From January 4-12, 2015, Witness Against Torture (WAT) activists assembled in Washington D.C. for an annual time of fasting and public witness to end the United States’ use of torture and indefinite detention and to demand the closure, with immediate freedom for those long cleared for release, of the illegal U.S. prison at Guantanamo.
Participants in our eight day fast started each day with a time of reflection. This year, asked to briefly describe who or what we had left behind and yet might still carry in our thoughts that morning, I said that I’d left behind an imagined WWI soldier, Leonce Boudreau.
I was thinking of Nicole de’Entremont’s story of World War I, A Generation of Leaves, which I had just finished reading. Initial chapters focus on a Canadian family of Acadian descent. Their beloved oldest son, Leonce, enlists with Canada’s military because he wants to experience life beyond the confines of a small town and he feels stirred by a call to defend innocent European people from advancing "Hun" warriors. He soon finds himself mired in the horrid slaughter of trench warfare near Ypres, Belgium.
I often thought of Leonce during the week of fasting with WAT campaign members. We focused, each day, on the experiences and writing of a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo, Fahed Ghazi who, like Leonce, left his family and village to train as a fighter for what he believed to be a noble cause. He wanted to defend his family, faith and culture from hostile forces. Pakistani forces captured Fahed and turned him over to US forces after he had spent two weeks in a military training camp in Afghanistan. At the time he was 17, a juvenile. He was cleared for release from Guantanamo in 2007.
It’s not really “news” at this point, but every couple of weeks a new IAEA report comes out confirming that Iran is abiding by the terms of the interim nuclear agreement. It’s a good reminder, because after a couple weeks of not hearing about it the hawks start beating the drums.
For the AP, however, it’s just more fuel for scaremongering, as the inimitable George Jahn describes the exact same program as a “nuke program” centering on weapons.
Which, of course, it’s not. The interim deal centers on Iran’s civilian program, limiting enrichment that was already at levels far too low for an atomic weapon. The AP ignores the facts, once again, and keeps insinuating there are weapons being made.
Midway through the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, one comment stands out. “A criminal case,” defense attorney Edward MacMahon told the jury at the outset, “is not a place where the CIA goes to get its reputation back.” But that’s where the CIA went with this trial in its first week – sending to the witness stand a procession of officials who attested to the agency’s virtues and fervently decried anyone who might provide a journalist with classified information.
The CIA’s reputation certainly needs a lift. It has rolled downhill at an accelerating pace in the dozen years since telling President George W. Bush what he wanted the nation to hear about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That huge bloody blot on the agency’s record has not healed since then, inflamed by such matters as drone strikes, rendition of prisoners to torture-happy regimes and resolute protection of its own torturers.
CIA sensibilities about absolution and prosecution are reflected in the fact that a former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez Jr., suffered no penalty for destroying numerous videotapes of torture interrogations by the agency – which knew from the start that the torture was illegal.
But in the courtroom, day after day, with patriotic piety, CIA witnesses – most of them screened from public view to keep their identities secret – have testified to their reverence for legality.
While the jury will likely neither note nor learn of them, there were details from last week’s testimony in the Jeffrey Sterling trial that resonated with two other notable cases involving the CIA: the New York Police Department’s spying on Muslims and the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity.
Intelligence, race, and religion in New York City
On Friday, former high ranking CIA officer David Cohen – who headed up the New York office while Sterling was there – described how he removed Sterling from the Merlin case because he didn’t believe Sterling was performing well at his job (an opinion neither his deputy, Charles Seidel, nor Bob S shared, at least according to their testimony). “His performance was extremely sub-par,” Cohen testified. Cohen also seemed to disdain what might be called political correctness, which if true may have exacerbated Sterling’s increasing sense of being discriminated against for being African American.
That would be consistent with the action for which Cohen has received more press in recent years: setting up the New York Police Department’s intelligence program that profiles the area’s Muslim community. In the wake of 9/11, Cohen moved from the CIA to the NYPD. In 2002, he got a federal court to relax the Handschu guidelines, which had been set up in 1985 in response to NYPD’s targeting of people for their political speech. Handschu required specific evidence before using informants to investigate a group. But, as an article from the Pulitzer Prize winning AP series described it, “Cohen told a federal judge that those guidelines made it ‘virtually impossible’ to detect terrorist plots.” After getting the rules relaxed, Cohen created teams of informants that infiltrated mosques and had officers catalog Muslim-owned restaurants, shops, and even schools. “Cohen said he wanted the squad to ‘rake the coals, looking for hot spots,’” the AP reported in 2011.
Condoleezza Rice made headlines when she testified Thursday at the leak trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling – underscoring that powerful people in the Bush administration went to great lengths a dozen years ago to prevent disclosure of a classified operation. But as The Associated Press noted, “While Rice’s testimony helped establish the importance of the classified program in question, her testimony did not implicate Sterling in any way as the leaker.”
Few pixels and little ink went to the witness just before Rice – former CIA spokesman William Harlow – whose testimony stumbled into indicating why he thought of Sterling early on in connection with the leak, which ultimately resulted in a ten-count indictment.
Harlow, who ran the CIA press office, testified that Sterling came to mind soon after New York Times reporter James Risen first called him, on April 3, 2003, about the highly secret Operation Merlin, a CIA program that provided faulty nuclear weapon design information to Iran.
Harlow testified that he tried to dissuade Risen without confirming the existence of Operation Merlin, first telling the reporter “that if there was such a program, I didn’t think a respectable newspaper should be writing about it.” The next day, when Risen called back, “I said that such a story would jeopardize national security.”
Late last week, Attorney General Eric Holder declared America to be “at war” with “lone wolf” attackers. Impossibly immediately and convenient, the FBI has announced multiple arrests and multiple “plots” foiled by FBI informants, who typically seem to have done materially all of the plotting themselves before making the arrests.
The higher profile arrest came yesterday, when the FBI arrested a 20-year-old Cincinnati man, whose father described him as a “mama’s boy” who never left home. The man had a Twitter account under a fake name where he expressed support for ISIS, and the FBI claimed he was going to use pipe bombs to blow up the Capitol building.
Officials are eagerly presenting it as a plot that was “ready to go,” but his father presents him as an immature recluse, and classmates from high school certainly didn’t see him as ISIS, irrespective of him having some vague interest in philosophical anarchy.
The other “foiled” plot was three men from northwest Georgia who said anti-government things in a chat room, and were convinced by the FBI to come to Tennessee to get some phony explosives to blow up an Atlanta police station.
In both cases, as is so often the case with FBI “foiled” plots, it started with people saying something online, and then having FBI informants basically plan out the entire scheme for them, then try to coax them into agreeing to it, at least enough that they could be arrested.