As Obama moves against homegrown terrorists, it’s time to read the fine print
The president's national security strategy focuses the big security guns on homegrown terrorism, but some observers fear the new program will ride roughshod over democratic terrain.
John Brennan, deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism and homeland security, said the document explicitly recognized the threat posed by “individuals radicalized here at home.”
As was to be expected, the “radicalized” were overwhelmingly identified as American-Muslims, drawn astray by faraway terrorist organizations, like Al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban.
Brennan, speaking at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said America had to look beyond fighting “sophisticated, 9/11 style attacks.”
“We've seen an increasing number of individuals here in the United States become captivated by extremist activities or causes,” he said.
“We've seen individuals, including US citizens, armed with their US passport, travel easily to terrorist safe havens and return to America, their deadly plans disrupted by coordinated intelligence and law enforcement.”
He stressed that the US was at war not with Islam but “Al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates.”
In Washington’s new security strategy, released Thursday, it is stressed that America’s arch-enemy continues to be Al-Qaeda – not Islam. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist organization was mentioned no less than 40 times throughout the 60-page security document.
“We will always seek to delegitimize the use of terrorism and to isolate those who carry it out. Yet this is not a global war against a tactic – terrorism or a religion – Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa’ida, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies, and partners,” the document read.
“Several recent incidences of violent extremists in the United States who are committed to fighting here and abroad have underscored the threat to the United States and our interests posed by individuals radicalized at home.”
This description will instantly bring to mind a rogue’s gallery of misguided thugs and crackpots, like Richard “Shoe Bomber” Reid, Umar “Christmas Day Bomber” Abdulmutallab, and finally, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized US citizen of Pakistan decent who left an amateurishly rigged explosive device inside of his running car in Times Square on May 1.
And who could forget Colleen Rosa, aka Jihad Jane, who got her 15 seconds of fiendish fame after she was busted for chatting with terrorists over the Internet?
As a result of such security setbacks, “The Federal Government will invest in intelligence to understand this threat and expand community engagement and development programs to empower local communities.”
Incidentally, the document never mentions the invasive powers awarded to the intelligence community through the Patriot Act, rammed through without appropriate debate by the Bush administration when America blinked after the devastating attacks of 9/11.
Those extreme powers now belong to the Obama administration.
Terrorism knows no religion or creed
Ironically, Obama’s new security strategy draws a disproportionate amount of attention to the Al-Qaeda side of the US terror threat, yet some of America’s most heinous acts of terrorism have been faithfully carried out by homegrown Christians. Timothy McVeigh, for example, received the death penalty for detonating a truck bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and wounding scores more.
More recently, Andrew Joseph Stack, a disgruntled computer engineer and failed entrepreneur, flew his private aircraft into the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Austin, Texas, killing himself and an IRS employee. Despite the obvious similarities – albeit on a significantly smaller scale – between Stack’s desperate strategy and the attacks of 9/11, US officials refused to categorize the Austin attack as an act of terrorism.
A leading Muslim advocacy group petitioned government officials to call the suicide plane crash in Texas “an act of terror,” arguing that if a Muslim had been flying the plane it would have immediately been labeled as such. The argument is worthy of consideration.
“Whenever an individual or group attacks civilians in order to make a political statement, that is an act of terror,” Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told The Hill, a Washington newspaper.
“Terrorism is terrorism, regardless of the faith, race or ethnicity of the perpetrator or the victims,” Awad concluded.
On behalf of full media disclosure, it must be added that two Texas lawmakers did the right thing by calling the attack an act of terror.
“Like the larger-scale tragedy in Oklahoma City, this was a cowardly act of domestic terrorism,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) in a statement.
And Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), at a press conference following the crash, told a reporter that “it sounds like [a terrorist attack] to me.”
But the Obama administration’s new guidelines for hunting down terrorists at home go beyond the religious or political motivations of the suspects; increasingly, the war on homegrown terrorists comes down to a matter of law and justice for all Americans.
Enjoy your civil liberties (while you can)
In aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration had little problem ramming through its (now) controversial US Patriot Act (the contrived acronym of this brutal crowbar into our private lives stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001).
The Patriot Act, as is already well known, dramatically increased the ability of the law enforcement agencies' ability to search citizens’ telephone, e-mail communications, medical, financial, and even library records, in addition to numerous other invasions big and small.
In his documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore bagged an interview with Senator John Conyers, Jr. who candidly admitted that most of the lawmakers never even read the Patriot Act before passing it.
“We don't really read most of the bills,” Conyers confessed. “Do you know what that would entail if we read every bill that we passed?”
Conyers then answers his own rhetorical question, saying that if they did [read every bill] it would “slow down the legislative process.”
And here is where the Bush-era web of sabotage and intrigue weaves itself seamlessly into the Obama administration’s sanitized version of the War on Terror: The Patriot Act expanded the definition of terrorism to include “domestic terrorism,” thus widening the number of activities to which the security agency’s activities could be applied.
Since the net used for fishing out suspected terrorists has just widened significantly, it may do well to consider the subtle aspects of this new legislation.
First, Obama’s new security strategy will help to silence some of his more vocal critics (read: Republicans), who regularly drag the Democrats over the coals for going soft on terrorists (by doing things that are considered de rigueur in democratic societies, like reading suspected criminals their Miranda Rights, and providing them with a lawyer to ensure that their legal rights do not get waived, as is presently happening with striking regularity).
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who just can't stay out of the headlines, had these hot words for the Obama administration following the failed Christmas Day incident last year.
“As I’ve watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war,” the former vice president said. “He seems to think if he has a low key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people we won’t be at war.”
Cheney then cited the administration’s efforts to try the five alleged plotters of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in a civilian rather than a military court, and to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility – two things he is fiercely opposed to.
All of this raging rhetoric should make one sit up and wonder: What are the Republicans so afraid of? Is it simply a matter of them being afraid that the terrorists – who are certainly the most-fiercely guarded POWs in the history of warfare – will conspire to make a jail break on US territory? Come on! Not even the fear-mongering Republicans could possibly believe such a ridiculous thing.
Moreover, if the Neoconservatives were brave enough to send (not lead) US troops into the very hostile deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq, surely they can endure the traffic jams and security measures that such high-profile trials would demand back home. I mean, certainly they didn’t think the War on Terror only involved lucrative military contracts and proximity to oil reserves, right?
Maybe the Republicans are spooked by the hefty price tag that will come with trying suspected terrorists in one of our larger cities? This is equally implausible, since spending wads of taxpayer cash on the War on Terror has never stopped the Republicans before. Think of all the handsome security contracts such a trial would bring?
So what is it? What is making the seemingly fearless Republicans (and increasingly the Democrats, who are almost guaranteed to cave in and give all suspected terrorists military tribunals) tremble in their boots at the mere thought of offering legal rights to those individuals charged with acts of terrorism?
Here is a theory: the alleged terrorists, in the (rare) event that their legal rights are not waived, may utter something in an open, civilian court that is extremely damaging to the war on terrorism. Like, for example, they acted alone, as Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square would-be bomber has declared.
Immediately after the Times Square bombing story broke, an assortment of outlets (most notably by the SITE Intelligence Group, which was responsible for releasing a video purporting to show the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud declaring his group's responsibility for the attack) scrambled to make a connection between Shahzad and terrorist organizations in Pakistan. Yet Faisal Shahzad has gone on record as telling investigators that he acted alone. In other words, it is highly possible that he was a “lone wolf,” much like Andrew Stack, who flew his plane into the IRS building (an act, by the way, which did not result in drone missile attacks overseas).
Even the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a ragtag bunch of militants who have claimed responsibility in the past for lesser criminal acts carried out by others, denied any knowledge of Faisal Shahzad.
“We have no relation with Faisal. However, he is our Muslim brother,” Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told the AP in Pakistan by telephone from an undisclosed location. “We feel proud of Faisal. He did a brave job.”
Finally, David Petraeus, the US general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the Times Square bombing suspect is a “lone wolf” terrorist who did not work with others.
Despite all of the lingering doubts concerning Faisal Shahzad, not even the peace-loving, Nobel Prize-winning American president Barack Obama could restrain himself from unleashing a massive drone missile attack on suspected terrorist hideouts in Pakistan (a nuclear-armed nation, by the way) several days after Shahzad's arrest.
“There have been several drone missile strikes in North Waziristan since a failed attempt to detonate a car bomb on May 1 in New York,” reported the Voice of America. “The attempted terrorist act has refocused international attention on the tribal region because the Pakistan-born American citizen detained in connection with the incident has allegedly told US investigators he received training in the Waziristan region.”
The report quoted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of warning Pakistan of “serious consequences” if a successful terrorist attack on America is traced back to Pakistan.
Naturally, this puts Pakistan in a very uncomfortable position, and not unlike the one that Afghanistan found itself immediately after 9/11, when it was alleged that the Taliban was hosting the mastermind of the attacks, Osama Bin Laden, on their territory. The Bush administration demanded that the Taliban hand over Bin Laden, while the Taliban demanded proof of his guilt for what transpired on 9/11. The rest of the story, of course, is War on Terror history.
Should suspected terrorists have legal rights?
But this leads us back to the question of providing legal rights for suspected terrorists. At first, the very idea “legal rights for terrorists” sounds noxious. After all, why not just let them all rot to death in Guantanamo Bay, just like so many fear-stricken Republicans are suggesting? Well, because the United States is a democracy, and it (should) go against our basic founding principles to endorse such behavior – yes, even when it comes to War on Terror detainees (By the way, perhaps it never occurred to some people that eventually our own troops will be POWs in foreign territory, and the enemy will consider how his own people are faring in our prisons when deciding what kind of conditions to provide for his prisoners).
More importantly, since an increasing number of individuals and groups may be qualifying for official membership in the “terrorist” club (that is, due to the very loose definition as to exactly whom could be considered “a terrorist”), it would behoove us to make sure that the terrorists are receiving all of the appropriate legal rights.
Presently, however, there is a deeply disturbing trend of alleged terrorists falling into the black hole of the US justice system, never to be heard from again, except vicariously through the media mouthpiece. Think about this: when was the last time you heard Richard “Shoe Bomber” Reid, Umar “Christmas Day Bomber” Abdulmutallab, and finally, Faisal Shahzad defend themselves in public, either by themselves or through their attorneys?
Today, the debate is increasingly concerned not with providing these suspected terrorists with a fair, democratic trial, but whether or not it is desirable to provide these admittedly shady characters with legal representation (!).
“Days after his arrest, the Times Square bombing suspect has not been seen in court, though American law provides a right to be charged promptly before a magistrate, usually within 48 hours,” The New York Times reported on May 6.
“But like a lot of legal rights, that one can be waived,” the article said, perhaps a bit too nonchalantly. “Lawyers and former prosecutors said it could be some time – anywhere from a little while to a long while – before the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, who has been talking with prosecutors and investigators, stands in some baggy jail outfit before a judge.
“It’s not the normal course of things, but it’s not unprecedented,” said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia law professor who is a former federal prosecutor, as quoted by the NYT article. “There was no clear outer limit to how much time might pass before a court appearance, as long as Mr. Shahzad properly waived his legal rights.”
Now we must ask ourselves: what would compel any suspected criminal to voluntarily waive his legal rights? What is leading these detainees to make such a decision? Are they being coerced to waive their rights on a regular basis? The question is an important one, because various anonymous “government sources” should not be speaking on behalf of these individuals, who, for all intent and purposes, no longer have the ability to speak for themselves. Finally, let’s not forget that in the all-too recent past the United States government, together with proxy states, was found guilty of extracting confessions from suspected terrorists through torture. Since so many other aspects of the Bush administration are still in effect today…
In other words, the issue boils down to a matter of trust: should we trust the incriminating words that are being placed in the mouths of the incarcerated, which oftentimes lead to military attacks abroad? Or should we demand full legal rights for the incarcerated, so that the public may decide what is the right decision based on such facts?
Simply uttering the word “terrorist” has a magical way of shutting down all reasonable debate; the suspect suddenly descends into some sort of legal purgatory beyond the pale of democratic principles. In our overwhelming zeal to perpetrate the evildoers, we are succumbing to behavior strikingly at odds with our democratic heritage.
Republican scaremongering tactics aside, the America people need to hear the full story from the mouths of these alleged terrorists, or at least their lawyers, and condemn the puppet play now going on behind the scenes.
But it is not only the suspected terrorists who are losing their rights. If some members of US Congress get their way, it will be the defense lawyers too who get the short end of the legal stick.
“Lawyers acting for Guantanamo Bay detainees such as Canada's Omar Khadr could find themselves targets of Pentagon and congressional investigations under proposed legislation,” The Canadian Press reported on Wednesday.
The provision – presently getting kicked around in Congress like an innocent beach ball – would require the Pentagon's inspector general to “probe lawyers” where, among other things, there is “reasonable suspicion” that they have “interfered” with operations at the notorious prison.
A lawyer who violates “any applicable policy” of the Defense Department, or who generates “any material risk” to a member of the US Armed Forces, could also risk an investigation, the article stated.
Essentially, this comes down to harrassing lawyers who are trying to represent individuals who may or may not be guilty of the crimes they are accused of.
“When I was in law school, I was taught in our professional-responsibility class that the highest calling of a lawyer is to represent an unpopular client,” said Barry Coburn, one of Khadr's civilian lawyers in Washington, DC, as quoted by The Canadian Press.
“I don't think the government should attempt to punish or intimidate us for doing so.”
Khadr is scheduled to face trial by a military commission at Guantanamo Bay in August on charges he committed war crimes by throwing a hand grenade that killed an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002.
Khadr was 15 years old at the time of the attack.
The provision was introduced last week by Rep. Jeff Miller, a fifth-term Republican from Florida and a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Miller, in similar fashion to a host of other Republicans, has condemned an effort by the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers on behalf of Gitmo detainees as a “treacherous enterprise.”
Miller also called some of the detainee lawyers “disloyal” and accused them of breaking the law.
ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said Wednesday the proposed law would “further undermine the already illegitimate Guantanamo military commissions.”
Carolyn Lamm, the president of the American Bar Association, called for the defeat of the amendments in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
The American system of justice, Lamm said, depends on zealous and effective counsel “even to those accused of heinous crimes against this nation in the name of causes that evoke our contempt.”
This is not the first time lawyers defending terrorism suspects in the US have found themselves at risk of reprisal.
Earlier this year, US conservatives bad-mouthed the “Al-Qaeda 7” – a group of lawyers who represented terrorism detainees before being appointed to the US Justice Department.
In conclusion, President Obama’s national security strategy appears to be a kinder, gentler approach to the War on Terror than was pursued during the Bush years. It advocates working more closely with our allies (which may, however, be misconstrued in foreign capitals as a subtle order from Washington), as well as preserving democratic principles when carrying out foreign-policy goals. Gone is the unilateral hubris of yesteryear. There are even several parts where America’s new commitment to cooperation with China, India and Russia is endorsed, which would have looked odd just two years ago.
Yet, if we remove the glossy articulation and respectable tone of the new strategy document, strip it of its blinding gloss, we are left with a rattling machine that closely resembles a worn-out model from the Bush era: Al-Qaeda is mentioned incessantly, as is “terrorism,” although the over abused phrase ‘The War on Terror” has taken a backseat to the euphemistic “overseas contingency operations.” Meanwhile, US troops and their increasingly disillusioned allies are still fighting brutal battles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, with alarming frequency, in Pakistan.
Most worrisome, the Obama administration remains frozen in its tracks over what to do with the suspected terrorists in its “overseas contingency operations.” Should these individuals be tried humanely and according to the dictates of international law, or cowardly and behind closed-door military tribunals? And let’s not forget that Barack Obama has still failed to hang a closed sign on Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, which continues to imprison almost 200 prisoners under little more than gulag conditions.
And now the War on Terror is coming to a neighborhood near you. And never before has it been more important for the American people – whose civil liberties continue to be severely threatened despite a changing of the guard on Pennsylvania Avenue – to demand a simple, yet increasingly endangered species: the full, unadulterated story in the ongoing War on Terror.
After all, the catchphrases may have become sanitized to suit the times, but the realities behind the shine remain the same.