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News and Features
During the long months of post-September 11 presidential invincibility,
no member of Congress climbed further out on the what-did-Bush-know-when
limb than Representative Cynthia McKinney. "We know there were numerous
warnings of the events to come on September 11," the Georgia Democrat
said in March. "What did this Administration know and when did it know
it, about the events of September 11? Who else knew, and why did they
not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?"
The disclosure that President Bush was warned in August that Al Qaeda
was seeking to hijack domestic aircraft did not confirm all McKinney's
intimations--which extended to talk about how the Bush family might have
profited from the attacks. Yet she was freed to stake a claim of
vindication. "It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been
vigorously opposing Congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has
been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic
people had not been pushing for disclosure, today's revelations would
have been hidden by the White House."
McKinney's initial calls for an investigation of what Bush knew prompted
a storm of criticism. "McKinney has made herself too easy a target for
mockery," Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor
Cynthia Tucker announced in April. "She no longer deserves serious
analysis." After Bush aides condemned McKinney's "ludicrous, baseless
views," National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg diagnosed
her as suffering from "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist
conspiratorial delusions." Barely a month after the McKinney-bashing
peaked, however, the Journal-Constitution headline read: "Bush
warned by US intelligence before 9/11 of possible bin Laden plot to
hijack planes," while Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman
Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said, "I believe, and others
believe, if [information on threats] had been acted on properly, we may
have had a different situation on September 11."
There were no apologies to McKinney. Brushing aside complaints from
Atlanta civil rights activists, Georgia Senator Zell Miller continued to
characterize his fellow Democrat as "loony." McKinney's critics kept
exploiting the opening she gave them with her unfounded rumination on
the prospect that something other than ineptness might explain the
Administration's failure to warn Americans about terrorist threats. But
her willingness to go after the Administration when few Democrats dared
earned her folk-hero status among dissenters from the
Bush-can-do-no-wrong mantra: The popular democrats.com website now
greets visitors with a We Believe Cynthia icon.
In Georgia, where McKinney faces a July primary challenge from a former
judge who labels her "off-the-wall and unproductive," a recent
Journal-Constitution headline read, "Revelations Give Boost to
McKinney." Letters to the editor, even from former critics, hail her
prescience. And Georgia Democratic Representative John Lewis, who once
steered clear of McKinney's call for an investigation, says, "I hate to
put it in this vein, but she may have the last laugh."
Quick, pinch me--am I still living in the same country? Reading and
watching the same media? This "Bob Woodward" fellow who co-wrote a tough
piece in the May 18 Washington Post demonstrating that the
now-famous August 6 presidential daily briefing, contrary to
Administration officials' claims about its contents, actually carried
the heading "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--is this the same
Bob Woodward who co-wrote the Post's infamous "Ten Days in
September" series earlier this year, the ur-document of George W. Bush's
Churchillization? And this "Michael Isikoff," sharing a byline on the
eye-opening May 27 Newsweek cover story that shreds the
Administration's "we did everything we could" line of defense--is this
the Isikoff who four years ago defined national security in terms of
dress stains and cigar probes? One begins to suspect that unbeknownst to
all of us, the terrorists have indeed struck--the Washington, DC, water
An overstatement, to be sure. But it does seem to be the case that
wherever this potentially incendiary story leads, from fog of
unprovables to hot smoking gun, one change has already taken place
because of it that is well worth marking. For the first time since
September 11--or, arguably, since ever--the press corps appears ready to
expend more effort poking holes in the vaunted Bush Administration spin
operation than admiringly limning it. More to the point, Is a new
skepticism stirring around such heretofore Teflonized officials as
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? Before her May 16
damage-control press conference, Rice was probably the Administration's
leading untouchable. After it ("I don't think anybody could have
predicted these people would...use an airplane as a missile," a
statement left bleeding on the floor after a pile of evidence came
forward showing plenty of people were predicting precisely that), her
status has taken a major hit. So, as Professor Harold Hill might put it,
certain wooorrrrdds are creeping into the media vocabulary--words
like "serious credibility gap," in the Newsweek piece.
It's been a long time coming. If anything "un-American" happened after
September 11, it was the triumph of the notion--propounded by the
Bushies, reinforced by the major media and far too readily accepted by
cowardly Democrats--that "patriotism" somehow equals "support the Bush
Administration." CBS's Dan Rather said it recently in an interview with
the BBC: "Patriotism became so strong in the United States after 11
September that it prevented US journalists from asking the toughest of
the tough questions about the war against terrorism," adding, "I do not
except myself from this criticism." The genuflection sometimes reached
levels that we might call comic, except that there's nothing comic about
a "free" press choosing to ape state-owned media, throwing rose petals
at the feet of officials from the most unilateral and secretive
Administration in modern American history ("sixty-nine years old, and
you're America's stud," Meet the Press's Tim Russert once said to
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).
One is not quite ready to say, on the evidence of several days' worth of
stories, that this sorry era is over just yet. The New York Times
and the Washington Post both ran editorials on May 17 that were
something short of being full-throated calls for investigation; from the
right-wing papers, the predictable yelping about how it's really
All this will probably continue, but at least now it appears that it
will be offset by some post-post-9/11 aggression. It will be interesting
to watch what leads the media now follow and how far they follow them.
For example, some reports--originating with the BBC but picked up in a
few minor US outlets--indicate that US intelligence agents were told to
back off the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals soon after Bush
became President. Reporters might also look into the way the
Administration declined to continue a process of tightening overseas and
offshore banking regulations begun by the Clinton Administration in an
effort to track down narcotics traffickers and terrorists. The Bush
people acted partly at the behest of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, which
means partly at the behest of Enron--and which may have ended up helping
"Connecting the dots" has become the operative cliché about
whether intelligence officials should have been able to put together the
various pre-9/11 clues they received. Now, maybe the media will start
connecting some dots of their own.
State officials rush to declare their own versions of the "war on
The twentieth century was arguably the bloodiest in modern history,
earning from one commentator the moniker of the Age of Barbarism. From
the Nazi genocide, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, to the
"ethnically cleansed" areas of the former Yugoslavia, the twentieth
century was one of unprecedented horror for many.
Mass slaughter of civilians is, of course, much older than these
horrors. The modern world brought about by European expansionism, the
famed Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once observed, is a time of
extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. How many of us, for instance, are
familiar with the deaths of upward of 10 million in the
Belgian-controlled Congo in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries? Or how about Australia's extermination of the indigenous
population of Tasmania? The decimation of inferior races in settler
colonies, brought about by Western imperialism and the associated
legitimizing ideologies, in fact, contends Sven Lindqvist in his
brilliant Exterminate All the Brutes, ostensibly laid the
groundwork for Hitler's crimes by creating particular habits of thought
and political precedents.
What was unique to the twentieth century--and thus the subtitle of
Samantha Power's very impressive "A Problem From Hell": America and
the Age of Genocide--was the invention of the very word "genocide"
and its establishment as a legal construct outlawing one of the most
egregious forms of state terror. That represents a great advancement in
the construction of international law and associated political and
juridical mechanisms, but the fact that genocide continues to occur and
to go unpunished speaks to the difficulties of giving life to a legal
While the parties most responsible for this shortcoming are those that
perpetrate genocide, Power focuses much of her opprobrium on the party
that is in her estimation best positioned to put an end to or at least
significantly curb such horror: the US government. "No US President has
ever made genocide prevention a priority," she writes, "and no US
President has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its
occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."
The myriad horror stories of this age of genocide have many ugly
characters, several of whom Power profiles in her well written and
extensively documented book. But there are also many heroes, namely
those within and without the US government who have spoken the
proverbial truth to power with the goal of making Washington appreciate
or acknowledge--and thus take appropriate action--that genocide was
taking place in the various case studies that Power carefully details.
Perhaps the biggest hero in Power's book is Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew
who as a young boy had a fascination with the history of mass
slaughters, Lemkin became a lawyer and international legal scholar. He
set out to ban the destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups,
to end the national sovereignty-granted impunity of state actors
who perpetrate such atrocities and to insure universal jurisdiction for
Forced to flee his homeland when the Nazi army invaded in 1939, Lemkin
ended up in the United States soon thereafter. He worked indefatigably
to bring attention to and to record Hitler's extermination of Jews,
while urging Americans to do everything they could to put a stop to it.
At the same time, he endeavored to invent a word to characterize such
slaughters, one that, in Power's words, "would connote a practice so
horrid and so irreparable that the very utterance of the word would
galvanize all who heard it." When he coined the term "genocide" in 1944,
Western governments and political pundits quickly embraced it. This led
Lemkin to assume that actions to codify the term and fight the practices
comprehended in it would quickly follow. He soon learned that he had a
long fight on his hands--one that he waged incessantly until he died,
penniless, in 1959.
Before his demise, however, Lemkin saw the United Nations General
Assembly pass the genocide convention on December 9, 1948, the body's
first passage of a human rights treaty. And less than two years later,
the necessary twenty countries had ratified the convention, making it
international law. But he did not live to see the United States ratify
it, a necessary step, Lemkin thought, to insure its enforcement, given
American power. Indeed, it would not be until 1988 that the Senate did
so, but not before attaching a set of reservations, understandings and
declarations that insured that the United States itself could never be
charged with the crime, thus rendering American approval largely
The architects of the convention understood the danger of making
Hitler's crimes the standard by which to determine future genocides.
States must be able to identify as genocide acts aimed at destroying "in
whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group"--the
legal definition of the crime--well before they have the chance to reach
such a scale in order to trigger appropriate actions. (The convention
enjoins its signatories to take measures to prevent and punish the
crime.) Despite such intentions, the link between genocide and Hitler's
so-called Final Solution "would cause endless confusion for
policy-makers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred
only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to
possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic,
national or religious group."
While the Hitler-standard problem did help to undermine effective
responses by American officials and opinion-makers to various
post-World War II genocides, there were other dilemmas as well,
including the difficulty of believing reports of horrific slaughter.
Even in the face of extensive and graphic media coverage, Power writes,
"American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to
muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil." In addition, there
is a tendency to assume, before the fact, that the would-be perpetrators
of genocide are rational actors who will not engage in horrific terror;
that traditional diplomacy can resolve the crisis; and that civilians
who keep a low profile during the conflict will survive. At the same
time, cold geopolitical calculations underlie official reactions, and
they often spin the violence as two-sided, a result of age-old hatreds
and thus inevitable, while arguing that any type of serious intervention
would be futile and even counterproductive. Thus, not only does
Washington abstain from sending troops but it also takes very few steps
along a continuum of potential interventions to deter genocide.
This nonresponse, Power demonstrates, is not something unique to the
presidencies of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, who emerge looking
especially bad. It manifested itself to varying degrees in all the cases
she examines, beginning with the Ottoman Turks' slaughter of almost a
million Armenians in 1915. The United States under Woodrow
Wilson--despite being well informed of Turkey's crimes--did not support
the Allies' condemnation of Turkey's crimes against humanity, lest such
support undermine American neutrality. Disregarding the pleas of
Washington's ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, the Wilson Administration
refused even to issue a direct government-to-government appeal to cease
the killings or to pressure the Turkish authorities to allow
humanitarian aid deliveries to Armenians driven from their homes and on
the brink of starvation. For Power, Wilson's nonresponse "established
patterns that would be repeated."
But as Power illustrates, it was not simply that the United States did
nothing. Often Washington indirectly and directly aided the
genocidaires. In Cambodia, for example, the US bombing that
preceded Pol Pot's seizure of power "killed tens of thousands of
civilians." While horrific in its own right, "it also indirectly helped
give rise to a monstrous regime" responsible for the deaths of upwards
of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. And in the case of Iraq's
slaughter of the Kurds, the Reagan White House dismissed reports of
Saddam Hussein's gassings and other atrocities while maintaining aid to
his regime, preferring to maintain its unholy alliance with Iraq in its
war with Iran. The year after Saddam's forces decimated several thousand
Iraqi Kurdish villages and killed close to 100,000 Kurdish civilians
(1987-88), Washington, now under Bush Sr., actually doubled the
amount of agricultural credit it had been providing to Saddam's regime,
increasing it to more than $1 billion.
In other cases, the United States helped to undermine effective
international responses to genocide. Perhaps the most shameful case was
that involving the Clinton Administration during the 1994 slaughter in
Rwanda, which involved the killing of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and
moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days, making it the fastest, most
efficient killing spree of the twentieth century. Clinton, whom Power
inexplicably refers to as "a committed multilateralist," one with "faith
in the United Nations," did everything he could to avoid doing something
constructive. Throughout, and similar to their conduct through much of
the Serb-perpetrated atrocities in Bosnia, Administration officials
feigned ignorance of what was going on. US intelligence reports had
warned Washington of the likelihood of mass killings in Rwanda.
Nevertheless, Clinton refused Belgium's request to reinforce the small
UN peacekeeping mission to the country. And once the killing started,
the Administration denied almost until the end that genocide was taking
place, despite full knowledge to the contrary. To do otherwise would
have required that Washington take appropriate action. Instead, the
Administration insisted that UN peacekeepers withdraw from Rwanda and
then refused to authorize the deployment of a stronger UN force. It was
not until the Rwandan Patriotic Front had driven most of the
perpetrators out of the country and seized power in the capital that
Clinton ordered the closing of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington and the
seizure of its assets.
In her investigation, Power justifies her choice of case studies by two
key criteria: that each meets the terms of the 1948 genocide convention;
and that it presented the United States with the options for meaningful
diplomatic, economic, legal or military intervention. But as we shall
see, it is questionable whether all her cases satisfy the criteria.
In terms of the first, to suggest that what took place in Kosovo was a
genocide, or would have been had NATO not intervened, is a highly
contentious issue in the international legal and human rights community.
As for the Khmer Rouge, while they were guilty of killing large
percentages of the country's Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Buddhist
monks, the bulk of their human targets were alleged political enemies.
In this regard, these killings would not form part of a genocide, at
least through the narrow criteria of the 1948 convention.
As Power explains, the architects of the genocide convention made the
explicit decision to exclude political groups--a move actively supported
by Lemkin. They did so in order to insure the support of many countries,
largely those of the Soviet bloc and some from Latin America as well,
that feared the inclusion of political groups would inhibit the ability
of states to suppress armed rebellions within their boundaries. It
appears that Lemkin was sympathetic to neither the underlying
assumptions nor the implications of such an argument but supported it
for pragmatic reasons--a position that Power seems to share. This might
explain why she has no problem including the horrors inflicted by the
Khmer Rouge under the general rubric of genocide. But given this more
flexible notion of what constitutes genocide, it begs the question of
why Power chose the cases she did in laying out her argument and ignored
other possible instances.
This question also relates to the second criterion for her choices,
namely that the United States had a variety of options available for
meaningful intervention. Here, Power is treading on even weaker ground
in some instances.
On Rwanda and Bosnia, Power makes her most convincing case that there
were concrete steps the United States could have taken that would have
had significant effects in lessening the bloodletting. In other
instances she examines, however, such as those of the Nazi and Khmer
Rouge holocausts, she is less convincing. Regarding Cambodia, for
example, she contends that the Khmer Rouge were less immune to outside
criticism than was claimed by American authorities. In this regard, she
argues that "bilateral denunciations by the United States may well have
had little effect on the Khmer Rouge's internal practices.
Unfortunately, because so few US officials spoke out publicly against
the genocide, we cannot know." In terms of the Nazis, Power appeals to
conventional wisdom and suggests that Washington could have done things
to prevent Hitler's crimes, but makes no serious effort to persuade the
reader or to engage the literature that has called such arguments into
question. As Peter Novick argues in his much-acclaimed The Holocaust
in American Life, the various ex post facto proposals for rescuing
Jews from Nazi clutches ignore what were very real constraints at the
time and often would have been of little practical use. Substantial
rescue efforts, Novick contends, would have had a marginal effect at
best. (Nevertheless, he asserts, it would have been worthwhile to carry
out the proposed actions; but they would have saved 1, or perhaps 2
percent at most, of those who died.)
Power applauds US action loudly in the case of Kosovo. Indeed, she
argues that hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost had the
United States and its NATO allies not engaged in the bombing campaign
against the Serbs. She offers no substantiation for this claim. And, of
course, how could she? Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Kosovo
chapter, however, is that she does not engage any of the critiques put
forth by the likes of Noam Chomsky and other commentators--many writing
in this magazine--that there were alternatives to the NATO action, ones
that would have been consistent with international law and might have
actually lessened the killings and expulsions that increased
dramatically after the start of the bombing, to say nothing about its
effects on Serb civilians. At the very least, Power should have
presented and grappled with such arguments. Hardly anyone contends that
Milosevic & Co. were not capable and guilty of enormous brutality.
Indeed, Power graphically shows how Serb forces put this capacity to
horrific and massive use in Bosnia and the fatal consequences of the
failure of the West to acknowledge the bloodshed and respond
appropriately. In this regard, mass killings in Kosovo were arguably a
distinct possibility. But the question remains, Were there courses of
action other than that taken up by Washington and its NATO allies?
Power understandably feels outrage at international and, more
specifically, American inaction in the face of mass killing. With an
American audience in mind, she challenges the reader to do
something--whatever is in her power--to suppress and/or bring to justice
those responsible for the slaughter of innocents. She makes a compelling
case for a collective moral, as well as an international legal,
obligation for the US government to do so. But this also raises what is
perhaps the biggest problem with "A Problem From Hell": Even
though she acknowledges that the United States sometimes directly and
indirectly aids genocidal regimes, the overall effect of her examples
and the manner in which she frames the book is to situate Washington as
an outsider to such horrors. In the book's final pages, for example, she
asks, "Why does the United States stand so idly by?" In this sense,
Power's choice of cases is quite safe. Had she looked beyond the
parameters of the conventional and examined instances in which the
American role in mass slaughter has been less that of a bystander and
more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator, her call for greater levels
of US intervention would seem at best unpersuasive and at worst
hypocritical and potentially dangerous. Three cases--those of Indonesia,
East Timor and Guatemala--illustrate this point.
Led by General Suharto, the Indonesian military and the civilian militia
that it armed and directed engaged in one of the worst bloodlettings of
the postwar era. Over the course of several months in 1965-66, they
slaughtered members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) along with
members of loosely affiliated organizations (women's groups, labor
unions, etc.). While Indonesia's holocaust does not meet the strict
guidelines of the genocide convention, the scale and nature of the
killing spree were undoubtedly genocide-like, similar to the bulk of the
Khmer Rouge's crimes in Cambodia. Amnesty International estimated "many
more than 1 million killed." The head of the Indonesian state security
system approximated the toll at half a million, with another 750,000
jailed or sent to concentration camps. The American political
establishment welcomed the slaughter and the emergence of Suharto's New
Order, with Time hailing it as "the West's best news for years in
The United States had effectively helped to lay the groundwork for the
military's seizure of power through its interference in Indonesian
affairs and support for the military over the years. Washington had also
long urged the military to move against the PKI. Accordingly, it
supplied weaponry and telecommunications equipment, as well as food and
other forms of aid, to the Indonesian Army in the early weeks of the
slaughter. The American embassy also provided the military with the
names of thousands of PKI cadres who were subsequently killed.
About ten years later, the Indonesian Frankenstein that Washington had
helped to create decided to invade Indonesia's tiny neighbor of East
Timor. Rather than just looking away, as Power incorrectly reports in
her one reference to East Timor, Washington aided and abetted an
international crime of aggression. While this has long been alleged, the
recent release of formerly classified documents by the Washington-based
National Security Archive now proves that then-President Gerald Ford and
Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy czar, gave Suharto the green light
for the December 7, 1975, invasion while meeting with him the previous
day. Over the following quarter-century, various US administrations
provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training and economic
assistance to Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation.
And in the early years of the slaughter, a time described by an
Australian government body as "indiscriminate killing on a scale
unprecedented in post-World War II history," Washington took
concerted steps to insure that the UN did not take effective action to
end Indonesia's annexation. The result was the death of well over
200,000 East Timorese, about one-third of the preinvasion population.
And, finally, Guatemala. There, more than 200,000, most of them
indigenous Mayans, lost their lives in the context of a brutal conflict
between a US-backed military oligarchy and a guerrilla force during the
1970s and '80s. The 1999 report of the internationally supported
Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the
state was responsible for over 90 percent of the deaths and had
committed "acts of genocide." The commission also found that American
training of members of Guatemala's intelligence apparatus and officer
corps in counterinsurgency "had significant bearing on human rights
Because Samantha Power excludes cases like these from her analysis, she
seems to have little problem endorsing American global dominance and, on
the basis of such, calling for the United States to take the lead in
battling genocide. At the very end of an excellent chapter on the grisly
slaughter by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica, for example, Power lets
Senator Bob Dole explain why the United States finally became involved
in helping to end the terror in Bosnia. "Because we happen to be the
leader of the world," Dole stated.
Clearly there is a problem with Washington taking the lead in fighting
something it has helped to perpetrate on numerous occasions, and for
which it has never atoned, apart from a halfhearted admission of
wrongdoing (but not an apology, by Clinton in the case of Guatemala).
Simply because the United States has been complicit in gross atrocities
in the past does not mean, of course, that it is therefore incapable of
doing good, if even for the wrong reasons. But it does mean that we
should remain extremely skeptical of American leadership on the global
stage. As the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict painfully
demonstrates, what Washington calls American leadership is, as often as
not, unilateralist, bullying, obstructionist. All of these manifest
themselves in Washington's acceptance of Israel's flouting of
international law regarding its ongoing occupation and dispossession of
the Palestinian people. The United States has long been a principal
obstacle to an internationally acceptable solution, and it has done what
it can to prevent a multilateral approach to resolving the conflict.
Such antipathy toward international law and political institutions means
that "genocide prevention" could turn out to be just another instrument
in Washington's empire-maintenance tool kit.
If one of the main objectives of Power's book is to get the United
States to take a more active role in ending mass slaughter, surely it
would seem to be more efficacious--as well as principled--to begin by
scrutinizing cases in which the United States has been directly
involved. In this regard, her appeal to the American political
establishment on the basis of morality and enlightened self-interest
(genocide, she argues, causes regional and international instability,
something bad for the United States) is ill conceived. Ending
Washington's role in the slaughter of innocents requires struggling
against American militarism and unilateralism, as well as against
Washington's refusal to submit to international security and legal
mechanisms that would have even a remote possibility of holding US
officials accountable. The US refusal to sign on to the recently
established International Criminal Court and to cooperate with efforts
by a number of countries to question Henry Kissinger regarding various
international crimes is merely the latest manifestation of such
This is not to suggest that if we could get the American house in order,
the world would be fine. As Power's book shows, there are plenty of
"evildoers" to go around. Something must be done to stop them, yes, but
it should be a truly international project. The best place to start is
at home, but not by first and foremost asking Washington to intercede
abroad. Demanding a US foreign policy consistent with international law
and human rights standards, as well as international accountability for
American officials who may have engaged in war crimes and crimes against
humanity, is the first step. Doing so will also increase the likelihood
of international cooperation in cases championed by Washington.
Finally, it is not obvious why mass killing that falls under the rubric
of genocide should be paramount in terms of international prevention and
adjudication. Power does not claim this explicitly, but it is a fair
conclusion to draw given that she does not discuss other terrible crimes
against humanity that result in massive loss of life. Why, for example,
should Serbian crimes in Bosnia be more worthy of scrutiny and demands
for accountability than, say, the US war against Vietnam, which caused
the deaths of 2-3 million civilians? In this regard, we must be
careful that the need to suppress and seek justice for genocide does not
prevent us from seeing all mass killings of civilians, no matter who
commits them, as unacceptable, and from acting accordingly.
One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command
was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska
Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the
keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The
conference--"International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the
U.S. Record"--took place at New School University, where Kerrey is
president, and grew out of Kerrey's own suggestion that his experience
in Vietnam be turned into an "educational moment." On hand were an array
of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh
Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials
(former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone,
former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the
former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important
subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey
was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience
might shed light on America's culpability for human rights violations in
Vietnam. "When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an
educational moment," he announced, "I did not intend to meekly submit to
cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign
policy during the war in Vietnam."
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since
Gregory Vistica's excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey's
Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica
presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question.
According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of
Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of
fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching
for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the
more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however--a
version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors--roughly a dozen
women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night.
Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had
reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough
that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for
an "urgent, thorough and independent inquiry" of the case. "For the US
to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as
have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the
world to enforce these essential standards," the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has
evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New
School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found
itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey
never told school officials about the operation until the story made
international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for
him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the
faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey's public acknowledgment
should serve as an occasion for the United States "to consider its own
record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere."
At least some faculty members are now regretting that decision, for the
controversy about Kerrey's past has been compounded by growing rancor
over his vision of the New School's future. In March, Kenneth Prewitt,
the popular dean of the school's vaunted Graduate Faculty of Political
and Social Science, resigned after concluding that "the emphasis was on
revenue flows rather than building academic excellence." At a public
forum in March, Prewitt revealed that at one point a provost suggested
awarding cash bonuses to deans who increased the number of
tuition-paying students in their divisions, a notion Kerrey admitted was
his own "bad idea." Other faculty members believe Kerrey has not been
straightforward about the future of the university's core division, the
Graduate Faculty. In March the GF was informed it would have to cut its
budget by $5 million to become self-sustaining (virtually all doctoral
programs rely on subsidies from other divisions to stay afloat). When
Kerrey was questioned about his plans in the Times, he reversed course,
indicating that the subsidy might actually increase. At a faculty dinner
two nights later, an associate dean who asked whether this was true was
reportedly told by Kerrey not to believe everything he read in the
Such lack of forthrightness is reminiscent of Kerrey's handling of the
Vietnam story. When Klann's account first appeared, after all, Kerrey
did not flat-out deny it ("I'm not going to make this worse by
questioning somebody else's memory"), but he accused the media of
"collaborating" with those who want to believe the worst about America.
He expressed anguish and regret ("If I'd have lost both arms and both
legs and my sight and my hearing, it wouldn't have been as much as I
lost that night"). But he hired public relations adviser John
Scanlon--who orchestrated the campaign against tobacco industry
whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (and has since died)--to spin the story.
In his keynote address, Kerrey did advocate more thorough training of US
troops in the laws of war, but he also complained that critics who harp
on Vietnam have made America excessively cautious about using force
Perhaps we should expect nothing different from a public figure whose
reputation is his livelihood. But many people do expect more from the
New School. "I really question the wisdom of the university leaders
here," said John Kim, an army veteran who attended the conference and
heads the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace. "If he had come out
openly and admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to the victims, I
would support him. But I think the trustees and students and faculty
should demand his resignation until there is an independent
investigation or he comes forward with a full admission of his role."
I am beginning to suspect that Nation readers may not fully appreciate the challenges Attorney General John Ashcroft faces. What would you do in his place? Your intelligence agencies had no advance knowledge of the September 11 plot and don't appear to know much more about future attackers. Airport security screeners are letting test bombs and guns pass at alarming rates, and your immigration agency is so hapless that it issued visa extensions to two of the hijackers six months after they died flying planes into the World Trade Center towers. When you consider the threat from their side and the incompetence on ours, it's understandable that Ashcroft has cast his net so wide. He's shooting in the dark. In fact, the expanse of his net is probably inversely proportional to the depth of the intelligence he has received.
But just as with the terrorists themselves, understanding Ashcroft's motives does not justify his actions. To date, despite the thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants arrested, searched, profiled and questioned, Ashcroft has charged only a single person--Zaccarias Moussaoui--with any involvement in the attacks of September 11. And he was arrested before the attacks occurred. Such broad-brush tactics are unlikely to succeed, for they give notice to potential targets, allowing them to evade detection while alienating the very communities we must work with to identify potential threats who may be living among them.
Ashcroft has shown no signs of getting closer to his target. And the less he finds, the wider he sweeps. He recently announced that he was extending to 3,000 more people his much-criticized initiative to subject male immigrants from Arab countries to "voluntary" interviews, despite the fact that the initial interviews have led to no further charges in the investigation. And having learned how easy it is to use immigration law as a pretext for criminal law enforcement when you lack probable cause, the Justice Department is now preparing to enlist local police officers to help enforce immigration law, a disastrous proposal likely to drive immigrant communities even deeper underground.
The lengths to which Ashcroft will go was revealed most recently by his indictment of Lynne Stewart, a 62-year-old New York attorney who has made a career of courageously taking on clients for whom few other lawyers are willing to risk their reputations. Her most notorious such case was defending Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in his 1995 criminal trial for conspiring to bomb the tunnels into Manhattan. Now she's charged with providing "material support" to the sheik's organization, the Egypt-based Islamic Group, largely by abetting communications between the sheik--whom prison regulations prohibit from communicating with virtually anyone in the outside world--and others in the group.
The government simultaneously announced that it will make Rahman its test case for its unprecedented initiative to listen in on attorney-client communications. Confidential exchanges with lawyers have long been sacrosanct, because they are critical to any fair legal process. In the past, they could be intruded upon only with a warrant based on probable cause that the communications were intentionally furthering criminal activity, but the new regulations permit monitoring without a warrant or probable cause. But under regulations issued after September 11, the government claims the authority to monitor attorney-client communications without establishing probable cause for believing that the communications are being used for illegal ends, and without obtaining authorization from a judge.
Most troubling, Ashcroft is prosecuting Stewart although she has not been charged with furthering any illegal or violent activity of the Islamic Group, a wide-ranging Islamic political movement that engages in a great deal of lawful activity in addition to terrorism. While many have criticized the government for targeting a lawyer, of far more concern is its criminalization of speech and associations having no connection to terrorism. Unable to link Stewart to any actual terrorist activity in any way, Ashcroft has resorted to guilt by association. As a US citizen, Stewart will at least have an opportunity to defend herself in a public trial. Not so the hundreds of noncitizens still being detained on immigration charges in connection with the September 11 investigation, many long after their immigration proceedings have concluded. Under orders from Ashcroft, they are being tried in secret proceedings closed to the public, press, legal observers and family members.
In a major setback for the Ashcroft agenda, US District Judge Nancy Edmunds on April 3 declared the closed proceedings unconstitutional. She ruled that open trials are a fundamental feature of our justice system and that any closure must be carried out not in the sweeping manner that Ashcroft so favors but through means narrowly tailored to protect national security interests. The government has appealed, arguing that to act in a more narrowly tailored fashion might tip off Al Qaeda to what we do and don't know. But one has to wonder whether the government's real concern isn't that opening the proceedings might tip off the public to just how wildly John Ashcroft is shooting in the dark.
Israel and Palestine will not find peace until both have security and sovereignty.
How cool is Jennifer Harbury? She is currently arguing her own case before the Supreme Court, demanding the right to sue the government because, she maintains, its leaders deliberately misled her about the murder of her husband, a Guatemalan rebel leader named Efrain Bamaca Velasquez who was killed in army custody during the counterinsurgency war in Guatemala in the early 1990s.
Harbury has a case. The State Department has confirmed that Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, who was present during Bamaca's interrogation/murder, was a paid CIA asset. A CIA report alleges that Alpirez did the dirty deed himself. When then-State Department official Richard Nuccio informed Senator Robert Torricelli of that, Nuccio immediately found himself the target of a Justice Department investigation. A federal prosecutor accused him of betraying America by conspiring with Torricelli to blow Alpirez's cover, of destroying CIA officers' careers and of being an agent of the guerrillas. Although the United States offered no official charges or accusations, in a highly unusual move the CIA demanded that the State Department strip Nuccio of his security clearance, thereby depriving him of his livelihood. Harbury endured a thirty-two-day hunger strike to force those officials to come clean. She is now arguing that she could have saved her husband's life through the US court system had she known the truth during the period between his capture in March 1992 and his murder in 1993 or 1994.
A report by the President's Intelligence Oversight Board rejected the charge of deliberate lying by US officials but admitted that if the government had bothered to investigate "when Jennifer Harbury first raised the issue of her husband's fate" in the spring of 1992, the State Department "might have been able at a much earlier date to provide her with useful information." The key word here appears to be "useful."
Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake and the other Clinton Administration officials named by Harbury are probably right when they argue that leveling with her at the time would have made little difference in saving her husband's life. US courts do not have jurisdiction over the Guatemalan military (though US foreign policy officials often do). They also deny that they lied. But for procedural reasons, the ex-officials have to argue that regardless of whether they lied, a US citizen has no legal right to sue a public official who does lie. Solicitor General Theodore Olson filed an amicus brief arguing on behalf of the government's right to lie: "It is an unfortunate reality that the issuance of incomplete information and even misinformation by government may sometimes be perceived as necessary to protect vital interests," he maintains.
This particular case stinks for more reasons than can be precisely counted. In addition to the above, Bamaca was killed by a genocidal government that enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. This is not only my opinion; it is the view of the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission's 1999 report, which condemns the United States for aiding a "criminal counterinsurgency" against the nation's indigenous Mayan population. America's Guatemala policy was anticommunism gone mad.
Moreover, if David Brock is to be believed, Olson is himself tainted by his lies to Congress. According to Brock's Congressional testimony, Olson lied during his confirmation hearings about his role in the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded "Arkansas Project," run out of the offices of The American Spectator and designed to undermine the Clinton presidency by any means necessary. What a surprise, therefore, that he thinks it's OK for the government to lie as well.
But the sorry truth is that the question of the government's right to lie is a lot more complicated than it looks. The Supreme Court has repeatedly enshrined in law the extremely provocative statement enunciated in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester: "It's inherent in [the] government's right, if necessary, to lie to save itself." Dishonest officials have stretched the "national security" definition beyond recognition to protect not only thuggish murderers but also narrow political interests. But the principle itself is not wholly unsound. Although lies undermine the confidence in, and practice of, democracy, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, one can imagine circumstances in which a temporary lie might save lives without endangering the Constitution.
The problem is how to set enforceable limits. Government officials lie all the time. And while it is a crime to lie to Congress and to commit perjury, these acts are prosecuted in such a haphazard and nakedly political fashion that they can hardly serve as much of a deterrent. Lawrence Walsh's legitimate prosecutions of Reagan Administration officials who lied about matters of state were mocked by allegedly high-minded pundits like David Broder and George Will and overturned in a cowardly fashion by defeated President George H.W. Bush after the 1992 election.
Meanwhile, a fanatical cabal inside the Republican Party and Kenneth Starr's office manipulated these same laws to impeach President Clinton and disarm his popular agenda over a private lie not about a matter of state but a routine case of almost adultery. Given that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans have told this same type of lie to protect their families (or themselves) from humiliation, they saw this partisan gambit for what it was, punishing its perpetrators in the 1998 election. But the self-righteous pooh-bahs of the punditocracy--many of whom celebrated the Reagan-era liars and quite a few of whom told their share of adulterous lies--behave as if their hypocrisy were somehow patriotically inspired.
Jennifer Harbury continues to fight not only for justice for her husband but also for a reasonable definition of the government's right to lie. Bully for this brave woman who, despite her personal tragedy, takes democracy more seriously than its alleged protectors. She is a patriot to put the pundits to shame.
The Bush Administration has vigorously and effectively responded to the terrorist attack of September 11. The country seems united behind that effort. Certainly there was no hint of a doubt in the repeated standing ovations Congress gave the President's State of the Union address, including his bold declaration that the war on terrorism has just begun. The President singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the most likely next targets of America's aroused ire against terrorists and governments that attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction that we, the Russians, the British, the French, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Israelis already possess.
No longer in government, I do not have the benefit of national security briefings or Congressional committee deliberations. So perhaps instead of making assertions, it may be more appropriate for me to ask some questions that have been on my mind both before and since September 11.
Which course might produce better results in advancing American security? Is it by continuing to boycott, diplomatically and commercially, such countries as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Cuba and threatening to bomb them? Or would we be better off opening up diplomatic, trade and travel relations with these countries, including a well-staffed embassy in each? If we are fearful of a country and doubtful of its intentions, wouldn't we be safer having an embassy with professional foreign service officers located in that country to tell us what is going on?
Our leaders frequently speak of "rogue nations." But what is a rogue nation? Isn't it simply one we have chosen to boycott because it doesn't always behave the way we think it should? Do such nations behave better when they are isolated and boycotted against any normal discourse? What do we have to lose in talking to "rogue nations" diplomatically, trading with them commercially and observing their economic, political and military conditions?
Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget, as the President has proposed, wouldn't we make the world a more stable, secure place if we invested half of that sum in reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world? We are now twentieth among nations in the percentage of gross national product devoted to improving life in the poor nations. If we invested half of the proposed new military spending in lifting the quality of life for the world's poor we would be the first among nations in helping others.
Is it possible that such an achievement would reduce some of the gathering anger that the poor and miserable of the earth may be inclined to direct at the rich and indifferent? Why does a wealthy zealot like Osama bin Laden gain such a huge following among the poor and powerless of the world? Acting on the old adage "charity begins at home," why not invest the other half of the proposed new money for the Pentagon in raising the educational, nutritional, housing and health standards of our own people?
Our military services are the best in the world. But with a military budget at record levels, do we need to allocate another $48 billion--an amount greater than the total military budget of any other nation? Is not the surest foundation for our military forces a healthy, educated, usefully employed citizenry? And is not the best way to diminish some of the international trouble spots, which might embroil our young men and women, by reducing the festering poverty, misery and hopelessness of a suffering world?
Of course we need to take reasonable precautions in our airports and other strategic points to guard against terrorists or nut cases. As a World War II bomber pilot, I appreciate the role of both tactical and strategic bombing in all-out warfare. But is sending our bombers worldwide in the hope that they might hit terrorist hideouts or such hostile governments as Iraq an effective way to end terrorism? May it not more likely erode our current international coalition, while fanning the flames of terrorism and hatred against us as the world's only superpower, hellbent on eradicating evil around the world?
The Administration now has seventy-five officials hidden in bunkers outside Washington poised to take over the government in the event of a terrorist attack. Is it possible that paranoia has become policy? No such extreme measures were undertaken in World War II, nor in the half-century of cold war between the two nuclear giants, Russia and the United States.
All of us who love this land want our President to succeed. Nothing would give me greater happiness than to see him become a great President. But is it possible that our well-intentioned President and his Vice President have gone off the track of common sense in their seeming obsession with terrorism? Is there still validity to the proverb "whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad"?
For half a century, our priorities were dominated by the fear of Russian Communism--until it collapsed of its own internal weakness. As I listen to the grim rhetoric of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, I wonder if they are leading us into another half-century of cold war, with terrorism replacing Communism as the second great hobgoblin of our age.
"... Come my friends,
'tis not too late to seek
a newer world, ..."
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