It must jar readers of Badlandsjournal.com to find articles on the Middle East when they have come to the site for current information on environmental things in the California Central Valley. Our reply is that US foreign policy affects us here, too, and perhaps even more here than in other parts of California because of our economic dependence on export-led growth, the excellent welfare system for wealthy farmers, and the number of soldiers we contribute to the perpetual war for everlasting peace.
Also, we need to read critical journalism, based in the skepticism that has been journalism's best tradition, because our dominant media have abandoned a critical, skeptical stance in favor of cheerleading. We believe most people feel like round pegs being jammed into holes cut in bizarre polygons.
These stories describe both change and continuity. Religious leaders are disputing the dominance of the House of Saud and the violent, fundamentalist sect it sponsors. Meanwhile, US arms sales to Israel and Saudi Arabia continue and increase. They are defended in Congress because they employ a large number of people. These people are making machines and ordnance that kill people, mostly Muslims, and make new enemies of their relatives every day. While Congress does not declare war, the victims of these arms don't have to declare war because they know they are in a war, a war that is spreading across the entire Muslim world.
The last article is about our financially bloated national security apparatus that is supposed to protect us from the terrorism caused by our slaughter of so many people in the Middle East. This is a story about how the graft of the American spy complex exceeds its reach.
For the first time, Saudi Arabia is being attacked by both Sunni and Shia leaders
What, the Saudis must be asking themselves, has happened to the fawning leaders who would normally grovel to the Kingdom?
The Saudis step deeper into trouble almost by the week. Swamped in their ridiculous war in Yemen, they are now reeling from an extraordinary statement issued by around two hundred Sunni Muslim clerics who effectively referred to the Wahhabi belief – practiced in Saudi Arabia – as “a dangerous deformation” of SunniIslam. The prelates included Egypt’s Grand Imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb of al-Azhar, the most important centre of theological study in the Islamic world, who only a year ago attacked “corrupt interpretations” of religious texts and who has now signed up to “a return to the schools of great knowledge” outside Saudi Arabia.
This remarkable meeting took place in Grozny and was unaccountably ignored by almost every media in the world – except for the former senior associate at St Antony’s College, Sharmine Narwani, and Le Monde’s Benjamin Barthe – but it may prove to be even more dramatic than the terror of Syria’s civil war. For the statement, obviously approved by Vladimir Putin, is as close as Sunni clerics have got to excommunicating the Saudis.
Although they did not mention the Kingdom by name, the declaration was a stunning affront to a country which spends millions of dollars every year on thousands of Wahhabi mosques, schools and clerics around the world.
Wahhabism’s most dangerous deviation, in the eyes of the Sunnis who met in Chechenya, is that it sanctions violence against non-believers, including Muslims who reject Wahhabi interpretation.Isis, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the principal foreign adherents to this creed outside Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Saudis, needless to say, repeatedly insist that they are against all terrorism. Their reaction to the Grozny declaration has been astonishing. “The world is getting ready to burn us,” Adil Al-Kalbani announced. And as Imam of the King Khaled Bin Abdulaziz mosque in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, he should know.
As Narwani points out, the bad news kept on coming. At the start of the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, the Lebanese daily al-Akhbarpublished online a database which it said came from the Saudi ministry of health, claiming that up 90,000 pilgrims from around the world have died visiting the Hajj capital of Mecca over a 14-year period. Although this figure is officially denied, it is believed in Shia Muslim Iran, which has lost hundreds of its citizens on the Hajj. Among them was Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a former ambassador and intelligence officer in Lebanon. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has just launched an unprecedented attack on the Saudis, accusing them of murder. “The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers...” he said in his own Hajj message.
A Saudi official said Khameni’s accusations reflected a “new low”. Abdulmohsen Alyas, the Saudi undersecretary for international communications, said they were “unfounded, but also timed to only serve their unethical failing propaganda
Yet the Iranians have boycotted the Hajj this year (not surprisingly, one might add) after claiming that they have not received Saudi assurances of basic security for pilgrims. According to Khamenei, Saudi rulers “have plunged the world of Islam into civil wars”.
However exaggerated his words, one thing is clear: for the first time, ever, the Saudis have been assaulted by both Sunni and Shia leaders at almost the same time.
The presence in Grozny of Grand Imam al-Tayeb of Egypt was particularly infuriating for the Saudis who have poured millions of dollars into the Egyptian economy since Brigadier-General-President al-Sissi staged his doleful military coup more than three years ago.
What, the Saudis must be asking themselves, has happened to the fawning leaders who would normally grovel to the Kingdom?
Footage shows extent of child malnutrition in Yemen as Britain continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia
“In 2010, Saudi Arabia was crossing borders peacefully as a power-broker, working with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Qatar and others to troubleshoot in regional hotspots,” Narwani writes. “By 2016, it had buried two kings, shrugged off a measured approach to foreign policy, embraced ‘takfiri’ madness and emptied its coffers.” A “takfiri” is a Sunni who accuses another Muslim (or Christian or Jew) of apostasy.
Kuwait, Libya, Jordan and Sudan were present in Grozny, along with – you guessed it – Ahmed Hassoun, the grand mufti of Syria and a loyal Assad man. Intriguingly, Abu Dhabi played no official role, although its policy of “deradicalisation” is well known throughout the Arab world.
But there are close links between President (and dictator) Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechenya, the official host of the recent conference, and Mohamed Ben Zayed al-Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince. The conference itself was opened by Putin, which shows what he thinks of the Saudis – although, typically, none of the Sunni delegates asked him to stop bombing Syria. But since the very meeting occurred against the backcloth of Isis and its possible defeat, they wouldn’t, would they?
That Chechenya, a country of monstrous bloodletting by Russia and its own Wahhabi rebels, should have been chosen as a venue for such a remarkable conclave was an irony which could not have been lost on the delegates. But the real questions they were discussing must have been equally apparent.
Who are the real representatives of Sunni Muslims if the Saudis are to be shoved aside? And what is the future of Saudi Arabia? Of such questions are revolutions made
Israel Gives Up Little to Get Largest Ever U.S. Arms Deal
Despite the tensions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the United States and Israel have finally signed a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). After pushing off negotiations until the Iran deal concluded, Netanyahu has “settled” for the largest military aid package to any country in the history of U.S. security assistance. The deal will provide Israel $38 billion over ten years starting in 2019. Although the record deal does contain some significant Israeli concessions compared to the last agreement, little is likely to change.
Early in the negotiations, Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly wanted as much as $45 billion from this new MoU, but the U.S. administration was unwilling to budge and secured the $38 billion deal instead. This will not make Israel the largest annual recipient of U.S. security aid, but it will be the largest guaranteed package in history with an additional $8 billion from the previous memorandum.
The additional billions, though, come with a cost. First, the United States is going to gradually phase out the unique offshore procurement policy. Since 1984 Israel has been able to spend up to 26.3 percent of the aid package on research, development, and procurement for its domestic arms industry. Israel had been the only country allowed this enormous privilege, but the administration feels its defense industry is now strong enough to support its domestic industry without U.S. assistance. As a result of the policy phase-out, Israel’s industry will lose out on nearly one billion dollars in annual sales.
Despite the concern expressed by some, Israel’s industry seems to be doing quite well. Over the course of President Obama’s two terms, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)ranks Israel as the tenth largest exporter of arms in the world with a majority of those sales in sensors for intelligence and surveillance, missiles, and aircraft. Leading recipients include India, Turkey, and Colombia. Recent sales have also included drones to Russia and surveillance equipment to South Sudan.
Maybe even more important though, the administration has received an agreement from Israel to not request more U.S. security aid than the amount allotted in the MoU. Haaretz’ Barak Ravid reportedthat the restriction does not, however, include cyber defense systems, combating tunnels, and emergencies.
For over two decades, Congress has provided millions in aid per year through the Defense Department’s budget in addition to the MoU packages funded through the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing program. Since FY2000 Congress, on an ad hoc basis, has allocated $4.5 billion for research, development, and procurement in missile defense, all in addition to the $45 billion funded by the State Department package. The new agreement would include $500 million annually for missile defense compared to the 140 percent fluctuation Israel received in missile defense from FY2012 to FY2014.
The administration’s attempt to standardize assistance to Israel instead of the annual haphazard defense appropriations process not only helps U.S. and Israeli officials better prepare security cooperation strategy but also helps U.S. arms manufacturers know what will be in the pipeline.
The feasibility of including all aid in the MoU though, remains in question. According to Josh Rogin ofThe Washington Post, Senator Lindsay Graham has already pushed back. Graham opined: “I’m offended that the administration would try to take over the appropriations process. If they don’t like what I’m doing, they can veto the bill. We can’t have the executive branch dictating what the legislative branch will do for a decade based on an agreement we are not a party to.” This means the next administration will have a choice on whether to uphold this part of the agreement if Congress decides to allocate additional funds for Israel outside of the MoU.
The move to incorporate missile defense into the MoU and eliminate offshore procurement raises questions about how Israel will pay for co-production missile defense systems like the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow. Israeli companies Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries produce these systems with Boeing and Raytheon. Under the old MoU, the 26.3 percent didn’t include the DoD-funded missile defense. Would U.S. aid now only cover the costs of U.S. manufacturers of this research and procurement? That seems highly unlikely. Despite the gradual annual reduction of offshore procurement, parts of Israel’s defense industry should be secure over the next decade.
The new aid package’s inclusion of Israeli missile defense systems means that over the course of the next 10 years, the overall amount of U.S. security aid to Israel isn’t actually increasing that much. In fact, since FY2014 Israel has averaged $3.7 billion per year in total security aid. So it will be just a slight increase over the next decade. That of course is contingent on Congress not providing additional funds for Israel. And if Senator Graham’s remarks, the near unanimous $225 million in additional Iron Dome funding provided during the latest war with Hamas in 2014, and Haaretz reporting is any indication, more funding is almost certainly to be provided.
Ultimately, the new memorandum, despite its changes, rewards an Israeli government with billions of dollars in aid for the latest arms technology including the new F-35 fighter jet, which no other country in the Middle East can acquire. This agreement demonstrates that the relationship between the two countries is stronger than the animosity between the two leaders. But it won’t move the nearly 70-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict any closer to a peaceful solution.
Seth Binder is the program manager and research associate at the Center for International Policy for the Security Assistance Monitor program and covers the Middle East and North Africa. He is the co-author of “The Moroccan Spring and King Mohammed VI’s Economic Policy Agenda: Evaluating the First Dozen Years,” a chapter in The Birth of the Arab Citizen and the Changing of the Middle East.
Why Congress Supports Saudi Arms Sales
Senators Ran Paul and Chris Murphy recently proposed a congressional resolution to stop a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Their measure failed on a 26-71 vote this past Wednesday. Their case rested in large part on the fact that Riyadh's intervention in Yemen—conducted with American-made weapons—has cost an untold number of innocent lives in the Arabian Peninsula. While their argument carried weight from a humanitarian perspective, it did not make sense in terms of the impact it would have on American jobs, U.S. companies, and the wider defense industry.
On a local level, hundreds of American jobs in the proposed sale are at stake. The most important aspect of the deal is the proposed purchase of Abrams tanks. Some of these tanks will be used as "battle damage replacement" for tanks lost by the Saudi military in Yemen. Riyadh also ordered a General Dynamics-produced system to recover tanks damaged on the battlefield. The Abrams tanks are produced by General Dynamics’ Combat Systems division in a plant in Lima, Ohio. About a decade ago the Lima plant employed 1,200 workers. Over the past few years, with declines in Defense Department purchases of weapons produced at the plant (including a 7 percent decrease in sales this quarter compared to the same period last year), the number of workers in the plant has dropped to four hundred. Stopping the sale to Saudi Arabia of such tanks would not only have put in jeopardy the remaining jobs at the Lima plan, but also put at risk larger deals with Saudi Arabia and our other Gulf allies, which themselves carry billions of dollars in revenue for American companies and are associated with tens of thousands of jobs in nearly every state in America.
When considering this particular sale it is important to keep in mind the big picture of U.S. defense exports and their contribution to America's defense industry. Over the past six years, as U.S. defense spending has faced considerable budgetary pressures, American defense companies have struggled to maintain employees and keep production lines open. With tightening defense budgets, highly-skilled manufacturing jobs on the line, and the prospect of production lines for advanced U.S. weapons being phased out, American exports of defense articles and services have become and will continue to be ever more important.
Saudi Arabia has emerged as the dominant purchaser of American arms. In 2010 Riyadh signed a record $60 billion deal to buy defense articles made by American companies. Under the deal, it agreed to spend $30 billion up front on fighter jets, helicopters, and other systems. That purchase is equivalent to a large chunk of the U.S. defense budget. In fact, the contribution is much larger, relatively speaking, when one looks at how it benefits the smaller defense companies that service American and foreign defense customers. The 2010 deal with Saudi Arabia entailed purchasing American jet fighters that will help manufacturers in forty-four states and aid in protecting seventy-seven thousand jobs.
Importantly, the 2010 Saudi deal included the purchase of eighty-four new F-15 fighters. The prime contractor was Boeing, a hundred--year-old American multinational company that consistently ranks as one of the world's most admired companies. Until recently, Boeing produced only one F-15 per month, and the production line for F-15s was on the verge of being closed, that is, until the deal with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh's purchase helped save thousands of jobs for Americans working on Boeing's F-15 production line on the outskirts of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Boeing also makes Apache helicopters, and the Saudi deal included the purchase of seventy Apaches. AsFortune reported, "Production lines for Boeing's F-15, Harpoon missile, and Apache helicopter are sustained by exports, which support thousands of high-paying, highly skilled manufacturing jobs." Saudi purchases help keep highly-skilled manufacturing jobs in the United States.
Maintaining a robust security cooperation relationship with Saudi Arabia also helps America's defense industry in the region as a whole. Saudi Arabia is the most important member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes five other large purchasers of American defense articles: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are gradually creating a multinational, interoperable force that requires all of the countries to maintain similar weapons systems. When Saudi Arabia purchases U.S. defense articles, other countries in the Gulf follow suit. For example, a $7 billion deal to sell three dozen F-15 jets to Qatar and twenty-eight Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to Kuwait is currently in the works. Furthermore, in the crucial period from 2011 to 2015 (when U.S. defense spending was especially under strain), the UAE was the second-largest importer of U.S. defense articles, after Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the United States sold $33 billion in defense articles and services to the GCC countries. For large American defense companies, such exports are crucial. In recent years an estimated one-quarter of Raytheon’s sales came from foreign purchases. A few years ago, the UAE's $3.3 billion order enabled Raytheon to restart the Patriot production line and add new features. Such purchases save highly-skilled manufacturing jobs in the United States, and, by adding advanced capabilities, will help win new customers unless Congress blocks them from happening.
If Senators Paul and Murphy would have succeeded in their measure, Riyadh would almost certainly have gone to another large military supplier, possibly Russia. Saudi and other GCC officials fear that Iran, which is not only ideologically and theologically diametrically opposed to the Kingdom, but also has a population and territory several times the size of Saudi Arabia, poses an existential threat. The uncomfortable truth is that Yemen is a proxy war in the Saudi-Iranian competition. Riyadh feels that it must win in Yemen against the Houthi rebels (who the Saudis are convinced are sponsored by Iran), and the only way to win is through military power. Saudi Arabia does not have an indigenous military industry to support the war; it has to find military suppliers to sustain its war effort. Had the sale been blocked and Saudi Arabia shifted to Russia, China, or other suppliers for military purchases, other Gulf States would have followed suit, putting in jeopardy an additional tens of billions of dollars in sales by American multinational companies and thousands of highly-skilled manufacturing jobs. Going forward, when considering whether to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, therefore, Congress should not only worry about the particular sale in question. It should also consider the wider negative implications that a suspension would have on tens of thousands of high-skilled manufacturing jobs all across America, tens of billions of dollars in revenues for U.S. companies, and the wider defense industry.
Dr. Oleg Svet completed his doctoral dissertation on security assistance to Iraq and has analyzed U.S. security cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iraq, and Afghanistan. From 2015 to 2016 he analyzed security assistance as a consultant supporting the U.S. Defense Department.
Saudi Arabia is the flagging horse of the Gulf – but Britain is still backing it as an answer to Brexit
Quite why Sir Alan Duncan, Foreign Office Minister of State for Europe, should find it necessary to visit Bahrain in the last few days remains something of mystery
Why does the British Government devote so much time and effort to cultivating the rulers of Bahrain, a tiny state notorious for imprisoning and torturing its critics? It is doing so when a Bahraini court is about to sentence the country’s leading human rights advocate, Nabeel Rajab, who has been held in isolation in a filthy cell full of ants and cockroaches, to as much as 15 years in prison for sending tweets criticising torture in Bahrain and the Saudi bombardment of Yemen.
Yet it has just been announced that Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are to make an official visit to Bahrain in November with the purpose of improving relations with Britain. It is not as though Bahrain has been short of senior British visitors of late, with the International Trade Minister Liam Fox going there earlier in September to meet the Crown Prince, Prime Minister and commerce minister. And, if this was not enough, in the last few days the Foreign Office Minister of State for Europe, Sir Alan Duncan, found it necessary to pay a visit to Bahrain where he met King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the interior minister, Sheikh Rashid al-Khalifa, whose ministry is accused of being responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses on the island since the Arab Spring protests there were crushed in 2011 with the assistance of Saudi troops.
Barack Obama brands Congress decision on Saudi 911 lawsuits bill 'a mistake'
Quite why Sir Alan, who might be thought to have enough on his plate in dealing with his area of responsibility in Europe in the era of Brexit, should find it necessary to visit Bahrain remains something of mystery. Sayed Ahmed Alwadei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, asks: “Why is Alan Duncan in Bahrain? He has no reasonable business being there as Minister of State for Europe” But Sir Alan does have a long record of befriending the Gulf monarchies, informing a journalist in July that Saudi Arabia “is not a dictatorship”.
The flurry of high level visits to Bahrain comes as Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, awaits sentencing on next week on three charges stemming from his use of social media. These relates to Rajab tweeting and retweeting about torture in Bahrain’s Jau prison and the humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi-led bombing in Yemen. After he published an essay entitled “Letter From a Bahrain Jail” in the The New York Times a month ago, he was charged with publishing “false newsand statements and malicious rumours that undermines the prestige of the kingdom”.
This “prestige” has taken a battering since 2011 when pro-democracy protesters, largely belonging to the Shia majority on the island, were savagely repressed by the security forces. Ever since, the Sunni monarchy has done everything to secure and reinforce its power, not hesitating to inflame Sunni-Shia tensions by stripping the country’s most popular Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, of his citizenship on the grounds that he was serving the interests of a foreign power.
Repression has escalated since May with the suspension of the main Shia opposition party, al-Wifaq, and an extension to the prison sentence of its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman. The al-Khalifa dynasty presumably calculates that US and British objections to this clampdown are purely for the record and can safely be disregarded. The former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond claimed unblushingly earlier this year that Bahrain was “travelling in the right direction” when it came to human rights and politicalreform. Evidently, this masquerade of concern for the rights of the majority in Bahrain is now being discarded, as indicated by the plethora of visits.
There are reasons which have nothing to do with human rights motivating the British Government, such as the recent agreement to expand a British naval base on the island with the expansion being paid for by Bahrain. In its evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Government said that UK naval facilities on the island give “the Royal Navy the ability to operate not only in the Gulf but well beyond in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and North West Indian Ocean”. Another expert witness claimed that for Britain “the kingdom is a substitute for an aircraft carrier permanently stationed in the Gulf”.
These dreams of restored naval might are probably unrealistic, though British politicians may be particularly susceptible to them at the moment, imagining that Britain can rebalance itself politically and economically post-Brexit by closer relations with old semi-dependent allies such as the Gulf monarchies. These rulers ultimately depend on US and British support to stay in power, however many arms they buy. Bahrain matters more than it looks because it is under strong Saudi influence and what pleases its al-Khalifa rulers pleases the House of Saud.
But in kowtowing so abjectly to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms, Britain may be betting on a flagging horse at the wrong moment. Britain, France and – with increasing misgivings – the US have gone along since 2011 with the Gulf state policy of regime change in Libya and Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in combination with Turkey, have provided crucial support for the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Foreign envoys seeking to end the Syrian war since 2011 were struck by British and French adherence to the Saudi position, even though it meant a continuance of the war which has destabilised the region and to a mass exodus of refugees heading for Western Europe.
Whatever the Saudis and Gulf monarchies thought they were doing in Syria, it has not worked. They have been sawing off the branch on which they are sitting by spreading chaos and directly or indirectly supporting the rise of al-Qaeda-type organisations like Isis and al-Nusra. Likewise in their rivalry with Iran and the Shia powers, the Sunni monarchies are on the back foot, having escalated a ferocious war in Yemen which they are failing to win.
In the past week Saudi Arabia has suffered two setbacks that are as serious as any of these others: on Wednesday the US Congress voted overwhelmingly to override a presidential veto enabling the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. In terms of US public opinion, the Saudi rulers are at last paying a price for their role in spreading Sunni extremism and for the bombing of Yemen. The Saudi brand is becoming toxic in the US as politicians respond to a pervasive belief among voters that there is Saudi complicity in the spread of terrorism and war.
The second Saudi setback is different, but also leaves it weaker. At the Opec conference in Algiers, Saudi Arabia dropped its long-term policy of pumping as much oil as it could, and agreed to production cuts in order to raise the price of crude. A likely motivation was simple shortage of money. The prospects for the new agreement are cloudy but it appears that Iran has got most of what it wanted in returning to its pre-sanctions production level. It is too early to see Saudi Arabia and its Gulf counterparts as on an inevitable road to decline, but their strength is ebbing.
Tomgram: Karen Greenberg, What Actually Keeps Americans Safe
Karen J. Greenberg
Since 9/11, untold sums of money have gone into building up the national security state. That includes new billion-dollar-plus headquarters for some of its agencies, hiring outside contractors by the bushelful, and creating a system of global surveillance the likes of which would once have been inconceivable even for the rulers of totalitarian states. It includes the National Security Agency constructing in Georgia “the world’s largest listening post” focused only on the Middle East. James Bamford describes it as a “$286 million, 604,000-square-foot facility [that] has more than 2,500 workstations and 47 conference rooms, and... employs more than 4,000 eavesdroppers and other personnel.” And don’t forget the facility it constructed in Bluffdale, Utah, a “$2 billion, 1-million-square-foot complex... to function as the centerpiece of the NSA’s global eavesdropping operations” into which "would flow streams of emails, text messages, tweets, Google searches, financial records, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, metadata, and telephone chatter picked up by the constellation of" America's satellites, cable taps, and listening posts. The national security state now houses16 major intelligence outfits, not including the office of the director of national intelligence, and boasts an intelligence black budget of close to $70 billion a year. And that's just to begin what would be an endless list.
And all of this has essentially been built and expanded on the basis of a single “threat” to the American way of life: terrorism, which means, of course, the terrorism of Islamic extremists, which in the U.S. means the terrorism of unhinged or disturbed individuals who feel deeply aggrieved by and at odds with this society and come, however briefly, to identify with ISIS and its brutal mission, and -- to add yet another element to this mix -- have remarkably easy access to military-style weaponry and ammo galore.
In other words, without Islamic terrorism, which has been responsible for the deaths of a surprisingly modest number of American civilians in these years, the national security state, now the fourth branch of government, would be a far less impressive, less well-funded structure, and its various experiments in governmental overreach, whether in the realms oftorture, detention, kidnapping, assassination, the militarization of the police, or surveillance, would have been far less possible. Put another way, that state within a state is joined at the hip to terrorism. And yet here’s the strange thing: given the nature of the terrorist threat, no matter how many people it surveils or what kinds of communications it listens in on, no matter the drones in the air or the cameras on the streets, it remains remarkably helplesswhen it comes to finding the Syed Rizwan Farooks, Dahir Adans, and Ahmad Khan Rahamisof our world. It is incapable of picking those unexpected needles out of the vast haystack of us. In its own strange way, it is, then, remarkably overbuilt, overfunded, and useless in its present muscled-up form. TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, illustrates this point vividly today, offering a clear-eyed view of what such a security state is actually capable of -- and what we abandon needlessly when we bow down before it. Tom
Liberty Is Security
The Lesson Not Drawn From Post-9/11 Government Overreach
By Karen J. Greenberg
One vivid image of the historical relationship between government power and individual liberties in America has long been the swing of the pendulum. It catches the nature of the perpetually changing balance between the two. When it comes to terrorism and civil liberties after 9/11, that pendulum swung strongly toward the power side of the equation and it has been slow indeed to swing back. Still, in several areas in recent years -- torture, detention, and surveillance -- there has been at least some movement in the other direction and from this delayed and modest backswing, there is a distinct lesson to be drawn about liberty and security in twenty-first-century America. The only problem is that no one has bothered to draw it.
Put in a nutshell: the liberties designed almost a quarter-millennium ago by the Founding Fathers still turn out to be curiously well-aligned with the security of this country and the safety of Americans, while the government overreach of this era has proved to be anything but. As it turned out, those heavy-handed government policies meant to pry our lives open in an invasive and expansive way, torture information from suspects, and lock away people forever, it seems, without charges or trial, were remarkably counterproductive and ineffective -- and that reality, rather than the concerns of civil libertarians, was essential to whatever backswing of the pendulum we’ve seen in recent years.
After 9/11, of course, few could have missed which way that pendulum was swinging. Government overreach in the name of our “security” was quickly apparent from the passage of the Patriot Act, a grab bag of some of the more oppressive proposals for “security” floating around Washington at that time, to the setting up of CIA “black sites” beyond the reach of American law where brutal interrogations could be used. In a similar fashion, the Department of Justice secretly authorized novel readings of presidential power that justified, among other things, the warrantless, bulk surveillance of Americans and non-Americans alike; consigned individuals in U.S. custody to what was politely called “indefinite detention” at a newly constructed prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in military brigs at home; and opened the way for the torture (under the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques”) of terror suspects in U.S. custody, including people who turned out to be innocent of anything having to do with terror. All such acts, secret and open, were justified in the name of what was called the Global War on Terror and on the grounds of keeping the country “safe.”
Reversing Government Overreach
For years, there seemed little prospect of a shift back from this period of overreach in the name of national security. True, by the end of George W. Bush’s first term in office, a handful of Justice Department officials, including current FBI director James Comey, and Jack Goldsmith (now a Harvard professor), were trying to revoke, rewrite, or ameliorate some of the worst of those initial excesses, but with only modest success. By 2006, the CIA’s overseas black-site program, in which terrorism detainees were brutally tortured, was ostensibly on its way out and, by the end of the Bush presidency, no more individuals were being sent to Guantánamo. With the passage of time, and the persistence of lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, some headway at least looked possible on the restoration of a more normal sense of American justice and the rule of law.
When it came to interrogation and detention, however, the first significant changes -- and the promise of more to come -- arrived with the Obama presidency. He entered the Oval Office declaring torture once again illegal,withdrawing the memos that supported its use (though his Justice Department would never prosecute any of the torturers, no less the officials who had set them loose to do so), and promising to close Guantánamo, the country’s prison of choice when it came to indefinite detention. Meanwhile, a 2008Supreme Court decision, Boumediene v. Bush, seemed to mark the beginning of a pendulum swing back in the direction of liberty. It granted habeas rights to Guantánamo detainees, enabling them for the first time to challenge their detentions in the federal court system.
As it turned out, however, these initial signs of change proved deceptive. The only court authorized to hear such habeas challenges to detention -- the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. -- has essentially ensured that there will be no legal relief or recourse for the Guantánamo detainees. To date, nearly half of those who have sought habeas relief have had their claims rejected outright or on appeal.
While Obama’s torture ban remains officially in place, the absence of any accountability for the torturers has opened a space for the future return of such techniques, particularly with a President Trump who, as a candidate, embraced torture “and worse.” And when it came to indefinite detention, Obama, once an opponent of the practice, essentially accepted it in the late spring of 2009 by acknowledging that some Guantánamo detainees could not be prosecuted, but were too dangerous to release. Today, were Guantánamo to be closed (still possible but an increasingly unlikely prospect), indefinite detention without charges or trial would remain an option for the detainees, even if in a different prison.
On surveillance policy, there has more recently been some movement towards the liberty side of the pendulum. In 2015, two years after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the existence of a massive program used to collect the telephone metadata of Americans in bulk, an appellate court declared the program -- established under section 215 of the Patriot Act -- illegal. It pointed out that the laws cited by the government to support it had never previously “been interpreted to authorize anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here.” A month later, section 215 was “sunsetted” when Congress did not move to renew the Patriot Act. Like torture, such bulk surveillance has now, however provisionally, been officially restored to its status outside the law.
This surely was cause for a sense of accomplishment among human rights activists and civil libertarians. They had, it seemed, had an impact. Though a distinctly limited victory (given the still expansive possibilities forgovernmental surveillance in post-9/11 America), it felt like a long sought-after triumph, and in many ways it was. But to grasp what’s really been going on, it’s necessary to look beyond the protests of constitutional scholars, rights activists, and others.
What Actually Keeps Americans Safe
Legal, political, and moral challenges to government excursions into the unlawful have been crucial in these years in keeping both the costs and grisly realities of such overreach in the public eye. Yet it would be a mistake to look to either protests or lawsuits for the real reasons why the CIA’s torture program and the NSA’s mass surveillance of American telephone habits were shut down. They were ended for a far simpler reason. Experts in national security concluded that they simply did not work, that they were hopelessly inadequate measures for preventing terrorism.
In several government reports, the failures of both the torture and the surveillance programs to produce tangible results were repeatedly noted by experts, analysts, and officials. In the case of torture, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the direction of Diane Feinstein, completed a 6,000-page reportdetailing the evolution of torture policy after 9/11 and its grim use on individual detainees. The report’s more than 500-page executive summary, released to the public, condemned the Bush administration’s use of torture, declaring that “CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.” In every instance, the report concluded, the program did not produce useful information of any sort that led in any way to the stopping of terror attacks or plots. In the words of the report, "The Committee finds, based on a review of CIA interrogation records, that the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation." If anything, those brutal techniques only alienated allies, while adding fuel to the fire of anti-American sentiment worldwide.
So, too, for surveillance. Immediately following the Snowden revelations in the late spring of 2013, Obama appointed the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, five experts in national security and the law, to review two of the NSA programs that had been exposed. Their report revealed that the bulk telephone metadata collection under the Patriot Act simply did not work. It had provided neither actionable information nor aid in thwarting up terror plots. Another report issued by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a post-9/11 government groupmandated to “review and analyze actions the executive branch takes to protect the nation from terrorism,” similarly found that the program was thoroughly ineffective. It concluded: “Based on the information provided to the Board, including classified briefings and documentation, we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”
In other words, like the torture program, the metadata one simply didn’t perform as advertised in preventing terror attacks. Those very governmental excesses that human rights and civil liberties advocates identified as extralegal, unconstitutional, and outside the bounds of international human rights law were also programs that just didn’t work as security measures -- and this, not government overreach, was the crucial factor in bringing each of them to an end.
That the conclusions of the experts (and the officials listening to them) coincided with the recommendations of civil libertarians, who had opposed the policies all along, made the decisions look far more like human rights victories than they were.
There's a lesson in all this that should be given some thought. When civil libertarians defend their side of the liberty-security debate, they usually claim that liberties are just as important as security. Perhaps what they should be saying is that protecting our liberties means ensuring our safety; that surveilling everyone produces more but not better information and is not a national security measure; and that the informed interrogation of prisoners who have rights, including the right to a fair trial, is not only more consonant with the American way, but more effective than secret prisons and physical abuse.
The kinds of policies that the U.S. developed after 9/11, and that former Bush officials and others are still demanding back, were clear expressions of fear and a lack of confidence in the traits that America had prided itself on since its inception. It should by now be far clearer that needing to know everything to know something is a sign of weakness, not strength; that needing to be a bully instead of a smart operative is a sign of insecurity, not security.
It’s been 15 years since 9/11 and yet few have noticed the obvious. Where the power of the national security state has been curtailed, it’s been for a simple enough reason: undeniable ineffectiveness. Put another way, the biggest lesson of 9/11 has yet to be learned. It’s a curious fact that what’s actually lawful and mindful of liberty has turned out to be what also makes us more secure against our enemies. In these years, safety and liberty have been anything but incompatible, even if few are saying that.
What should be seen as incompatible with liberty and safety is the overreach of the state in the name of ensuring both of them. It was that overreach, not our liberties, which made us less secure. So let’s note it carefully: the Founding Fathers were right and the Bush administration, its Justice Department memos, and more recently, the candidate who has called for ever more extreme measures, supposedly to protect us and our country, will only endanger us further. Let’s take this lesson to heart: liberty is security for Americans.
Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author of The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days. Her latest book is Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State. Andrew Dalack contributed to this article.
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Copyright 2016 Karen J. Greenberg