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Terror Tuesday: Are we closer to a day of reckoning?

It could just be that the truth still has the power to set us free.

A little of that truth emerged into the light today, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

We had long known about the litany of mistakes and misjudgments that paved the way to 9/11. But we did not know that direct warnings about an impending al-Qaeda attack were repeatedly included in President Bush’s daily intelligence briefs beginning in the spring of 2001.

Kurt Eichenwald, a Vanity Fair contributing editor who has had access to many of those documents that are still being withheld from public, reveals in a New York Times op ed today that Bush’s neocon advisers dismissed incessant CIA warnings because they wanted the president to keep his eye on the prize – Iraq.

“In response,” Eichenwald writes, “the CIA prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real…and the CIA repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have ‘dramatic consequences,’ including major casualties…Yet the White House failed to take significant action.”

The warnings continued throughout the summer. As the White House refused to take action “officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the CIA grew apoplectic” while neoconservatives continued to insist that the CIA was being fooled by a Bin Laden disinformation campaign and Iraq was the real enemy.

On this flawed foundation was built a “just trust us” secrecy regime – the national security surveillance state under which we are living today, and an endless war of global dimensions that defies human rights and international law.

After 11 years of conditioning, few Americans question the relentless profit-producing drumbeat of warnings about the “terrorist threat.” A “new normal” does not just define bipartisan national security policies. It has burrowed deep into our national psyche.

But it may be that the more that is revealed about the road to 9/11, the more of an opening there will be for voices demanding restoration of our Constitutional rights, accountability for “war on terror” crimes and a roll back of the surveillance state.

As we saw from both political conventions, these issues have not been on the radar of politicians, and delegates are more prone to chant “USA, USA” than to call on the USA to live up to its proclaimed core values.

And as we have seen over the last 11 years, when leaders talk about those core values enshrined in the Bill of Rights, they can be selling us a phony bill of goods.

Take President Obama. Here is what he recently told CNN’s Jessica Yellin about the kill lists and lethal drone strikes:

It's very important for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about, are we doing the right thing, are we abiding by rule of law, are we abiding by due process. And then set up structures and institutional checks, so that, you know, you avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we're not being true to who we are.

It appears that the president, like his attorney general, has adopted Stephen Colbert’s definition of “due process”:

“Due process just means that there is a process that you do.”

The Bureau of Investigative Reporting extracted these rules governing the kill lists from the Obama interview, which is also transcribed here in its entirety:

  1. “It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws.”
  2. “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.”
  3. “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”
  4. “We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.”
  5. “That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots… they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.” [So there, Anwar al Awlaki!]

Tell the people of Yemen about rule number 4 where, in the week that the interview was aired, 13 civilians were killed in a suspected drone strike. At least three of them were women. In the wake of the attack, family members vowed to retaliate as angry protesters blocked the streets.

Undeterred, the US subsequently ordered more drone attacks in Yemen, where the government has often taken the blame for errant US drone strikes. A strike on September 10 was reported to have killed Said al Shihri, a former Guantanamo detainee described as number 2 in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Obama Administration may take satisfaction from the elimination of al Shihri, once his identity is confirmed. But in the week leading up to the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it did not have much else to celebrate on the national security front.

No sooner had it closed the door on holding anyone accountable for torture, than torture was back in the news. The September 6th New York Times and other media outlets featured a Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation into the US-led extraordinary rendition and torture of opponents of the Qaddafi regime who were sent back to Libya in the early years of the Bush Administration.

Files seized from Libyan government offices following the fall of Qaddafi led HRW to former prisoners, some of whom are now serving in the new government. They interviewed Mohammed Shoroeiya, who described in detail numerous sessions of being waterboarded by Americans in Afghanistan, and being abused in other ways.

Other former prisoners told of being subjected in CIA black sites to the kind of abusive treatment approved by the torture memos: being slammed into walls, held in stress positions and in a small box, bombarded with loud music, chained naked to walls, and left in diapers in dark cells for weeks or months at a time. They were subsequently “rendered” back to Qaddafi’s prisons.

CIA officials have claimed that they only used waterboarding on three detainees – Abu Zubaydah, al-Nashiri, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

While the Obama Administration apparently has no appetite to look any further into allegations of torture, it is unlikely that the issue will simply go away. Indeed, there are bound to be a stream of new accounts of detainee mistreatment at the hands of Americans, now that the US has handed over the Parwan Detention Facility at the Bagram Air Base to Afghan authorities.

The prison, known as “the other Guantanamo,” increased its size fivefold – to 3,000 detainees – since President Obama took office. According to Daphne Evitar, an attorney for Human Rights Watch, “It’s worse than Guantanamo because there are fewer rights.”

Evitar’s 2011 report, Detained and Denied in Afghanistan: How to Make US Detention Comply with the Law, describes a prison regime in which detainees have been held for more than seven years without their names, nationalities and places of capture being released by the Defense Department and without being charged with any crime. Under the Obama Administration, they were given “status review” hearings but not permitted lawyers. Unlike the inmates at Guantanamo, they have no habeas corpus rights. Evitar found that the US was detaining people based on false intelligence and no real evidence.

US officials had agreed to transfer the prison to Afghan control by September 10th at the latest. But when that date arrived, they were reluctant to let go.

Not only were American military commanders and State Department officials absent from the transfer ceremony. But, as the New York Times reported a day after the official hand over, Americans remain in control of 600 newly-captured prisoners, and are refusing to hand over 30 or so long-term prisoners “because of a dispute over whether the Afghans would continue to hold them without trial, as the United States had demanded.” American military guards “remain a very real presence around the perimeter of the prison” and US officials “are still present in the completely Afghan-run section as well.”

The US, a country that claims to cherish and promote the rule of law, ran into a big problem when negotiating the transfer agreement. “The United States insisted,” The New York Times reported, “that the Karzai administration embrace a system of no-trial detention for wartime prisoners deemed too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release.”

But Afghan lawmakers refused to ratify the agreement, and the official in charge of overseeing the implementation of the new Constitution stated that no-trial detention “is not acceptable to us” and is “in confrontation with the national Constitution.”

Guantanamo, where a ninth detainee was reportedly found dead in his cell over the weekend, is also giving the president headaches.

On September 6, federal judge Royce Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, in scathing language rejected the Obama Administration’s effort to further restrict lawyers’ access to Guantanamo detainees if they did not have a pending case. He called the government’s position “quite preposterous” and “an illegitimate exercise of Executive power.”

In his original decision Judge Lamberth wrote,

It is a sad reality that in the ten years since the first detainees were brought to Guantanamo Bay not a single one has been fully tried or convicted of any crime. Despite this, the Government has fought to deny detainees the ability to challenge their indefinite detentions through habeas proceedings.

He subsequently amended the language to state that “only a handful have been tried or convicted” – an equally sad reflection on the first decade of the life of a prison which President Obama had vowed to shut on his first day in office.

It will take vigorous public debate and activism to close Guantanamo and discredit and dislodge the “new normal” in national security policy. A change in administration certainly won’t do it.

Mitt Romney as president could well again make torture official American policy. After all, for the past five years at least, he has refused to call waterboarding torture and has declared himself a big fan of Guantanamo.

Given Kurt Eichenwald’s revelations, will Romney’s embrace of neoconservatives set alarm bells ringing?

Whoever wins the election, our long-term agenda is set: to dismantle a homeland surveillance industrial complex enriched by the manipulation of fears, and to demand an end to the forever war and accountability for its victims. We can begin by expressing our outrage over the duplicity and blind ideology that opened the door to a bloodbath at home and in the countries on which we have visited our vengeance since the attacks of 9/11.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.