Dick Cheney came to the Nixon Library this week to talk about his new book, Heart—it’s about his five heart attacks and his heart transplant. When our most hated vice president visits the library of our most disgraced president, you look forward to a good night. So my friend Howard and I went to Yorba Linda, expecting a festive evening of Obama-bashing and a twisted trip back through the glories of the Bush years.
It turned out to be mostly a book event. Signed copies were for sale; Cheney did a Q&A about his book and took a few friendly questions. But the evening ended up as it had to: with Obamacare.
The news of Cheney’s heart transplant, in March 2012, had been welcomed by comedians everywhere. Jon Stewart declared it “the greatest joke setup ever.” Jay Leno had the best line: “This weekend, 71-year-old former Vice President Dick Cheney received a heart transplant. And I thought this was nice: they let him shoot the donor himself.”
On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart acted out the transplant surgery with himself as the surgeon; the old heart leapt out of Cheney’s chest and bit the terrified surgeon on the neck.
David Letterman said, “Finally all of those midnight trips to the graveyard with the hunchbacked assistant have paid off.”
Joan Rivers summed it up: “Rather surprised Dick Cheney got a heart, after lasting all these years without one.”
The Cheney event was held in the Nixon Library’s “East Room,” an exact replica of the room in the White House, with giant chandeliers, ornate wainscoting and a dozen flags in a row—except that the Yorba Linda version had two giant video screens so the audience of several hundred could see Cheney. The Q&A, conduced by Frank Gannon, a former Nixon assistant, was surprisingly lighthearted, given the somber subject of the book. Gannon’s list of questions couldn’t have been simpler: Tell us about your first heart attack—you were 37. Now tell us about your second.
Howard whispered to me, “It’s the organ recital.” He was referring to the old Jewish joke about the dinner table conversation of the aunts and uncles: “My liver isn’t doing so well,” “My kidneys hurt,” “I have angina.”
“Your third heart attack was my favorite,” Gannon said. It happened on the way into the House chamber in the Capitol to hear Reagan’s 1988 State of the Union speech. “I passed out,” Cheney said, and collapsed onto the floor. His press aide, who was with him, told him afterwards that “several of my colleagues, on their way to the speech, stepped over my body,” and kept going. As he told the story, Cheney chuckled. Those darn Congressmen.
After describing his heart transplant, Cheney thanked his doctor, who is his co-author, and the donor, who is anonymous. Howard whispered, “Notice that he didn’t thank God?”
The only question that got a big, excited response from the audience was, “Can you comment on Obamacare?” What was most significant in Cheney’s answer was what he did not say—the things said by right-wing media at the time of his transplant. The New York Post for example had run the headline, “Beware Obamacare: It might’ve killed Cheney.” The argument was that those dreaded “death panels” would have ruled that Cheney was too old—he was 71—and he would, therefore, have been denied a transplant. Breitbart.com said Obamacare required looking at cases like Cheney’s “as an avenue toward survival of the fittest.” The blog RedState declared, “A Poorer Man Than Dick Cheney Might’ve Died if ObamaCare was in Full Effect”—because of those death panels.
But as Gawker.com pointed out, pre-Obamacare transplant ethics already required that the age and future health of potential donors be considered.
Cheney’s answer to the question about Obamacare was limited to a criticism about the tax on medical devices: “It really worries me,” he said, since stents had kept him alive for years. “I can’t think of a worse notion. If you want less of something, tax it”—an argument that the device tax will stifle innovation. Obama replies that all the industries that gain a windfall from the expansion of medical coverage should be taxed to help offset the cost of that expansion. But thirty Senate Democrats have called for the repeal of the device tax, including Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, which happens to be the home of Medtronic, one of the country’s largest device manufacturers.
In any case it’s a tiny part of Obamacare, significant primarily as a Republican talking point.
Cheney had only one other argument against Obamacare: “A lot of Americans aren’t going to have the ability to go with one doctor”—which, he said, was the key to his successful treatment. Therefore, he concluded, Obamacare is “a bad idea; if I had my druthers, I’d repeal it.” This won lots of applause. My friend Howard said, “But 50 million Americans have no doctor at all, and they will get one under Obamacare.”
The hour came to an end. The audience applauded warmly; Cheney grinned and waved goodbye, and we headed up the freeway, back to liberal L.A.
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Ted Mitchell, the chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund, was nominated in October by President Obama to become the Under Secretary of the Department of Education.
As the administration continues to reshuffle its team, and confront new regulatory challenges, some view Mitchell’s nomination as a move towards greater privatization. In the coming months, the Department of Education will release “gainful employment” rules to rein in for-profit colleges, an experiment in proprietary education that many see as an unmitigated disaster.
As head of the NewSchools Venture Fund, Mitchell oversees investments in education technology start-ups. In July, Zynga, the creators of FarmVille, provided $1 million to Mitchell’s group to boost education gaming companies. Mitchell’s NewSchool Venture Fund also reportedly partners with Pearson, the education mega-corporation that owns a number of testing and test-book companies, along with one prominent for-profit virtual charter school, Connections Academy.
Jeff Bryant, a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, says it seems likely that Mitichell will “advocate for more federal promotion of online learning, ‘blended’ models of instruction, ‘adaptive learning’ systems, and public-private partnerships involving education technology.”
Mitchell did not respond to TheNation.com’s request for comment.
His ethics disclosure form shows that he was paid $735,300 for his role at NewSchools, which is organized as a non-profit. In recent years, he has served or is currently serving as a director to New Leaders, Khan Academy, California Education Partners, Teach Channel, ConnectED, Hameetman Foundation, the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Silicon Schools, Children Now, Bellwether Partners, Pivot Learning Partners, EnCorps Teacher Training Program, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Green DOT Public Schools.
In addition, Mitchell serves as an adviser to Salmon River Capital, a venture capital firm that specializes in education companies. Mitchell sits on the board of Parchment, an academic transcript start-up that is among Salmon River Capital’s portfolio.
Salmon River Capital helped create one of the biggest names in for-profit secondary education, Capella University. “As a foundational investor and director, [Salmon River Capital’s] Josh Lewis made invaluable contributions to Capella’s success. From leading our landmark financing in 2000, when Capella was a $10 million business operating in a difficult environment, through a successful 2006 IPO and beyond, he proved a great partner who kept every commitment he made,” reads a statement from Steve Shank, founder of Capella.
Capella heavily recruits veterans and has received $53.1 million from the GI Bill in the past four years. The Minnesota attorney general is currently investigating the company for its recruitment tactics, and for leaving veterans unable to repay federal loans.
Numerous investigations have shown that for-profit colleges have targeted veterans with deceptive recruiting tactics. “Some for-profits have cleaned out students’ military benefits while also signing them up for thousands of dollars in loans without their knowledge. A vet who enrolled at the largely online Ashford University after being told the GI Bill would cover his tuition ended up owing the school $11,000,” reported Mother Jones.
But the companies are not without some winners: Bloomberg News reported in 2010 that executives at for-profit colleges have raked in $2 billion in compensation.
How the Department of Education moves forward in 2014 with its own set of regulations on for-profit colleges—an industry criticized for burdening a generation with a lifetime of debt—is yet to be determined. Currently, lobbyists for the largest for-profit colleges, including Apollo (University of Phoenix), Education Management Corporation (The Art Institutes), Kaplan, ITT Tech, Career Education Corporation and Corinthian Colleges, are lobbying aggressively to make sure that the rules will not curb the $38 billion in taxpayer money now enjoyed by the industry. The campaign extends to think tanks, politicians and other sources of influence in Washington.
In a presentation posted online by WhiteBoard Advisors, a DC consulting firm that is owned by Grayling, a lobbying corporation that represents for-profit colleges, posed a number of questions to education experts about what Mitchell’s nomination means for gainful employment regulations.
One slide is titled, “Insider Insights: What, if anything, does Mitchell’s selection mean for the gainful employment regulation process?” Many responses are ambiguous, even dismissive if Mitchell can play a role. “Nothing, that’s controlled by James Kvaal, period. That Ted doesn’t think for‐profit providers should be summarily executed means he’s not going to be included in conversations,” reads one anonymous insider’s view.
Others are more optimistic that he will weaken regulations on the for-profit college industry: “Hopefully he will moderate it and be more supportive of private providers.” Some education privatization supporters have been even more candid. Rick Hess, an outspoken supporter of privatization at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted: “Ted Mitchell appt as ED Under Sec is bad news for gainful employment fanatics.”
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Early in the week, things were looking good for the National Security Agency. 60 Minutes gifted the government an hour-long infomercial, and the newly completed report from a review board that the White House stacked with a handful of intelligence insiders was rumored to have proposed only cosmetic reform. Even so, the administration had decided to keep the report private until January, when President Obama plans to lay out what changes, if any, he’ll make to the intelligence programs.
By Wednesday afternoon significant cracks had opened in the NSA’s defenses. The first came courtesy of Judge Richard Leon, a George W. Bush appointee who ruled Monday that the bulk collection of telephone records “almost certainly” violates the Constitution. The second appeared when the administration decided to release the forty-six recommendations made by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to the public.
In more than 300 pages, the panel argues for reforms to the nation’s intelligence apparatus that are far more comprehensive than expected. It calls for the government to shift its database of call records to private companies, and to strengthen the criteria that make such data available for search; for changes to the structure of the NSA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that rules on the agency’s requests for surveillance authority; for the government to “make clear” that it will not undermine global encryption standards; and for greater protections for foreigners, including an extension of the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-US persons.
“There is a lot in this report for a reformer to like,” Senator Ron Wyden, one of leading advocates for reform, said in a statement. Senator Mark Udall, another critic of the NSA, called the recommendations “sweeping,” and said, “They generally embrace the reforms that I have been advocating for several years, in many cases against vociferous opposition from the Administration.”
Neither ruling ensures substantive changes within the NSA. An appellate court could overturn Judge Leon’s opinion. Obama may ignore the recommendations, which still leave open substantial holes. The report fails to address the legality of the NSA’s programs, from both constitutional and statutory perspectives. Many of the recommendations are strong in theory, and short on detail of how they could be enforced in light of the agency’s repeated willingness to bend the rules to suit its needs.
Taken together, though, the court ruling and the panel’s recommendations undermine the government’s defense of its surveillance activities in powerful ways. Both challenge assertions that the data dragnet is a national security imperative; that the record of our phone calls is only a benign dump of data rather than key points in the constellation of our daily lives; that security and civil liberty are at competing ends of a policy stick; and that the greatest threats facing US citizens are from traitorous leaks and media misrepresentation, rather than the surveillance programs in question.
“We cannot discount the risk, in light of the lessons of our own history, that at some point in the future, high-level government officials will decide that this massive database of extraordinarily sensitive private information is there for the plucking,” the report reads. “Americans must never make the mistake of wholly ‘trusting’ our public officials.”
The report should embarrass public officials and legislators who have tried to preserve the NSA’s data collection programs, which Judge Leon called “almost Orwellian.” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat in charge of the Intelligence Committee, and others have spent months arguing that the phone records program should be enshrined in law, for the paradoxical reasons that metadata is both essential to national security and trivial when it comes to individual privacy. “The assumption behind the argument that meta-data is meaningfully different from other information is that the collection of meta-data does not seriously invade individual privacy. As we have seen, however, that assumption is questionable,” the report reads. Critically, the review confirmed that the information gained from the phone metadata program “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” by other means. The panel concluded, “There is no sufficient justification for allowing the government itself to collect and store bulk telephony meta-data.”
As privacy advocates have pointed out, it isn’t clear that directing telecom companies or a third party to store communications records will be meaningfully different from the government maintaining such a database itself, because the records would still be available for query if authorized by the FISC.
The report’s essential contribution may not be its specific policy recommendations, but rather the doubt it introduces about the way business is conducted across an entire agency. Five people close to the intelligence community and the administration served on the review board, and prior to the release of the report there was widespread concern that the lack of distance between the reviewers and the White House would defang the recommendations. That makes the panel’s uneasiness with the state of affairs all the more remarkable. Obama may not heed its recommendations, but it will be increasingly difficult to argue that there is nothing to see here.
The specter of Edward Snowden haunts the report, although he isn’t mentioned. A footnote argues that an Obama directive that extended some protection to whistleblowers “does not go far enough,” and recommends creating a pathway for whistleblowers to report to a new Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Still, the report notes that “the potential danger of leaks is more serious than ever,” and emphasizes the damage that can be done by a “disloyal employee.” Several of the recommendations center on containing this “insider threat,” including restricting access to classified information, seemingly to prevent a future Snowden. But the report does far more to vindicate Snowden as a whistleblower than to condemn him for a betrayal. Its very existence signifies the importance of his disclosures.
The report is a confirmation of pathology, not a perfect prescription. As such it underscores the need for Congress to advance its own reforms. Many of the recommendations align with legislation pushed by the pro-reform coalition that stretches from libertarian Justin Amash to progressive John Conyers in the House, and from Rand Paul to Patrick Leahy in the Senate. Now that Judge Leon and the review panel have cracked the veneer of ordinariness that the administration has worked to paint over the NSA’s activities, there is more space for a discussion of what happens next.
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Russia, and its thuggish president, Vladimir Putin, may have won this round in Ukraine, and there’s not a lot that the United States can do about it—or should do about it—now that Russia and Ukraine have re-established economic and political ties. That’s bad news for Senator John McCain, who made a big splash visiting the Ukrainian capital of Kiev recently, and for American hawks who’ve tried to mobilize anti-Russian sentiment in the United States seeking some sort of quixotic showdown over the crisis there.
With Ukraine trapped between going “west”—signing a deal with the European Union that would have included political and judicial changes inside Ukraine and economic austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund—and going “east,” aligning itself more closely with Russia, President Yanukovich chose the latter. The inducement was a $15 billion Russian plan to underwrite Ukraine’s debt and a huge cut in the price of Russian gas for the Ukrainian market, from nearly $700 per 1,000 cubic feet to just $268.50. That was incentive enough for Yanukovich to go along, and it probably secures Russia’s interest in Ukraine for the foreseeable future.
It wasn’t merely Russia’s generous offer that tipped the scale, but also the refusal by the EU to sweeten its offer. As a special report by Reuters today points out, “The unwillingness of the EU and International Monetary Fund to be flexible in their demands of Ukraine also had an effect, making them less attractive partners.” On top of that, the EU didn’t really offer Ukraine membership in the EU but some vaguely defined partnership.
Yanukovich slammed the parade of US and European officials who’ve been shuttling in and out of Kiev ever since the start of the mass protests there. “I am categorically against anybody coming and teaching us how to live,” he said. Somewhat hilariously, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has exerted enormous, blatant pressure on Ukraine to prevent it from going West, had this to say:
“Kiev is being flatly urged to make a ‘free choice in favor of Europe’—this very phrase is self-contradictory,” Lavrov added. “At the same time, a sovereign nation is being deprived of its right to deal with the situation on its own terms and function in accordance with its legitimate national interests.”
This was, of course, a blatant power play by Russia, which used its vast economic power in Ukraine to block the Ukraine-EU accord. As Tim Judah summarizes the hardball play from Moscow in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books,
In the meantime Putin was piling on the pressure. In August, trade ground to a virtual standstill as Russian officials began checking every single truck crossing the border. They began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November. All this served to compound Ukraine’s existing economic woes.
Raising the temperature of the crisis, a Russian analyst in the government-controlled Russian RT broadcast network says that McCain and others are “risking a sort of civil war” by intervening, threatening sanctions and backing the protests against Yanukovich’s government—protests, by the way, that include outright fascist, Nazi-like activists from the ultra-right Svoboda party. Says the analyst, Aleksandr Nekrassov, disingenuously,
The only reason why [the protesters] are still there is because they feel the might of the European Union behind them and so foreign politicians like Senator McCain and others, coming over and basically inflaming tensions. I think it is actually quite amazing that we see European countries sending their politicians there because it is provoking violence in a sense.… And for Senator McCain, of all people, to come over to Ukraine and threaten sanctions—who is Senator McCain to threaten sanctions when it comes to Ukraine? On what authority is he doing that?
McCain, like other hawks, has said that the United States ought to impose sanctions on Ukraine if the authorities use more heavyhanded tactics against the protests. But even McCain acknowledges that there isn’t a lot that the United States can do. In an interview with RFE/RL after returning from Ukraine, McCain had this exchange:
RFE/RL: Are there any other steps the United States should take to support pro-EU forces in Ukraine?
McCain: No, I was pleased to go there and support these people who are struggling for a better country and a better government. But the future of Ukraine will be determined by the Ukrainian people and I think right now they have some very fine leadership and I was really deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of these young people.
The Wall Street Journal wants more action, though. In its editorial on the Russian offer, “The Putin Crony Rescue Fund,” the Journal says,
The U.S., which has public influence in Ukraine, could respond by considering sanctions on the Yanukovych government and its allies if it tries to keep power through repression. This message could be as powerful as the Kremlin’s checkbook.
So far, to its credit, the Obama administration is talking about taking direct action, even though its officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the latter of whom visited Kiev, have declared their support for the protests. Let’s hope it stays that way. The crisis is far from over, and things could still take a turn for the worse.
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When foreign fighters rally to the cause of a rebel army locked in a local conflict, this is bound to draw in competing agendas and identities even among putative allies. And these cleavages may persist long after the fighting ends.
“Upon arrival,” according to one account, “foreign mujahedin settled in various locations and did not form a homogeneous entity.” Eventually, “local Muslims started to join the foreign mujahedin,” coalescing into a unit known as the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion. Still, “notwithstanding instances of participation in combat alongside each other, it appears that [the different] groups were anxious to maintain their distinct identities. There were religious and ideological differences between [locals and foreigners], which resulted in occasional violent clashes.”
Despite their differences, according to this account, locals continued to be attracted to the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion for its “stricter regimental discipline, greater degree of organization, superior equipment and combat morale, religious dedication, and the material benefits” bestowed by “many organizations and individuals from the Islamic world.”
If you are thinking this is Syria, think again. This is Bosnia, 1993: different country, different war, same story. It is now common knowledge that Western intelligence agencies actively facilitated the flow of foreign fighters—who were being funded and trained, mother of all ironies, by Saudi Arabia and Iran—into Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth simply “Bosnia”).
One of those fighters was Imad al-Husein, aka Abu Hamza al-Suri, a Syrian national. When war broke out in Bosnia, Abu Hamza was a medical student in what was then the Socialist Republic of Croatia, Yugoslavia. He enlisted in the ranks of the mujahedin on the other side of the border with the help of a U.S.-registered but Saudi-funded non-profit called the Benevolence International Foundation, which covertly channeled funds and equipment to foreign fighters in Bosnia. Abu Hamza joined the jihad for a spell in 1992-1993 and again in 1994-1995, with a stint in between organizing papers and logistics for the fighters coming in and out of Bosnia under the cover of Benevolence International.
For any of today’s foreign fighters hoping to start anew in Syria after the war, however, Abu Hamza’s case offers a cautionary tale about the limits of solidarity.
After the war, a number of foreign fighters decided to begin a new life in Bosnia. Many married local women and started families. For his part, Abu Hamza married a Bosnian widow he had met while distributing aid at a refugee camp in Croatia and settled down in the northeastern Bosnian village of Donja Bočinja. Fluent in the local language, Abu Hamza often spoke to local media interested in the village’s new residents. Despite disputes with Serbian returnees over house ownership, the community seemed to be slowly making the transition to peaceful civilian life.
The September 11 attacks changed all that. In the new international environment of the “War on Terror,” Bosnia passed a series of new laws that resulted in the foreign fighters being deprived of their Bosnian citizenship. They faced two choices: either leave voluntarily or be deported. According to Abu Hamza’s daughter, his legal odyssey began shortly after September 11. First stripped of his Bosnian citizenship in 2001, Abu Hamza was finally arrested in October 2008 pending a possible deportation to his country of birth, Syria.
In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled against Abu Hamza’s deportation to Syria, given the country’s poor human rights record and the deterioration of the situation there. But he remains locked up at the immigration detention center in East Sarajevo under the supervision of the State Agency for Foreigners. Neither he nor his legal representatives have been allowed to access the specific charges brought against him. All Abu Hamza knows is that he has been declared a threat to national security. His life in legal limbo seems set to continue indefinitely.
I sat down with Abu Hamza in the visiting room of the immigration center to discuss his experience as a fighter during Bosnia’s civil war, his life in detention and the current war in Syria.
When did you join the fight on the side of the Muslim forces during the civil war in the 1990s?
At the time, I was a medical student at the University of Rijeka, in Croatia. I had wanted to join the jihad in Afghanistan, but logistics had come in my way. However, Bosnia was next door to Croatia. I had heard that several aid agencies were helping foreign fighters to enter Bosnia, so I start asking around. Many refused, until I found a Syrian man named Abu Mahmoud, who headed a Saudi agency based in Zagreb, Benevolence International. In June or July 1992, I can’t recall exactly, we met in Rijeka, where he had come to pick up a big shipment of seaborne humanitarian aid. Once I told him my desire to join the jihad in Bosnia, he promised he would send someone to help me enter the country. And so it happened that, on September 15, 1992, I set off on my way to Tešnja, close to Jablanica, where the foreign mujahedin had their training camp in and around an abandoned school compound.
At my arrival, there were about fifteen Arabs there for training, mostly Saudis, but also Kuwaitis, Algerians, Tunisians and another Syrian. As I knew the local language, I was assigned to translating for the Arab fighters and to liaising and coordinating with our allies: the Territorial Defence Force (Teritorijalna Odbrana, the precursor to the Bosnian Army) and the Croatian Defence Council (Hrvatsko vijeće obrane, the army of the self-proclaimed Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia). At the time, our main focus was to recruit Bosnians over 18 years of age and give them a forty-day training, before being sent to the front. We were not the only foreign mujahedin though. Others were based in Mehurići, under the leadership of a Saudi sheikh named Abdul Aziz, who had fought in Afghanistan and went by the nickname of Barbarossa, due to his long hennaed beard.
Did you stay in Bosnia until the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which effectively ended the war?
At the beginning of 1993, I returned to Croatia. At this point, I could cross the border easily, since I had acquired a counterfeited card, whereby I was passing as the aid coordinator of Abu Mahmoud’s agency. The agency workers in Rijeka were excellent at forging IDs, documents and passports: I even saw some of the mujahedin with UNHCR cards. In Croatia, I used the aid agency as a cover for logistics: we would do everything, from facilitating the crossing of fighters into Croatia and then on to Bosnia with fake documents; to the evacuation of injured mujahedin from Bosnia to get treatment in Croatia or in a third country; to organizing the shipment of food and weapons to the fighters in Bosnia.
The weapons business was the trickiest, as the Croats demanded the exact equivalent of everything we were taking into Bosnia: for each bullet reaching the mujahedin, one bullet had to be given to the Croatian border guards—and it became more expensive with time. The majority of the weaponry was bought from some Croatian generals, who were running a profitable business smuggling military hardware via Hungary and even selling the army’s own equipment. In Bosnia, we mostly dealt with Serb generals, in a perfect example of what is commonly called a war economy.
Then, in 1994, I returned to Bosnia and operated out of Zenica, where what was by now known as the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion (Katibat al-Mujahedin al-Ajanib) had its logistical base. In reality, the foreign fighters never represented more than 20 percent of the Battalion, with the rest being made up of Bosnian men, for a grand total of 1,500 fighters.
What was your role in the Battalion?
Our military leader was Abu al-Maali, an Algerian national who left Bosnia a few years after the end of the war. However, the top leader was Anwar Shaaban, who headed the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan. I kept my position as coordinator, plus I joined reconnaissance expeditions to spy on the Bosnian Serbs stationed at Vozuča. In this period, the Battalion engaged the Serbs around Zavidović and liberated a big area of territory, managing to reopen the road from Tuzla down to Zenica, through Vozuča, Zavidović and Žepće.
Why are you being detained now?
This is the question I always ask myself: what did I do to deserve to be here? You see, there have been no charges brought against me. This is due to the fact that, after 11 September 2001, new laws were introduced in the Bosnian legal system, whereby some proofs could be held secret for reasons of national security. I think one of those laws is the Aliens Act of 2008. My lawyer and several NGOs have tried to obtain the list of accusations, but to no avail. The result is obvious: I am here and I don’t know why. Probably, I am here because I am a Muslim and I am committed to Islam.
I read the decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concerning your case. What do you make of it?
The Europeans are very smart. On the one hand, they saved my life, as the court order prevented my extradition to Syria. On the other, they didn’t solve my problem. This way, they did just enough to ensure my basic human rights, namely my right to life, but fell short of guaranteeing my right to freedom. Legally speaking, the ECHR ruled only on one of the allegations of violations that my lawyer submitted on my behalf to the court. This concerned article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which specifies that one cannot be tortured. Thus my deportation to Syria was blocked.
However, as for the other appeals on article 5 (legality of my detention) and article 8 (right of a family to live together), no decision was taken. In effect, the ECHR has handed over to the Bosnian authorities the right to detain me indefinitely. This is done for reasons unknown to me, my lawyer, or my family, as these laws allow for secret evidence to be held against you. And here I am in this legal limbo.
When I talked to one of your daughters, I seemed to understand that the only way to get you out of this situation would be for Bosnia to transfer you to a third country. Would that be a solution?
Look, if you had a sick dog, whose illness is infectious, would your neighbour take it as a present from you? Obviously not. By the same token, all countries that have been approached by the Bosnian authorities have refused to take me. I know for a fact that requests were sent to Holland, Lithuania, Cyprus, Croatia and Saudi Arabia: some refused right away; others asked for more information, and then refused. I was personally told this by the second in command at the State Agency for Foreigners.
So what next?
To me, it looks like a game of “nerve wrestling,” so to speak. Perhaps they expect me to do something stupid, so that they can confirm to the public their theory that I am a danger to national security. For now, I have appealed to the ECHR once again: after the court’s ruling, the state of Bosnia had twelve months maximum to resolve my situation. As you can see, I am still detained here. So, on July 9, 2013, the very day one year had elapsed since the sentence, we submitted a new appeal. In the meantime, I keep playing a game I have not chosen: every three months, I am brought in front of a court of law; I ask to be put under a milder supervision regime, so that I can stay with my family; the judge refuses; and I am brought back to the immigration center.
From where you stand, what would you like to say to the Bosnian authorities? After all, you have risked your life fighting for the state that is now detaining you, with no apparent charges.
In this regard, there is a big difference between Abu Hamza the man and Abu Hamza the Muslim. As a man, I cannot even start describing how angry and disappointed I am at the treatment I have been reserved. And I keep asking myself: why are they doing this to me? However, as a Muslim, who believes in Allah and that everything is in His hands, I can only thank God and abandon myself to His will.
Still, Bosnia is showing to the world that it has the appearance of a state, but lacks any essence of it. There seems to be very little respect for human rights or for the rule of law, which are the standards by which a country is judged. If I could, I would suggest that Bosnians think hard about their future. History shows that this country faces war and massacres every few decades. Who will come to the people’s help in the future, if this is the treatment that is reserved to them?
What do you think about the current situation in your country of birth, Syria?
First of all, when the so-called Arab Spring started at the end of 2010, many Arab brothers who shared my cell at the immigration center expressed their hopes that the revolution would spread to Syria. Even at the time, my answer was always the same: if this starts in Syria, it won’t calm down and be solved easily. My reasoning was based on history: I participated in demonstrations against Assad’s father in the 1980s. What was his response in Hama? He flattened the city. Assad the son will flatten the whole of Syria before relinquishing power.
Now, the Syrian people can only be ruled in one of two situations: either under the iron fist of a dictator, or under the beneficent hand of a just ruler. In concrete terms: either Assad or Umar bin Abdul Aziz, one of the Omayyad caliphs who was known for his even handedness. In Syria, it seems to me that the United States and Europe encouraged the Syrian people to rise against the dictator, promising to support them. When they did, the Western powers withdrew their support: I wouldn’t call it betrayal, as much as fooling a whole people.
Would you support Western military intervention in Syria to topple the government?
I don’t think that Western intervention would solve anything in Syria. Like in Iraq, the Syrian people would start fighting the occupier, making the situation even more explosive. The solution is easy: Assad understands only the language of force, like Gaddafi. And like Gaddafi he will have to go. Assad’s strength derives from his air force and ballistic missiles: if the West were sincere in its support to the Syrian revolution, it would have supplied fighters with weapons to counter that, such as anti-aircraft missiles. The reality is that the West doesn’t want Assad to go, as they haven’t found a substitute for him in Syria who would guarantee Western interests in the country.
You appear to suggest that Assad has been serving Western interests in Syria. But what seems to be stopping Western powers from supplying such weapons to the opposition is the fact that they may fall into the hands of radical groups, especially those linked to Al Qaeda.
I believe that the Western media has whipped up paranoia about Al Qaeda in order not to intervene in Syria. The proof of the pudding can be found in Mali: all this media frenzy about Al Qaeda in the country. The French send in a few thousand soldiers, and Al Qaeda evaporates. For instance, in the 1990s, Al Qaeda could count on between 300 and 500 fighters, never more than 1,000. Do not confuse Al Qaeda as a group with Al Qaeda as an idea: the first is very limited, the second is all over the world. Whether we want it or not, the idea of jihad has now taken root.
Concerning your first point, the only resistance Assad has put up in his life has been for the preservation of his chair: the fight to keep power. He is a worse sell-out than Gaddafi, who revealed all the secrets of his country’s nuclear weapons program to the Americans in exchange for his political survival. Assad has given UN inspectors even more information than they were asking for. The same can be said for Hezbollah. In the 1990s, I remember reading with my own eyes a report written by some advisers to Osama bin Laden who had been sent to Lebanon to explore the possibility of cooperation with Hezbollah. I quote from it: “Hezbollah is a group that defends Israel’s Southern border.” As [former CIA chief] William Casey said in regard to [former Panamanian dictator and erstwhile US ally] Manual Noriega: “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”
As a former mujahid yourself, what do you think of all those jihadists that have flocked to Syria to fight against the Assad regime?
I regret having to say this, but with all due respect to our mujahedin brothers, they have shown short-sightedness and lack of vision everywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Syria, passing through Iraq. Our experience as foreign fighters in Bosnia, despite many mistakes, was different in that the majority of the Arabs fighting here were living in Europe, and brought with them a more open perspective. Thus, we integrated into Bosnian society rather than fighting against the Bosnian Muslims, whereas the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) fights against Syrian groups. We tried to be like the first muhajirin, the “immigrants” who left Mecca for Medina with the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon Him), and who lived in harmony with their host society.
In my view, this short-sightedness within Al Qaeda traces back to the second half of 1990s, when Osama bin Laden came under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who hailed from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) organisation. EIJ was a proponent of the takfiri trend [of accusing other Muslims of apostasy], which quickly became central to Al Qaeda ideology. Before that, the first Emir who had organised the transfer of mujahedin to Afghanistan, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam—who is the only one who has my allegiance; I never pledged it to Osama bin Laden—propounded instead a vision that we may describe as “understanding the factual evidence,” or understanding the environment you are in. Namely, foreign fighters should adapt to their host society, respect it and speak in a language and ideology that conform to it. Likewise, Sheikh Azzam would never even dream of declaring the House of Saud apostates, as Osama bin Laden did: you have to know your relative strength and, especially, your limits.
If you could, then, what would you say to the foreign mujahedin now in Syria?
Very simply, I would ask: why did you come to Syria? What are you doing here? Let me clarify. The idea of jihad in Syria was nourished and encouraged by the local mosques the same way it had been in the 1980s, well before foreign fighters came to the country. Afterwards, [Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad] al-Golani and his group joined in. But wasn’t there already a jihad in Syria? These people have come in and declared themselves Emirs, leaders. The question then arises: what is the difference between you and Assad? If you enforce your Islam with the power of the Kalashnikov, the people will acquiesce for fear of retaliation, as they did for forty years under the boot of the Baath party. However, this situation is obviously untenable—and the people will eventually rise up.
In Bosnia, we instead came in as aids, to help the fight on the side of the Muslims. We declared allegiance to [then Bosnian President] Alija Izetbegović and put ourselves at his service, despite the fact that the Afghan mujahedin had declared him an apostate. In other words, we came to aid a society and adapted our message and language to the local community, instead of imposing our views on it. If the mujahedin did the same in Syria, the Syrian people would welcome them with open arms. Ahrar al-Sham, for instance, has adopted a centrist model from the beginning, thus avoiding conflict with the people.
You have to understand these people’s doctrine. As I have already mentioned, the jihadist idea is now widespread, and someone may be ready to sell a kidney to get the money to travel to Syria. The way it happens is quite simple: if a young man wants to fight jihad, he asks someone in the community for money, or collects money within his group of friends. In reality, reaching Istanbul from Sarajevo won’t cost you more than 200 euros. With modern technology, it is very easy to agree beforehand with middlemen to be picked up at the airport and then transferred to Syria.
If you had one last wish, what would that be?
I would go to fight in Syria, perhaps with Ahrar al-Sham, because they are 100-percent Syrian. And I would not repeat the same mistakes we made in Bosnia: it must be said that some of the brothers looked down upon the local population. That should never happen again. As Sheikh Abdullah Azzam showed, the right way is to apply his “understanding of the factual evidence”: always know where and with whom you are, and behave accordingly, with respect.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on drones in Yemen.
At one point early in our tenure at The Nation we received a letter from a dissatisfied solver comparing our efforts unfavorably to those of our predecessor, Frank Lewis. Lewis’s puzzles, he wrote, had been so clear that the solutions were self-explanatory, whereas ours required full documentation about how each clue worked.
Well, gee. Let’s leave aside the vexing question of whether our puzzles are harder or easier than Frank’s (hint: complaints that puzzles are “too hard” or “too easy” tend to be pretty evenly distributed no matter who the constructor is), because the change in the format of the solutions didn’t have anything to do with that. We just thought that explaining each clue would be a helpful addition to the solver’s experience.
Why? Because even an easy cryptic clue—or a cryptic clue the constructor thought was easy—will always be a stumper for someone. In fact, that’s true of any kind of puzzle. Every solver has had the experience at some point of looking at a solution and thinking, “OK, but why?” (In the National Puzzlers’ League, this has acquired the acronym IGIBIDGI, which is pronounced “idgy-bidgy” and stands for “I got it, but I don’t get it.”) That’s no fun, and so we wanted to be sure that the solution we published for each puzzle dispelled any lingering mysteries—and perhaps, in the process, even helped beginners learn the ropes.
That turned out to be a little trickier than it sounds. For one thing, there’s no commonly used system of abbreviations to indicate anagrams, reversals and all the other common tools of cryptic clue-writing. The blogger Braze, who dissects every clue in the Nation puzzle on his blog, uses one set of indicators; we used a different one for our published collection of cryptics from The Enigma; and we introduced yet a third one here. The goal in each case is to make the explanations terse (space is always at a premium) and yet clear.
Also, some of the more fanciful clues we occasionally run resist a crisp explanation. The designation “2 defs.,” for example, encompasses a broad range of possibilities, from simple double definitions to whimsical wordplay that takes in the entire clue. These clues aren’t exactly double definitions:
AUTOSUGGESTION “I should buy a hybrid, I should buy a hybrid”, for example? (14)
CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION Notable characteristic of Camille’s opulent lifestyle? (11,11)
PORT AUTHORITY Where you might find a bus—or a sommelier? (4,9)
YAMMERS Talks incessantly with people harvesting sweet potatoes? (7)
And parsing this one efficiently taxed our ingenuity:
THREE BLIND MICE Nursery rhyme about Mckey, Mnne and Mortmer? (5,5,4)
Yet the clues that are the hardest to explain in a standard format are often the ones we like the best.
Do you find the explanations a useful part of the puzzle solutions? Or just a waste of space? Please share your thoughts here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has widened to include journalists, non-Islamist activists and students who have been detained and badly beaten., Sharif Abdel Kouddous explained in his latest piece for The Nation. This morning, he joined Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! to discuss former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s terrorism charges and how the crackdown has affected ordinary citizens.
It’s been a rough couple days for The Washington Post. Word emerged that hackers invaded its internal system—for a few days, no less—all of its staffers had to change their passwords as the company tried to figure out how much data had been compromised.
Meanwhile, a petition campaign was launched related to news that Amazon, under the Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, recently secured a $600 million contract from the CIA. That’s at least twice what Bezos paid for the Post this year. Bezos recently disclosed that the company’s Web-services business is building a “private cloud” for the CIA to use for its data needs.
Critics charge that, at a minimum, the Post needs to disclose its CIA link whenever it reports on the agency. Over 15,000 have signed the petition this week hosted by RootsAction.
In a statement released by the Institute for Public Accuracy, media writer/author Robert McChesney observes:
When the main shareholder in one of the very largest corporations in the world benefits from a massive contract with the CIA on the one hand, and that same billionaire owns the Washington Post on the other hand, there are serious problems. The Post is unquestionably the political paper of record in the United States, and how it covers governance sets the agenda for the balance of the news media. Citizens need to know about this conflict of interest in the columns of the Post itself.
If some official enemy of the United States had a comparable situation—say the owner of the dominant newspaper in Caracas was getting $600 million in secretive contracts from the Maduro government—the Post itself would lead the howling chorus impaling that newspaper and that government for making a mockery of a free press. It is time for the Post to take a dose of its own medicine.”
See article by Norman Solomon for a fuller accounting. He notes:
Bezos personally and publicly touts Amazon Web Services, and it’s evident that Amazon will be seeking more CIA contracts. Last month, Amazon issued a statement saying, “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA.”
Read next: Greg Mitchell’s post on CNN deleting a tweet claiming that Edward Snowden offered to spy on the US.
Voter fraud is quite uncommon. In fact, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of law, which has conducted an ongoing examination of voter fraud claims, refers to the supposed “problem” as a “myth.”
However, if we employ the standard of those who claim that there really is a voter fraud crisis in America, then there is a case that is worthy of note. And it involves Liz Cheney’s husband.
Liz Cheney is running for the US Senate in a 2014 Republican primary. But she is not running in her long-time home state, Virginia.
Rather, she is running in distant Wyoming—which her father, permanent Washington fixture Dick Cheney, used as a political redoubt for congressional service to the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
The Wyoming run has been an inconvenient one for Liz Cheney. She has been forced to uproot herself from a comfortable life in suburban Washington, and to buy an expensive new home in the one reliably Democratic county in Wyoming. She has struggled to figure out how to obtain a fishing license, after initially overstating her history in the state—and paying a fine for “[failing] to meet residency requirements as required.” And she has had to declare her opposition to her sister’s right to marry.
But it hasn’t just been tough on Liz Cheney.
Her husband, Philip Perry, who practices law with a major Washington firm, has had to claim that he, too, is a resident of Wyoming.
In March, he obtained a driver’s license. And he has gone so far as to register to vote there
Unfortunately, he is also registered to vote in McLean, Virginia, where he voted in 2012.
When Perry registered to vote in Wyoming’s Teton County, he did not indicate that he was on the voter roll elsewhere. Indeed, says Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle, “He signed an oath saying he was not currently registered anywhere else.”
So we have a glaring case of double registration.
Sound the alarm!
Perry can fix the problem by asking Virginia to remove him from the rolls in the Old Dominion. Officials generally allow for such clarifications, recognizing that mistakes are made. Despite the headline in the local paper—“Cheney Husband in False Oath Kerfuffle”—it is unlikely that the double-registration mess will result in anything more than a slight case of embarrassment for a prominent lawyer.
So this does not appear to be a particularly big deal—just like most cases of supposed “voter fraud.”
Indeed, as the Brennan Center reminds us, “Voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators.”
Read Next: George Zornick on Senator Tom Harkin.
Anyone who opposes the draconian anti-gay laws in Russia, and supports the emerging movement of LGBT athletes in the sports world, should take serious note of the latest news out of Washington, DC. President Barack Obama’s White House has chosen their official delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. For the first time since 2000, this group will not include a current or former president or vice president. Instead, the faces representing of the United States will include out-and-proud tennis legend Billie Jean King and out-and-proud two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
Both King and Cahow are far more than just people who happen to be “part of the LGBT community.” King has been a fearless activist over the course of decades on a host of issues from labor rights to women’s reproductive freedom. On the issue of making sure Sochi is a platform of LGBT resistance she is as unafraid as one would expect, saying that she is not only “deeply honored” to be part of the delegation but is also “equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi.… I hope these Olympic games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people.”
King was chosen even though she made an explicit plea for athletes to defy the International Olympic Committee’s decree against political statements in Sochi, saying in September, “Sometimes I think we need a John Carlos moment.” This was a reference to the great 1968 Olympian who along with Tommie Smith raised his fist for civil rights on the 200 meter medal stand.
Caitlin Cahow’s story is far less known than “the legend of Billie Jean” but she is also more than an athlete. Cahow is an activist who is part of what is known as the Principle 6 Campaign. This is a movement that aims to pressure the craven International Olympic Committee to actually enforce Principle 6 of its own charter, which states, “Sports does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender, politics or otherwise.” Their work has already pushed the IOC to state that “otherwise” includes sexual orientation.
As Cahow has said, “The Olympics is a global celebration that belongs to all of us. Principle 6 is a way for everyone everywhere to celebrate the values that inspire the Olympic Games while showing their support for Russians suffering under Putin’s human rights crackdown.”
The appointing of King and Cahow is in so many respects a tribute to the movement over the past year of LGBT athletes to make sure the locker room no longer continues to be the last closet. It is also, let’s be clear, a diplomatic power play by the Obama administration. The White House just delivered a thumb to the eye of a country that has challenged US hegemony in Syria and East Asia, and provided safe haven to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. There is a strong element here of the administration using LGBT rights like a pawn on a chessboard against a country that is more adversary than ally. It is hard to see it as anything else considering the lack of commentary from the Obama administration on ally India’s recent anti-LGBT legislation. In addition, this White House’s own piss-poor record in pushing The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the attendant fact that it is still legal in twenty-nine US states to fire people on the basis of their sexuality, should be mentioned every time this administration speaks out for LGBT rights internationally.
The most important question however is whether this move by the Obama administration to send the “Billie Jean delegation” will serve to make the situation on the ground better for LGBT people in Russia or will it just serve to open the door for more repression? Will this provide a pretext for Putin to maliciously say that LGBT activists inside Russia are just tools of the United States? Does the intervention in a grass roots movement by the world’s number one superpower create more or less oxygen for the brave people fighting for their freedom inside Russia? After the smoke has cleared and all the delegations have gone home from Sochi, it is the only question that really matters.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel’s thoughts on boycotting the Sochi Olympics