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It just got a little harder to ignore the dissenters in America's War on Terrorism.

The Bush Administration is turning into one big rehab center for the Iran/contra schemers of the Reagan/Bush White House. The latest case involves retired Adm. John Poindexter, who's been hired by the Pentagon to head a new agency, the Information Awareness Office. Created after September 11 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it is developing high-tech systems to provide government officials immediate access to new surveillance and information-analysis systems. Its focus, of course, includes terrorist groups.

Poindexter certainly has extensive experience dealing with terrorists. As Ronald Reagan's National Security Adviser, he was a key mover in the Iran/contra scandal of the 1980s, when the Reagan White House tried to pull off a secret arms-for-hostages deal with the terrorist-supporting regime of Iran. Poindexter also was one of the few Reagan officials who, according to the available evidence, knew that proceeds from the arguably illicit arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Nicaraguan contras. He later testified that he had deliberately withheld information from Reagan on the diversion because "I wanted the President to have some deniability so that he would be protected."

After the arms-for-hostages deal became public in late 1986, Poindexter "repeatedly laid out a false version" in order to distance Reagan from the most questionable weapons transactions, according to Iran/contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Poindexter, with his aide Oliver North, also attempted to shred and destroy records regarding their Iran/contra activities.

Poindexter was tried and convicted of five felonies, including obstructing official inquiries and lying to Congress. He was sentenced to six months in prison. But he walked. In a two-to-one decision in 1991, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned Poindexter's convictions on the ground that his trial had been tainted by his immunized Congressional testimony. (North, convicted of three counts, avoided jail for the same reason.) This was escape, not vindication. Since leaving government service, Poindexter, a physicist by training, has been active as a military technology consultant. But the record remains: Poindexter admitted withholding information from his boss, he destroyed government documents and he misled official investigators. Does that sound like someone to entrust with a new government agency?

No problemo for the Bushies. They have happily provided homes to other Iran/contra reprobates. Elliott Abrams, who as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America in the Reagan years supervised contra policy, pleaded guilty to two charges of withholding information from Congress. Today, the fellow who downplayed reports of military massacres in Central America works for the National Security Council, overseeing human rights and democracy issues. (Abrams was pardoned by Bush I.)

Otto Reich ran a State Department office during the Iran/contra affair that "engaged in prohibited covert propaganda," according to a government inquiry. Now he has Abrams's old job at State. John Negroponte was US Ambassador to Honduras and facilitated a clandestine quid pro quo deal, under which the Reagan Administration sent aid to Honduras in return for Honduran assistance to the contras, at a time when Congress had banned the Administration from assisting the contras. Negroponte's embassy also suppressed information about human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military. Negroponte is currently our UN ambassador.

Perhaps the most significant Iran/contra rehabilitation concerns the President's father: "41" was an Iran/contra ringleader who lied about his role. After the scandal broke, Bush claimed he had not been "in the loop." But according to documents later released, he had attended high-level meetings on the Iran initiative and had participated in the Administration's quid pro quo with Honduras. It was only after Bush I was bounced out of office that his personal diary notes--long sought by investigators--became available. His entry for November 5, 1986 (two days after the Iran initiative was revealed by a Lebanese weekly), reads, "I'm one of the few people that know fully the details.... This is one operation that has been held very, very tight, and I hope it will not leak." That boastful note wins Bush the Elder a top spot in the roster of Iran/contra prevaricators. Yet he went on to become a rather important adviser to a high-ranking member of the present Administration.

There has been one exception to the all-is-forgiven rule at the Bush II White House. In October, Duane Clarridge, a CIA official involved in the scandal who was indicted for lying to Congress, was set to become an assistant in the NSC's counterterrorism office. But then the White House yanked the welcome mat. In speaking to one reporter, a disappointed Clarridge cited Abrams, noting that, unlike Abrams, he had not pleaded guilty. (Clarridge was pardoned by Daddy Bush before his case could be tried.) Poor guy, he does have a point. Why embrace Abrams--and Poindexter, Reich and Negroponte--but not Clarridge? Was secretly mining Nicaragua's harbor, a Clarridge initiative that earned a World Court ruling against the United States, worse than shredding, or lying to Congress, or covering up human rights abuses?

So is there anyone left to be rehabilitated? Oliver North has a good gig at Fox News, where he shares his expert opinions on how to deal with terrorists. (Sell them missiles and bring them a nice cake?) Richard Secord, the wheeling-dealing general-turned-arms-merchant who managed North's secret contra supply operation, may well be seeking business opportunities arising from the war on terrorism. Perhaps retired Gen. John Singlaub could be assigned a mission. Recently, at a conference of conservatives I bumped into Singlaub, who ran the World Anti-Communist League in the 1980s and plotted with North to raise money covertly for the contras from foreign countries. Are you active these days? I asked. "Yes," he said, adding no more. Same sort of stuff as always? "Yes," he replied and shifted his feet. Like what? I asked. He stalked off. The man can still keep a secret--sign him up. By the way, Robert McFarlane, Poindexter's predecessor as National Security Adviser and a co-author of the Iran deal and the contra policy, re-emerged in October as an adviser to an anti-Taliban Afghan fighter who was ambushed and killed during a botched operation. Maybe there's a spot available for him. When it comes to personnel, Iran/contra is no stigma for the Bush clan. In most instances, it seems to be a mark of honor.

It is now widely acknowledged that what sparked the most devastating attack on the American mainland in history was the continued presence of US troops on Saudi Arabian soil after the Gulf War--which, in 1991, prompted the disaffection of Osama bin Laden, until then part of the Saudi political/business establishment. With US troops, warplanes and other military hardware stationed in all the gulf Arab monarchies, and the Pentagon's Fifth Fleet headquartered in the island state of Bahrain, why does the United States need to maintain a military presence on Saudi soil?

It would be naïve to expect a straight answer from US authorities, so one has to make do with the explanations offered recently by unnamed Pentagon officials, especially the one "who has worked intimately with Saudi Arabia" and who told the Washington Post in mid-January that the United States promised to withdraw its contingent from the Saudi kingdom "when the job is done." As the Post reported, "Saudis interpreted that to mean the job of expelling Iraq from Kuwait [in 1990-91], but many US officials think the job remains undone as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad."

The official was referring to the written promise from President Bush Senior, secured by King Fahd before he invited US troops to his country, in August 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. So, out goes the explanation dished up routinely by the State Department and the Pentagon for many years--that the troops and warplanes are based inside Saudi Arabia to monitor the US/UK-imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq, implying that the discontinuation of this zone would end the Pentagon's presence in the desert kingdom. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the logic even more explicit in a January 20 Fox-TV interview quoted in the International Herald Tribune: The US military presence in Saudi Arabia, he said, "might end only when the world turned into 'the kind of place we dreamed of. They [US forces] serve a useful purpose there as a deterrent to Saddam Hussein, but beyond that as a symbol.'"

Fahd extracted Bush Senior's promise in 1990 in order to overcome stiff opposition from ranking clerics, who provide legitimacy to the rule of the House of Saud. The presence of US troops under their own flag in Saudi Arabia violates a cardinal Islamic principle that the kingdom has enforced since its inception in 1932, treating all Saudi territory as a mosque, based on Mohammed's deathbed injunction: "Let there be no two religions in Arabia." Clearly King Fahd was apprehensive about US troops in his kingdom acting as an independent force to achieve their anti-Iraq objective without regard for its impact on Saudi interests or sovereignty. Twelve years on, he and Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, find Washington trying to impose its interpretation of what "the job" entails and when it is "done."

America's insistence on imposing its will on Riyadh is fueling the anger many Saudis feel toward Washington, especially regarding its unquestioned support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which generates sympathy for Osama bin Laden. A secret survey in mid-October by the kingdom's intelligence agency, Istikhabart, showed that 95 percent of educated Saudis in the 25-to-41 age group supported "bin Laden's cause." Given this sociopolitical fact, it seems unlikely that the regime in Riyadh can continue its tight military links with Washington. The writing is on the wall. "Since September 11 America has lost the Saudi people," said Dr. Abdulrahman al-Zamil, chairman of the al-Zamil business group. "America tried to convince people that they are here to protect the [Saudi] regime, and that is total garbage. Their presence is a liability to the Saudi government." The airing of such a view by an affluent businessman, who is also a member of the consultative council appointed by the monarch, could have happened only with the connivance of the royal family.

Perceiving widespread opposition to the presence of US troops in the kingdom, the top decision-makers in Riyadh may have decided to raise the previously taboo issue in public, if only to signal to their subjects that their views are being taken into account. However, along with their American counterparts, they face a dilemma: How can US military presence in the kingdom be curtailed or ended without appearing to reward bin Laden? There is no easy way out.

It's one thing to have Somali groups protesting Black Hawk Down for what they say is an inaccurate and racist portrayal of Somalis.

Secrecy is the guiding philosophy of the Bush Administration.

It's safe to assume that the 150 or so Al Qaeda and Taliban militiamen now occupying those 6-by-8-foot cages in Guantánamo Bay are not sympathetic characters. It's also reasonable, and important, to say that they are in less danger to life and limb than their comrades handed over by the United States to the Northern Alliance. While the Western press has focused almost exclusively on Camp X-Ray, Amnesty International reported on February 1 that "the lives of thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan are at risk" from hunger and "rampant" dysentery, pneumonia and hepatitis, in overcrowded prison camps where inmates suffer shortages of food and medical supplies and "are not sheltered from severe winter conditions."

The fact that Camp X-Ray comes out ahead of the dreadful prevailing POW standard in postwar Afghanistan does the United States no credit. The image of prisoners shipped hooded, shackled and sedated to an unknown location was a foreign-policy disaster: in Europe, the Mideast and Asia alike, conjuring raw memories of the most vicious hostage-takings. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's insistence that X-Ray's prisoners fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution only furthered the impression of an Administration descending to the brutal law-enforcement benchmark of an authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia. (Evidently the Administration just wants its guests to feel at home: Saudis count for at least 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners.) The White House's February 7 turnabout, declaring that Geneva Convention rules apply to Taliban captives but not Al Qaeda, amounts to a fig leaf satisfying neither the specific requirements of the accords nor the broader sense of alarm worldwide.

In part the shock expressed by US allies at the method of transport and incarceration at Guantánamo shows the huge gap between Europe and the United States on prisons and punishment. Western European prisons, for the most part, come nowhere near the degrading and isolating inmate-control regimens in many US facilities. Camp X-Ray is a close cousin to supermax penitentiaries with their psychically debilitating twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement and twenty-four-hour cell lighting.

But comparing X-Ray to conventional prisons, and Afghanistan militia to conventional prisoners, only forces the questions Rumsfeld and the White House have tried so hard to obfuscate: Are the prisoners POWs or criminals? Just what rights should these international brigades of clerical fascism retain, as the losing side in a war backed by the United States but fought largely by proxy forces? Rumsfeld and the White House insist that neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda are prisoners of war but instead "unlawful combatants," suggesting that they don't deserve the numerous protections afforded POWs, most famously the right to respond to questions with name, rank and serial number but also including rights to representation, repatriation and due process. The Administration is now willing to admit that Taliban militia, as the former army of Afghanistan, are at least covered by the accords' broader humanitarian provisions; but the majority of Guantánamo prisoners--those Al Qaeda "Arab Afghans" who fought as allies of the Taliban regime--the White House still casts completely outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

A press outspun by Rumsfeld's daily patter has missed the simple fact that, as law, this argument has more holes than a Tora Bora cave after US bombardment. "Unlawful combatants" is a phrase found nowhere in the Geneva accords. Here is how Human Rights Watch summarizes it: "Under international humanitarian law, combatants captured during an international armed conflict should be presumed to be POWs until determined otherwise." Only a court or other "competent tribunal"--not the Defense Secretary or the President--can make that determination. In fact, the Pentagon's own Judge Advocate General Handbook declares that "when doubt exists" about a prisoner's status, "tribunals must be convened"--as they were for Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War.

The United States has good reason to care about these procedures. During the Vietnam War, Hanoi declared captured US fliers "unlawful combatants." It was Washington that insisted otherwise; in 1977 the United States made sure that the Geneva protocols were revised to insure that anyone captured in war is protected by the treaty whether civilian, military or in between, whether or not they technically meet the POW definition. Simply put, when President Bush unilaterally declares the majority of its prisoners outside the penumbra of the Geneva convention, he is still flouting both international law and international sensibility.

The trouble with placing Guantánamo's prisoners in a legal no man's land doesn't end there. If captured militia are not POWs then they can continue to be held only if they're individually charged with war crimes or other specific offenses. If that should happen to the Guantánamo prisoners, they're entitled to a "fair and regular trial" (a standard that almost certainly cannot be met by the drumhead courts authorized by Bush).

Bush's latest policy turn amounts to internment without trial for alleged Al Qaeda. It's entirely appropriate to want to question the Al Qaeda mafia's foot soldiers, and there are plenty of legitimate claims on the prosecution of Al Qaeda, from citizens in Kabul and New York and points between. But the way to go about both is through existing criminal and international laws--an approach that gets results, as the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet proved in courts on two continents. The Rumsfeld-Bush strategy, on the other hand, undermines the idea of cooperative transnational prosecution and representation of victims, replacing evolving international law with an autocratic extension of this Administration's foreign-policy unilateralism: If we can live without the ABM treaty, why not pitch those troublesome Geneva accords over the side as well?

In the Administration only Colin Powell understands how profoundly this shortsighted approach runs counter to the national interest. Powell is no friend of human rights. But he pushed so hard--winning the compromise of Geneva Convention recongition for Taliban prisoners--because as a former military man he knows that the United States, the world's number-one projector of force, has its own reasons to seek universal respect for the Geneva Conventions--conventions we instantly invoked when American pilots were shot down in the Persian Gulf, and again in the Balkans. Powell knows, too, that the whole logic of the Geneva accords--those special POW protections--is to entice losing combatants into pragmatic and dignified surrender. By making a transnational mockery of the Geneva protocols, Rumsfeld and Bush are inviting future enemies to conclude that suicidal escalation, rather than surrender, is the only sensible closing chapter of their jihad.

Rumsfeld is hell-bent on turning the prisoners of Camp X-Ray into legal nonpersons--essentially stateless, without the safe harbor of either international law or the US Constitution, granted status and rights only at the whim of the Defense Secretary. That may seem to serve the short-term goals of Al Qaeda interrogation, but the picture it presents to the world--a superpower playing semantic games with the most basic wartime covenants, setting back the evolving machinery for transnational justice--will generate its own unhappy blowback.

We have reached the point that the idea of liberty, an idea relatively recent and new, is already in the process of fading from our consciences and our standards of morality, the point that neoliberal globalization is in the process of assuming its opposite: that of a global police state, of a terror of security. Deregulation has ended in maximum security, in a level of restriction and constraint equivalent to that found in fundamentalist societies.

--Jean Baudrillard, "L'Esprit du Terrorisme,"
reprinted in Harper's Magazine, February 2002

Dear Editor,

Sorry to have missed my column deadline. I got delayed at the airport. I was intending to write about the progress of the war on war. I wanted to write about how similar are the wars of words being used in the war on terrorism, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy and the war on hunger. I had intended to explore the ramifications of terms like "axis of evil," "triumvirate of terror," "parasites" and the concept of "taking no prisoners" (just detainees).

If I hadn't been delayed, I meant to talk about the war stories we're telling ourselves. That the Geneva Conventions aren't such a big thing. There's just no time for Miranda rights. Civil rights are just not needed. Got to break a few rules to enforce the law.

I was thinking that maybe I am just behind the times. While I wasn't looking, we moved on to less law, more New World Order. It's sort of a military order, as it turns out. It's a religious order too, what with our taxes becoming tithes for Faith Based Initiatives, Soldiers of Fortune and born-again Armies of Compassion.

But order it is, and you've got to admit, an ordered society is a nice and tidy one. Enemies are secretly and sanitarily disposed of. The media are controlled to provide only uplifting images of clean conquest and happy, grateful multitudes. Noisy protesters are swept into neat piles, like leaves. The government encourages village snoops and urban gossips to volunteer their infinite time and darkest thoughts as a way of keeping the rest of us in line. And I don't know much about Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, but you've got to say this for him: that bias-cut green silk tunic worn over relaxed-fit, wool/linen blend trousers has become "le must" of the fashion world. No wonder Bush is up for that Nobel Peace Prize.

Anyway, that's what I was going to write about, but I didn't have time because I had to take a flight to Philadelphia and I was late because the old man who lives on the next block put his head in my car window as I was about to drive off and he wouldn't remove it while he told me all about how he's our new neighborhood volunteer-for-victory monitor or some such, and he wanted to take an inventory right there and then of any supplies I might have in my house that would be useful in case of national emergency. Any gas masks? Generators? Cell phones? Cudgels? Axes? Prescription drugs?

"Band-Aids," I offered politely. "And could we possibly do this another time?"

"How many people live in your house?" he persisted. "And didn't I see you pushing a baby carriage the other day?"

"Not in many years," I say.

"But I'm sure it was you," he pressed. At that instant I was visited by a very clear image of him on the witness stand. He is white-haired and gentle-eyed, firm-voiced and credible. Even I wanted to believe him so much that I forgot that I had not yet been charged with anything.

When I finally got to the airport I went through the abasements of security, a ritual cleansing of the sort practiced at maximum security prisons: I removed my shoes. I took off my coat. I held out my arms. A guard in a rakish blue beret bestowed apologies like a rain of blessings as she wanded my armpits. "You have an underwire in your bra?" she asked. "You mind if I feel?"

It is hard to be responsive to such a prayer with any degree of grace. It is ceremonial, I know, a warding off of strip-search hell. "Not at all," I intoned, as though singing in Latin.

Another agent was going through my bags. He removed my nail clippers from the intimacy of my makeup pouch and discarded them in a large vat filled with hundreds of nail clippers. A proper sacrifice, I think. I imagine they will distribute them to the poor.

The agent put on rubber gloves and opened my thermos and swirled the coffee around. He removed the contents of my purse and spread it out. When he picked up my leatherbound diary and flipped slowly through the pages, a balloon of irreligiosity exploded at the back of my head, and I could feel the hair rise up, as it does sometimes, getting all militant despite my best prostrations of mousse.

"My diary?" I said as evenly as I could. "This is getting like the old Soviet Union."

"So, you visited the Soviet Union...?" he asked, a glinty new interest hardening what had been his prior languor.

Anyway, I finally got to where I was going. And on my way back from Philadelphia, I wasn't searched at all. They stopped the woman just in front of me, though, and there she stood, shoeless and coatless, with the tampons from her purse emptied upon the altar of a plastic tray. Once on the plane, she and I commiserated, and then the oddest thing happened. Others around us joined in about how invaded and humiliated they felt when searched. The conversation spread across the aisle, then to the seat in front, the row in back. It grew to about five rows of people, all angry at the overseers, all suspicious, all disgruntled and afraid. I was, I admit, strangely relieved to see that we were not only black or brown; we were men and women, white and Asian, young kids, old designer suits. There was a weird, sad kind of unity in our vulnerability, this helplessness of ours. But there was a scary emotional edge to the complaining, a kind of heresy that flickered through it too. What a baffled little coterie we were. Equal opportunity at last.

Anyway, dear editor, that, in short, is why this is not a column. I was having a really bad hair day.

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