman will now become king of the oil-rich monarchy. The White House announced Vice President Joe Biden would travel to Saudi Arabia to offer condolences. King Abdullah was one of the closest U.S. allies in the region. In a statement, President Obama praised him, saying, quote, "As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond."

AMY GOODMAN: While President Obama described Abdullah as a force of stability in the Middle East, analysts, many, accused Abdullah of turning the uprising in Syria into a proxy war with Iran. In 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups. King Abdullah also sent tanks to help squash pro-democracy uprisings in neighboring Bahrain. Saudi Arabia recently came under criticism for its treatment of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes to be carried out at a rate of 50 per week for charges including insulting Islam. He runs a political blog—or did, until he was imprisoned.

For more on the future on King Abdullah and the future of Saudi Arabia, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Toby Jones, associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies at Rutgers University. He’s also the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, previously the International Crisis Group’s political analyst of the Persian Gulf.

Toby Jones, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the death of King Abdullah.

TOBY JONES: Well, Abdullah’s death of course marks a transition. It’s getting a lot of attention. I think, as you pointed out in the lead up here, you know, his record is not quite as positive or rosy as a lot of people are reflecting upon this morning. He came to power formally in 2005, celebrated as a potential reformer, as somebody who would modernize and lead the kingdom forward. But it turns out he’s largely failed on every one of those measures. He has turned the clock back in terms of inciting sectarianism at home and supporting the forces of radicalism abroad. Or, if we want to read this in some slightly more benign way, he’s at least not cracked down on the domestic forces at home that have sought to incite things like sectarianism. He burned bridges with Iraq. He saw the Arab Spring, the uprising in Syria, as an opportunity to challenge both Iran and Assad’s power there, knowing full well what the possibilities of blowback and the rise of a kind of new regional terrorism might be. They supported instability in Yemen. They’ve crushed pro-democracy forces in Bahrain. Look, Abdullah is somebody who was well liked in the West. He might have been admired by a large section of Saudi society. But his record is one that’s consistent with his predecessors: It’s at odds with democracy, with human rights and with all of the things that we’re supposed to value.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And about that last point, Professor Jones, what is the state of human rights and democracy in the Saudi kingdom?

TOBY JONES: Well, it’s as bad as it’s ever been. You know, I mean, you mentioned Badawi, in the lead up here, being sentenced to a long prison term and, of course, now subject to flogging publicly, a thousand lashes. I mean, this might seem outlandish, but this is sort of common practice in Saudi Arabia. Its prisons are full of political prisoners—they have been for quite a long time—including Islamists, suspected terrorists, as well as liberals and others who champion the cause of reform and human rights. There’s been a steady string of arrests and detentions over the last few years. We pay attention now because of the crude, kind of terrible nature of what’s involved in public beheadings and this kind of Medieval punishment of lashing people for speaking their minds, but this has been going on in Saudi Arabia for quite a long time.

I mean, it’s worth remembering that in 2002, 2003, Abdullah, when he was crown prince—although not formally the king, was nevertheless still in a position of political primacy—became a darling of the reform lobby and kind of the—what we might call the moderate political wing of Saudi Arabia’s domestic political society. He was seen as a reformer. He was embraced by a broad cross-section of folks who believed that Saudi Arabia, following 9/11, following the decade of the 1990s in which there was a kind of brutal politics and crackdown on dissent, that he was going to be the person who spearheaded a period of liberal opening. And it turns out that he turned against all of his domestic allies. When he saw opportunities to crush and push back against those who might challenge Saudi political primacy, he did so. And he did so as crudely as any of his predecessors did. He was not a benevolent dictator. He was a dictator.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the man who will succeed him, King Salman? There is some information, or is it rumors, that he has dementia?

TOBY JONES: Well, I mean, look, a lot of people claim to have insight into the internal politics of the royal family. And I would caution against saying that we know too much. I mean, Salman is not a young man. I mean, he’s at least 79, if not older than that. So he’s been in a—you know, he’s been around for quite a long time. Who knows how long his reign will be? If he is suffering from health issues, you know, the royal family is not going to let us know too much about that. There has been speculation that he’s suffering from dementia. And it’s likely that his reign will be a short one and that there are powers behind the throne that will make sure that the interests of the royal family will be protected, much like Abdullah and his predecessor, Fahd. The family protects itself. There is an arrangement likely in place in which the king is the first amongst equals; nobody can act too radically or too out of step with the interests of the family more broadly.

So Salman’s reign will be probably very consistent and similar to that of Abdullah’s. He’ll be a figurehead. He will likely wield some kind of influence, as will those who are closest to him, as will his successor, the, like, current crown prince, who is probably about a decade younger, Muqrin. But the reality here—and I think one of the things we get caught up in is we get caught up in the politics of succession in Saudi Arabia, and will there be a changing of the guard that leads to some fundamental transformation. The odds are very low that that’s going to happen. The royal family’s interests are in protecting themselves first, their privilege second, and making sure that there are limited challenges to their authority. They’re very good at this, and they have been for over half a century.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the role of the Saudi family or the Saudi elite in the continuing financing of jihadists around the world?

TOBY JONES: Well, I mean, Saudi Arabia is of course a wellhead for a certain kind of ideological thinking and production. There’s a lot of talk about Wahhabism and the similarities between what is the official orthodoxy of the Islamic—of the Saudi state and groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS and others. And I think those ideological connections matter. There are certainly—there are certainly operators on the ground. There is support within Saudi mosques for precisely these kinds of networks. The Saudi state is in a much more difficult—and the royal family, a much more difficult—position. They view—I think we have to be careful here. I think they view the regional political landscape through the lens of kind of good, old-fashioned geopolitics. I mean, they see Iran as a rival. They see Assad as a pawn in all of that game. And they understand that they have a kind of limited playbook, that there are kind of natural alliances with which they can—which they can forge mutual interests and cooperation. And the Islamists happen to be among those. But I don’t think the royal family is necessarily an ideological actor in the same way that some of the preachers and clerics in Saudi Arabia are. But they reach out because they have to, to these networks. They’re dealt a certain hand, and they play the game in the way that they best can.

But this is a dangerous proposition—it was that way in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was that way in Iraq after 2003—where the Saudis forge alliances, or they at least allow those that are sort of on the margins of the government to fund and support networks that are also simultaneously dangerous to the regime itself. That’s why they’re building a big fence on their border with Iraq. On the one hand, they’d like to see ISIS do damage in Syria, but they don’t want to see it come home. But, look, over the long term, this is an unsustainable, untenable proposition. The Saudis are eventually going to have to deal. They’re going to have to reckon with the blowback from Syria and Iraq. They’d like to postpone it as long as possible, but it’s likely inevitable.

AMY GOODMAN: And the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, Toby Jones?

TOBY JONES: Well, this is a long-standing and complicated one. It’s often framed, as Obama mentioned or as others will likely remark today, that it’s framed through the lens of security and stability. And that certainly matters from the perspective of both Saudi and American policymakers. If we peel back the layers of what this means, though, it’s not always clear. It’s not as though the Saudis have any power to really shape the region or defend their interests militarily. They’re largely dependent on the United States for security assurances. The U.S. has happily projected its military power into the Persian Gulf since at least the early 1970s, if not earlier than that.

I mean, I think what this really comes down to is that the Saudis are the world’s most important oil producer. They have been for quite a long time. For that reason, they’ve been in the American political orbit since at least the late 1930s. And the oil functions in important ways. It functions because it’s the American—Americans see it as important to the global economy, to our own domestic political economic health. And we see Saudi Arabia as an important player in that respect. But oil wealth also does a lot of other things. It gets recycled to the American economy, especially with the purchase of weapons. And these all become entangled with Saudi Arabia. Our relationship is not just about providing security for oil. It’s about maintaining a certain kind of strategic and economic relationship that profits both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, we want to thank you for being with us, associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies at Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll talk Ferguson. What about the Justice Department not bringing civil rights charges against the police officer who killed Mike Brown? And then we’ll talk about a Supreme Court decision you might not have learned about this week, a major decision on behalf of whistleblowers. Stay with us.

News Fri, 23 Jan 2015 13:03:48 -0500