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Gulags and Torture

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America’s Moral Collapse.

There are many reasons why I post less frequently at GitM these days, and a lot of them are the usual prosaic stuff — life is good, the days are very busy, my garrison isn’t going to build itself. But among them also is, quite frankly, it’s sometimes hard to see a purpose to it anymore, at least in GitM’s current incarnation. Case in point: this month’s CIA torture revelations.

Like countless others, I have been railing about the Bush-era CIA torture regime here for over a decade now. So this isn’t a breaking story. Still, the recent Senate Report — which the “most transparent administration in history” fought tooth and nail to buryably covers all we’ve known to date, and includes a number of horrifying new revelations.

For example, so it turns out that we — you and I — paid foreign governments $300 million to construct and maintain our dungeons.

We — again, you and I — also paid two psychiatrists $80 million to come up with more devastating torture techniques. (And their contract was originally for $180 million!)

These two assholes got on the payroll after Al Qaeda higher-up Abu Zubaydah was captured. Zubaydah was then waterboarded over eighty times, mainly so he and others would corroborate the false positive, demanded by Iraq War architects, that Iraq was involved with Al Qaeda.

We also tortured people for not calling CIA officers “sir,” or having a stomachache.

We even tortured our own informants.

We anally raped detainees with pureed hummus, causing anal fissures and a rectal prolapse due to “excessive force.”

We also may have raped detainees with dogs. And it sounds like a child was raped in our custody as well.

Another detainee froze to death during his Room 101 session.

Naturally, the CIA tried to cover all this up. First, they blatantly lied about the efficacy of their torture regime. (And, since it cannot be said enough, particularly in the wake of the CIA’s Zero Dark Thirty propaganda: Torture does not work.)

Then, they — with the full and active complicity of both the Bush and Obama administrations — blocked the American people from seeing the evidence of their depravities, including destroying torture tapes, repeatedly lying to Congress, and hacking into Senate computers.

And, still, over a decade later: Even though the Constitution bans torture, even though it is a crime to lie to Congress, even though it is explicitly a crime NOT to prosecute torturers, Nobody Has Gone To Jail — well, except the whistleblower.

And on top of everything else, Americans approve of all of this by 2-1.

So, what is there to say? The illegality here is black and white, the crimes abhorrent, the moral corruption pervasive…and yet we all just collectively shrug. The sad and hilarious thing about The Onion‘s recent minotaur video — “That hungry half-man, half-bull kept us safe from the terrorists!” — is this is basically the world we live in now.

Makes me sick, m*therf*cker, how far we done fell.

Continued Injuries and Usurpations.

Recent dismal developments on the War on Terror/Civil Liberties Front:

(1) “The court found Poland violated its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent torture, ensure the right to liberty, and properly investigate allegations a crime had been committed on its territory.”

The European Court of Human Rights finds that Poland harbored one of the CIA’s infamous black sites — perhaps this is one of the old Soviet compounds? “[S]imilar cases have been lodged with the court in Strasbourg against Romania and Lithuania.”

(2) “The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives. All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press.”

Paging J. Edgar: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, with help from Edward Snowden, uncover NSA and FBI surveillance of prominent, upstanding Muslim-Americans. “In one 2005 document, intelligence community personnel are instructed how to properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance. In the place where the target’s real name would go, the memo offers a fake name as a placeholder: ‘Mohammed Raghead.'”

(3) “Emblazoned with the crests of 19 agencies, it offers the most complete and revealing look into the secret history of the government’s terror list policies to date. It reveals a confounding and convoluted system filled with exceptions to its own rules, and it relies on the elastic concept of ‘reasonable suspicion’ as a standard for determining whether someone is a possible threat…individuals can be watchlisted if they are suspected of being a suspected terrorist, or if they are suspected of associating with people who are suspected of terrorism activity.”

Also in The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux explain the absurdly broad net that is the terrorist watchlist. “There are a number of loopholes for putting people onto the watchlists even if reasonable suspicion cannot be met.”

(4) “Nearly all of the highest-profile domestic terrorism plots in the United States since 9/11 featured the ‘direct involvement’ of government agents or informants, a new report says…rais[ing] questions about the US criminal justice system’s ability to respect civil rights and due process in post-9/11 terrorism cases.”

And in The Guardian, Spencer Ackerman expounds on the FBI’s apparent excessive leaning on entrapment to conjure up terror cases. “‘In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act,’ the report alleges.”

Torture, rendition, secret prisons, spying on Americans, surveillance policies that are obviously, woefully ripe for abuse…We are six and a half years into the administration of a president who promised us definitively this nonsense would end. And yet, virtually every day, we hear of a new outrage, and the only official response seems to be Lock Up the Messenger. So when are we going to get an accountability moment here?

Who Watches the Watchmen? The CIA.

“The criminal referral may be related to what several knowledgeable people said was CIA monitoring of computers used by Senate aides to prepare the study…The development marks an unprecedented breakdown in relations between the CIA and its congressional overseers amid an extraordinary closed-door battle over the 6,300-page report on the agency’s use of waterboarding and harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists held in secret overseas prisons. The report is said to be a searing indictment of the program.”

On top of all their recent bad behavior, the CIA has apparently been spying on researchers for the Senate oversight committee, who have been (at last) inquiring in-depth into the agency’s Dubya-era torture regime. “The report details how the CIA misled the Bush administration and Congress about the use of [torture]…It also shows, members have said, how the techniques didn’t provide the intelligence that led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed in a 2011 raid by Navy SEALs.” But…but…that was in Zero Dark Thirty!

In any event, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the relevant committee and usually an enabler and/or cheerleader for this sort of egregious intelligence overreach, had this to say: “‘There is an I.G. investigation’…Asked about the tension between the committee and the spy agency it oversees, Ms. Feinstein said, ‘Our oversight role will prevail.'” Oversight, eh? That’d be new and different.

Doctors of Depravity.

“‘It’s clear that in the name of national security, the military trumped (the Hippocratic Oath), and physicians were transformed into agents of the military and performed acts that were contrary to medical ethics and practice,’ said Gerald Thomson, a retired Columbia professor of medicine and coauthor of the study.”

A new report by Columbia’s Institute of Medicine examines doctors’ (continuing) complicity in our recent torture regime. “Putting on a uniform does not and should not abrogate the fundamental principles of medical professionalism…’Do no harm’ and ‘put patient interest first’ must apply to all physicians regardless of where they practice.”

Heisenberg? Try Cheney.

“Americans are, like Walter White, a self-justifying sort. We see ourselves as exceptional. Often times we behave as if the rules that apply to the rest of the world, rules we want constraining them, don’t and needn’t really apply to us…Take it from The New York Times, our paper of record. Other nations forcing water into a prisoner’s lungs is torture. When we do it? Enhanced interrogation. America doesn’t torture. We’re the good guys!”

A late but welcome reassessment from Conor Friedersdorf: Breaking Bad as an analogy for post-9/11 America. “The world dealt us an unfair blow, and we used it as an excuse to break bad…We became inured to the selfishness of our actions. We slid predictably down the slope upon which we stepped, and the farther we go the uglier it gets. We haven’t hit bottom yet or anything close to it.”

More than Words.

“And yet, as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

Didn’t get to this before heading out for a Memorial Day weekend camping trip: As y’all know by now, President Obama delivered a much-hailed State of the War on Terror address at the National Defense University, during which he called for the eventual repeal of AUMF, tighter oversight of drone strikes, and the closing of the Gitmo Gulag at last. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Sounds great! When’s it happening? Er…well, that’s that trick, isn’t it? When it comes to the first promise — the repeal of AUMF — as Brooking’s Benjamin Witte noted: “Obama does not need Congress to narrow or repeal the AUMF or to get off of a war footing. He can do it himself, declaring hostilities over in whole or in part. And Obama, needless to say, did not do anything like that.”

Ok, what about drone strikes? As Fred Kaplan and others — including the heckler at the speech — have pointed out, President Obama did not promise to transfer drone strike authority from the CIA (where they remain covert) to the military (where there’s more possibility of oversight.) Nor did he pledge to end “signature strikes,” meaning the current practice of unleashing fiery death upon unknown parties because they seem to be acting shady. This “supposedly new, restrictive policy on drone strikes,writes Kaplan, “was neither new nor restrictive…In short, the speech heralded nothing new when it comes to drone strikes.”

Instead, Obama defended his drone policy as legal and effective. At one point, he asserted “for the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process.” And then, in the very next paragraph, he asserts that particular executive prerogative in the matter of Anwar Awlaki — assassinated without due process. (FWIW, Obama is clearly using the Colbert reasoning here: “Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”)

As for Gitmo…well, we have been here before, so fool me once and all that. “‘The speech was deeply disappointing,’ says David Remes, a lawyer who has represented a number of Yemenis held at Guantanamo – adding that Obama only ‘created the illusion of forward momentum.’…The president has the power to issue national security waivers and direct the Secretary of Defense to certify detainee transfer if they are deemed not a national security threat – something human rights groups have been advocating. Didn’t hear much about that in the president’s address.

Yes, the paragraphs I quoted from the speech above at the onset are laudable, and yes, I suppose some people might find it vaguely comforting to know that the force of these issues weigh on the presidential mind in a way they didn’t between 2001 and 2008. But let’s be honest. It has been a troubling tendency of this administration — and by troubling tendency I mean signature pattern — to follow up lofty, progressive-minded rhetoric with absolutely no action of consequence. We need more than words from this president.

Yes, We Tortured.

“‘[I]t is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture’ and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it…The use of torture, the report concludes, has ‘no justification’ and ‘damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.’ The task force found ‘no firm or persuasive evidence’ that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means.”

A “nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” headed by two former Members of Congress (Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James Jones) offers an in-depth investigative report on our national post-9/11 torture regime.

“The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been ‘the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.'”

Of course, we have known all this for awhile now. And yet, just as with the folks who brought us the financial crisis, there has been zero accountability coming from Obama’s Justice Department or anywhere else. Instead, our powers-that-be have been too busy trying to round up purported public enemies like Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.

And yet, as this report unequivocally lays out, the evidence of an American torture regime, planned and carried out after 9/11 at the highest levels of government, is indisputable. For the rule of law’s sake as much as for the values we purportedly stand for, we still need a reckoning.

Hounding Private Manning.

“I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public, who observed the aerial weapons team video. As I hoped, others were just as troubled– if not more troubled that me by what they saw.”

While pleading guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, Bradley Manning makes a long and detailed statement about why he gave classified documents to Wikileaks. “The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that– that this type of information should become public. I once read a, and used, a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other.”

See also this on Gitmo: “[T]he more I became educated on the topic, it seemed that we found ourselves holding an increasing number of individuals indefinitely that we believed or knew to be innocent, low level foot soldiers that did not have useful intelligence and would be released if they were still held in theater.”

I’m with Glenn Greenwald on this – Bradley Manning should be considered a hero, the Daniel Ellsberg of our day, and the real crime here is how terribly he’s been treated by the powers-that-be for a justifiable act of whistle-blowing. “He knew exactly what he was risking, what he was likely subjecting himself to. But he made the choice to do it anyway because of the good he believed he could achieve, because of the evil that he believed needed urgently to be exposed and combated, and because of his conviction that only leaks enable the public to learn the truth about the bad acts their governments are doing in secret.”

And, for this stand on idealism, we’ve kept Pvt. Manning locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and are (still) threatening him with life in prison. Meanwhile, this town is overrun with glib, useless assholes who don’t care about anyone but themselves, and those guys keep failing up. We hound and imprison our Swartzes and Mannings, while coddling and venerating the Dimons and Blankfeins of this world. Some system.

The Clown has a Point.


Hey all. Apologies yet again for the lack of updates around here. As I said a couple of times last year, I’m still figuring out where the old Ghost fits in the scheme of life these days. There’s a negative feedback loop happening where I don’t post at GitM that often, so fewer people swing by here, so there are no comments or feedback on the posts that I do spend some time on, which makes me even less inclined to post, so thus even fewer people swing by here…you get the point.

I was thinking of starting up the movie reviews around here again for 2013, but having just spent a looong time on another giant project that few if any will ever peruse, I’m not really seeing the point of dedicating myself to spending even more hours of my day writing long-winded reviews that nobody ever reads. It’s just a lot of work with very little gain. I’ve been writing this blog for over 13 years and the reviews for over ten — If either were ever going to gain an audience, they would have done so by now.

As for politics…eh. On the domestic front, all reasonable and common-sense attempts at achieving forward progress have been stymied for years now, mainly because of bipartisan infatuation with a totally fake problem. Sure, Obama (finally) talked a good game last night about climate change, voting rights, infrastructure, equal pay, housing, the minimum wage — things we expected from a progressive president four years ago, and that would undeniably make a profound difference for a lot of American families. But this is year five of this presidency — We know the score by now. When push comes to shove, he’ll be promoting Simpson-Bowles nonsense, extolling the Grand Bargain again, and advocating a chained CPI, all because, presumably, those evil, evil Republicans made him. Good cop, bad cop.

Over on foreign policy, our Hope-and-Change president has accorded himself the power to kill anyone he so desires by executive fiat. And the response? Ostensible progressives back this ridiculous play, and a full 83% of America is totally cool with Death from Above without due process. Awesome.

Speaking of due process, it is flat-out-ridiculous that we live in a world where Aaron Swartz was hounded to suicide by a DoJ-enabled Javert for freeing up JSTOR articles, of all things, and Bradley Manning is kept in a tiny box as Public Enemy #1 for exposing bad behavior by the military. And yet, our national torture experiment has still gone unpunished (because, hey, it worked!), and not a single bankster of note has been prosecuted, despite the massive levels of fraud that have been exposed and that brought the American economy to its knees. To the contrary, the president can’t stop asking self-serving and patently corrupt assholes like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein how we can better structure our public policy to cater to their whims.

Admittedly, I partake in it myself semi-often, but I’m just tired of a Twitter-driven political-journalism culture that seems to think that the lulz of Marco Rubio being really thirsty is a more pressing issue to cover than the myriad holes in his obviously stupid, self-serving, and faith-based ideas. Or that Jack Lew having a funny signature is a more vital point to discuss about the probable next Treasury Secretary than whatever the hell he was doing at Citigroup when the goddamned house was burning down.

I hate on the hipster Twitter kids, but establishment journalism is even worse. We live in a world where the totally inane Politico rules the roost and “wins the day”. Where our papers of record will keep warrantless wiretaps and drone bases quiet for years because the powers-that-be asked them to. Where idiot right-leaning “centrists” like David Brooks, David Gergen, Gloria Borger, and Cokie Roberts are queried for their inane views constantly, even though they don’t know anything and have never done anything with their lives but constantly mouth Beltway platitudes as if they were Holy Scripture. Where “journalists” like Chuck Todd, John King, and Jake Tapper — the latter of whom, let’s remember, made it big by kissing-and-telling on his Big Date with Monica Lewinsky — are taken seriously because they tsk-tsk about deficits like Serious People™ and passively nod along whenever obvious liars are lying. This isn’t journalism. It’s Court Stenography, Versailles-on-the-Potomac.

Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken. So, no, I don’t feel particularly inclined to talk about politics these days either, because there’s only so many times you can bellow in rage about it all, especially when nobody swings by this little corner of the Internet anyway. I’m not officially quitting GitM or anything, but let’s be honest. I’m not really what sure when, if ever, it’ll get its groove back. I’m not sure I see the point. And besides, as Richard said, a withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.

The Leader and his Drones.

It is literally impossible to conceive of any mindset more at odds with…basic principles than the one that urges that Barack Obama – unlike George Bush or Mitt Romney or whoever the scary GOP villain of the day is – can be trusted to unilaterally and secretly kill or imprison or surveil anyone he wants because he is a Good man and a trustworthy leader and therefore his unproven accusations should be assumed true. But this is, overwhelmingly, the warped and authoritarian sentiment that now prevails in the bulk of the Democratic Party and its self-identified ‘progressive’ faction, just as it did in the GOP and its conservative wing for eight years.”

Upon the revelation that the Obama administration finally moved to codify a drone policy — but only in case they lost the election and Romney took up the Ring of Power instead — Glenn Greenwald calls out the many Democrats who have forsaken their prior civil liberties stances to prop up this sort of obviously unconstitutional behavior by “Our Team.”

See also Marcy Wheeler on this issue, who along with offering an informed and in-depth view of the big picture, has unleashed some devastating tweets of late. To wit: “Shorter Scott Shane: Drone Rule Book exists for NYT A1, but not for ACLU’s grubby little FOIAs.

I’ve said this before, but there’s an easy available metaphor to explain why what the administration is doing here is so unhealthy and reprehensible. As with the Ring, so too with indefinite detention, state secrets, extrajudicial assassinations, unmitigated use of drones, and the rest of the dark tools comprising today’s GWOT arsenal. It does not matter who tries to wield them — they will corrupt regardless, not to mention leave a trail of undeserving dead in their wake.

The Change is Us. It Has to Be.

So, how about that Election Night? Once you factor in that the ridiculous gerry-mandering of 2010, coupled with Obama’s terrible, coattail-cutting first debate performance, killed any chance of Democrats retaking the House, Tuesday night went about as well as it possibly could. Every swing state except North Carolina swung blue. The Senate kept some of its best progressives (Sanders, Brown) and added a few more very promising contenders (Warren, Baldwin). Gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization both made important footholds. California moved to end Howard Jarvis’ Tax Revolt, now in its fourth decade. And the Republicans — again, the House notwithstanding — were routed, and their cruel Ayn Rand-inflected ideology decisively repudiated at the polls.

All things considered, it was a great night, and all the more for what it portended about elections to come. Ever-growing in recent years, the Rising American Electorate — unmarried women, people under 30, people of color — showed its power on Tuesday night, displaying its centrality as the backbone of our new Democratic coalition and sending Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and other White Men of a Certain Age into very public paroxysms of despair. (Good times. Enjoy that 2004 experience, y’all.) And while the Republican base is looking long in the tooth these days, our Democratic coalition is only continuing to grow.

As I noted in 2010, even despite the dismal showing then, demography is destiny, and the rest of the country is and will continue to experience Californication. Today we got the first taste of what a really multicultural America will be like at the polls. See also David Simon of The Wire and Treme on this: “A man of color is president for the second time, and this happened despite a struggling economic climate and a national spirit of general discontent. He has been returned to office over the specific objections of the mass of white men. He has instead been re-elected by women, by people of color, by homosexuals, by people of varying religions or no religion whatsoever. Behold the New Jerusalem. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a white man, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being anything. That’s the point.

So, all in all, 2012 was a great victory for we progressives, and things are suddenly looking up. But, of course, we’ve been here before.

I really hope President Obama and his closest advisors are looking at the same demographic realities as the rest of us, and that he decides to spend his second term governing closer to what he promised back in 2008. But I trusted in hope last time around, and, needless to say, that didn’t get it done.

The fact of the matter is our Democratic standard-bearer, at least up to this point, is behaving and governing in a fashion that is clearly to the right of the growing Democratic base that got him elected and now re-elected. No more benefit of the doubt: It is up to us to put pressure on this administration to make sure they hold to the promises they’ve made. That work has to begin right now.

We all know what’s coming up first, and Glenn Greenwald already laid out the dismal pattern we can expect — and need to break — on the Grand Bargain front. True to form, Peter Orszag — and what does it say about our president’s priorities that he staffed up his first administration with this kind of jackass? — has already sent out the let’s-fiddle-with-social-security trial balloon. Erskine Bowles’ name has been aggressively floated as the new SecTreas and High Inquisitor in the matter of the Deficit Witches. By all accounts, President Obama seems to think he can play Nixon-in-China on Social Security and Medicare. But this is not at all why voters gave him a Democratic mandate, and that’s exactly the sort of wrong-headed notion, coupled with Katrina, that turned the electorate against Dubya in 2005.

In his victory speech on Tuesday night, President Obama continued his recent turn toward the progressive rhetoric of citizenship and self-government. He said: “The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”

On one hand, I should be overjoyed that the President has taken this rhetorical turn, since it’s something I’ve been pushing for here for as long as GitM has been running. At the same time, President Obama has shown over the years an irritating penchant for co-opting progressive rhetoric only to serve centrist, corporatist, and/or neoliberal ends. It would be a shame if we let that happen again.

A presidency really concerned with fostering civic responsibility and self-government would look quite different than the one we have experienced up to this point. In the strictest and most literal sense, it would acknowledge, sometime before the second-term election night, that both our voting and campaign finance systems have been broken for decades, and require a significant overhaul. But, even more than that, a philosophy of encouraging citizenship and self-government presupposes different priorities and different policies.

First and foremost, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, it would recognize that necessitous men and women are not free men and women, and work harder to ensure everyone has the basic economic liberty to choose their own path through life. It would not, to take just one example, make the center of their housing reform a foreclosure program designed to help banks rather than homeowners.

An administration advocating citizenship and self-government would do more to emphasize the fundamental importance of education at all levels, and invest mightily not just in schools and teachers but in after-school programs, early childhood education, anti-poverty and anti-hunger initiatives, and all the other efforts that can help alleviate the various and persistent environmental factors limiting children’s potential in America. That requires a significantly different and more comprehensive approach to the education issue than simply competitive grants that reward grant-writing skills and teaching to the test.

It would mean emphasizing a conception of citizenship that is broader and richer than just a world of workers, consumers, and automatons — one that, as per Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herbert Croly, encourages introspection, critical thinking, and self-exploration. This is a hard nut to crack, of course. But at the very least we could fight to give more men and women freedom from the necessities of work to do whatever it is they want to do. We are not just our jobs, or at least we shouldn’t be, unless that’s what we want. That means pushing for a higher minimum wage, equal pay for men and women holding the same job, increasing access to affordable child care, more worker protections, and a shorter work week.

Emphasizing self-government only works if the political system remains accountable to its citizens. That means, along with voting and campaign finance reform, working to break the hold of any particular special interest over the political process — namely, corporate power. But as Matt Stoller, Glenn Greenwald, and others have noted, this administration has perpetuated and even accelerated a two-tiered system of political and economic justice in America. The losses of bankers and corporate elites have been subsidized by the public, even when they clearly broke the law. Meanwhile, the average homeowner and debtor has been disparaged and left on their own underneath a crushing burden — so much so that inequality has actually increased over the last four years. Similarly, the Bush-era torture regime has been swept under the rug, while whistleblowers have been aggressively prosecuted. This will not do.

Meanwhile, even though Obama himself has been a user of illcit drugs, as have the last several presidents, there has been no attempt at all by this administration to undo the drug war destroying communities and putting so many in jail — Quite the contrary, in fact. Nor has this administration done anything to stop the reprehensible practice of private prisons selling their “workforce” as forced labor.

Citizenship is a bond — Being a citizen means that one is part of a larger community and has a stake in it, a sense that we’re all in it together. So emphasizing citizenship means investing in big projects and big ideas that bring the American community together in larger purpose, from a massive rebuilding of America’s infrastructure to a re-energized space program to a WWII-sized response to the climate change crisis. Instead, this administration has trafficked in deficit hysteria for several years, and clearly plans to bring another dose of it in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, the biggest project we have been involved with as a people in recent years is expending blood and treasure on remaking Afghanistan and Iraq. This, it is now clear, has been not just a considerable waste of public resources, but a policy that has resulted in thousands and thousands of lives lost around the world.

Especially in America, where we are tied together not by blood but by an idea, being a citizen also means agreeing on a story — a shared narrative that ties the members of the community together. Because our connection is a story — even a fiction, some might say — it is all the more important that our government uphold the founding values of that story. (As Charles Pierce eloquently argues here, this is why Obama’s re-election is important independent of everything else — it reaffirms our conviction that race is no longer any barrier to the highest office in the land.) But, quite obviously, this administration has not lived up to our founding ideals in many ways, especially with regard to how it has prosecuted the War on Terror. As Mark Danner says in the piece I just linked, “President Obama has taken a position so strongly in favor of unremitting military violence that he has left his Republican rival, struggle though he may to shoulder his way past him, no place to stand.” And let’s be honest: As a party, we Democrats utterly failed to call the president out on this.

So, yes, an emphasis on citizenship and self-government could very well be the basis of a new progressive politics. But, unless he makes a marked shift from his first term, I fear this president is just going to use these words as a new rhetorical toolbox to push for more half-assed, neo-liberal Third Wayisms and lousy Republican ideas from the mid-80’s. We face dire problems in this country, and yet this administration is somehow afraid to even consider the time-tested New Deal ideas, from public works to the HOLC, that worked in the past.

The only way President Obama will make that progressive shift, it is now clear, is if the American people push him in that direction. In this, what Obama said on election night is absolutely correct. No matter what the president has said on the campaign trail, we can no longer hope this administration will bring change we can believe in. He is going to have to be forced into it by a Democratic electorate that refuses to accept anything less. It’s not a coincidence that the two progressive reforms Obama finally embraced this year — same-sex marriage and the DREAM Act — were ones that had passionate, vocal, and uncompromising reform movements behind them.

The election results showed that progressives are and can be ascendant in America. But we need to be much tougher on this administration than we have been in the past. Lip service to good intentions and progressive ideals is no longer satisfactory. And that hard work of keeping this administration in line has to begin right now, before the tentpoles of our current social insurance system are chipped away at by way of Grand Bargain.

Democrats just elected this president for a second time, and we don’t want to see any more compromising with and capitulating to economic terrorists. It is past time for this president and this administration to do right by us.

The New Haymarket.

What I said last year stands. The world doesn’t need any more 9/11 retrospectives. Still, this NASA picture from that dark day is pretty impressive, so there’s that.

I will say this: Since last week we watched Democrats — Democrats — chant USA, call out Mitt Romney for being insufficiently for the troops, and all but roll the severed head of Osama Bin Laden out on stage, perhaps it’s time to regain a little perspective.

9/11 was a horrible crime that demanded justice. It was also an event, it has now become clear, that could have and should have been prevented by the Dubya administration using traditional, pre-9/11 intelligence methods. Since that dark day, nine people have died in our indefinite detention prison camp at GitMo. The only person being prosecuted for the Dubya-era torture regime is the whistleblower. And we’re now set to unleash a wave of SKYNET-like drones over our own territory in the name of keeping us safe.

It’s long past time to stop compounding the tragedy of what happened in New York and Washington eleven years ago by shredding the constitution in response. It’s time to get back to being America again.

Straight Talk about Torture.


I don’t mourn the loss of any terrorist’s life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves. Through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss, we are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.

Showing a flash of his 2000 self in today’s WaPo op-ed page, John McCain argues anew that torture is un-American — and that Bush water-carriers like Michael Mukasey are lying about its efficacy in the Bin Laden hunt. He then followed up with a Senate speech to the same effect:

“In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and misleading information…In short, it was not torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden.

Confederates at Gitmo.


The military trial of civilians is an atrocity!” Why, yes, yes it is. And, if you didn’t think so already, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, an occasionally flat but still edutaining courtroom drama, aims to sway you to that point of view by coming strong with the history — in this case, the 1865 trial of Mary Surratt for her alleged role in the murder of President Lincoln.

The good news is The Conspirator is nowhere near as preachy and inert as Redford’s last attempt at liberal muck-raking, Lions for Lambs. (I’ll confess I don’t have much patience for didactic message movies that bray at me to embrace opinions i already hold — See also Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone.) Nonetheless, this film still occasionally suffers from the same mix of well-meaning blandness and dramatic torpor that characterizes almost all of Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s similar 19th century courtroom exercise: The values being reified are all laudable, to be sure, but the story as told is strangely lifeless (and I say that as someone who probably enjoys the genre of movies-to-be-shown-in-high-school-history-when-the-teacher-is-out more than most.)

Fortunately, the movie grew on me after awhile. Its depiction of broader Washington DC often feels stagy, and some of the acting support here doesn’t help matters. (As Surratt’s daughter Anna, Evan Rachel Wood overdoes it in her every scene, and the very 21st-century Justin Long is just miscast here as a Union veteran.) But as the lens of the story narrows down to the nitty-gritty of the court case in its middle hour, The Conspirator finds a surer footing. At its best moments, Redford’s film feels like an episode of Law and Order: Civil War Unit, one whose resonances — military tribunals, indefinite detentions, victor’s justice, and whatnot — still feel “ripped from the headlines.”

After establishing that our protagonist here, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, with an impressive American accent — he should help out his countryman Ewan) is a Union war veteran wounded in his nation’s service, The Conspirator begins with the terrible crime that will concern us. On the night of April 14, 1865, only five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, several men attempt to kill President Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward, with mixed results. Seward manages to survive some nasty stab wounds, Johnson’s killer loses his nerve…but, as we all know, the flamboyant actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth manages to kill the 16th President of the United States in cold blood. It is a horrible act of treason, the first assassination America has ever seen, and, make no mistake, everyone involved will pay.

And so, under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, only slightly less Cheneyesque than Richard Dreyfuss in W) the conspirators (minus Booth, who is shot during capture) are rounded up and put on, for all intent and purposes, show trial — one headed by military men and quite clearly designed to come back with guilty verdicts. (FWIW, this film mostly elides over the Manhunt part of the story.) Nonetheless, according to that quaint old Constitution, even such dastardly criminals as these deserve defense counsel, and ultimately the young Union lawyer we met at the outset is roped into defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) by his mentor, Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

Captain Aiken takes to his new position reluctantly, especially since he feels pretty certain that Surratt — the proprietress of the boarding house where the conspirators plotted — is guilty as all Hell. But as he learns more of Surratt and her pious Christian, Ur-mother ways, he starts to wonder if maybe she’s just taking the fall for her son John (Johnny Simmons of Jennifer’s Body), who is still on the lam. And, as he grows ever more sick of the obvious railroading happening at trial under the direction of Judge David Hunter (Colm Meaney) and prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston, doing his officiously sinister bureaucrat thing), Aiken becomes a convert to his duties, even as proper Washington society begins to shun him for seeming to take on the Confederate cause. Sometimes a man has to make a stand, etc. etc.

I don’t know much about the Mary Surratt trial other than what Wiki has to offer, so I can’t tell you if Redford and screenwriter James Solomon have done justice to the specifics of the story — It seems to have a versimilitude about it, at any rate. But one place where I thought The Conspirator faltered is in establishing the Big Picture. True, the film begins grimly with Lincoln’s assassination — hard to fault it there, I suppose. But particularly once the courtroom scenes take hold, it doesn’t do a very good job of putting everything in emotional context — that all of this is happening mere days and weeks right after the close of America’s bloodiest war. (Nor, for that matter, is slavery mentioned.) And so, while the Law and Order aspects of the story are often compelling in their own right, the trial also feels flat, and strangely disconnected from all the events that put it in motion.

Which is too bad, really. Since, if anything, that Civil War backdrop adds depth to the viewpoint Redford seemed to be trying to uphold. There we were after four years of bloody war, 600,000 dead and the president assassinated, and Aiken is still taking a stand for the constitutional rights of Mary Surratt — even though an innocent verdict might well put the sides at each other’s throats again. (Contrast this with the cowardly behavior our past two administrations have shown with regard to tribunals, detentions, Gitmo, etc, even though, neither on 9/11 or since, has Al Qaeda ever represented the kind of existential threat to our republic that we faced in 1865.)

Speaking of the Civil War angle: In a way, I admire the shrewdness of this film: It tries to pitch a civil liberties morality play in such a way that the people who will feel most aggrieved about the injustices being shown, civil libertarians notwithstanding, are the folks among us with residual sympathy for the Confederacy — not normally a left-leaning or libertarian bunch. But, let’s get real: They’re not going to see this film, or, if they do, see it as anything other than lefty propaganda. Like Inside Job or Casino Jack and the United States of Money, The Conspirator is for the most part just preaching to the choir. One of the best things you can say about it is that, for the middle hour at least, you may not mind humming along.

Obama Ghraib.

“‘There can be no conceivable justification for requiring a soldier to surrender all his clothing, remain naked in his cell for seven hours, and then stand at attention the subsequent morning,’ he wrote. ‘This treatment is even more degrading considering that Pfc. Manning is being monitored — both by direct observation and by video — at all times.‘”

Sometimes I don’t post here because I’m really busy. Sometimes I don’t post here because the news is too damned depressing: The United States takes another big step towards Miniluv by applying Dubya-era torture and intimidation techniques to an American citizen in custody for leaking, Bradley Manning. (Y’see, it’s a four lights = five lights kinda thing. Manning has to break — and then, like Zubadayah and KSM, voice untruths — for there to be any sort of possible criminal conspiracy case against Wikileaks.)

What is there to say, really? State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley already correctly stated that this abusive treatment of Manning was “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid,” and, within days, he was fired for stating the obvious.

The president, meanwhile, assures us everything is ok because the Pentagon said so: “I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are.” This, as Glenn Greenwald (who’s been on top of this all the way) points out, is exactly the same rationale Dubya used to use: “‘When [Bush] asked ‘the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government’ to review interrogation methods, ‘they assured me they did not constitute torture.’” Well, ok then.

So let’s review. Dubya’s administration constructs an illegal and unconstitutional torture regimeNobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Look forward, not backward!) The Dubya administration lies to the American people in order to prosecute a war of choice in Iraq. Nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. Through greed and outright fraud, Wall Street traders implode the global economy to the tune of trillions of dollars, and, with the convenient exception of Bernie Madoff, nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Synthetic junk, anyone?) Big banks continue their crime spree by engaging in a massive epidemic of foreclosure fraud, and nobody goes to jail (but we’ll make them promise not to do it again!)

Oh, and an Army private leaks “secret” documents (so secret they were available to millions of people) because “[h]e wanted people held accountable and wanted to see this didn’t happen again” — the very definition of whistleblowing — and now we’re treating him like Winston Smith. (Then again, our president does despise whistleblowers.)

Should Manning be in U.S. custody right now? Yes. He took an oath to the United States military and, knowing full well the consequences, broke it in an act of civil disobedience. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime — I get that. But should Manning be abused and tortured in U.S. custody? Of course not — Nobody should be. In fact, I thought we elected Barack Obama as president to make sure this never happened again.

Nope, sorry. Instead, President Obama fired Crowley and is owning what’s happening to Manning right now. He also just reinstated and normalized indefinite detentions at Gitmo. (Obama the constitutional scholar? Meet the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.) And when not perpetuating Dubya-era illegalities, he (and new lefty-bashing chief of staff) spend their days talking up the deficit, talking down regulation, and hoping the Chamber and the NRA take their meetings. Feel those winds of change, y’all. (Obama meme pic above via here.)

Update: “Based on 30 years of government experience, if you have to explain why a guy is standing naked in the middle of a jail cell, you have a policy in need of urgent review.P.J. Crowley reflects on his recent firing. “I stand by what I said. The United States should set the global standard for treatment of its citizens – and then exceed it. It is what the world expects of us. It is what we should expect of ourselves.

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