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Barack Obama may not have come into office pledging to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but he did pledge one thing: to close the Bush-era prison at Guanta'namo within a year. That couldn't have been clearer. And as I wrote back then, it was also a reasonable basis on which to judge whether a democratic administration could do anything significant to roll back our Bush-created Homeland Security Nation and alter American policy abroad.
Now, we have our answer -- and it couldn't be clearer either. No, he can't. Or won't.
Just last week, under the dreary headline "Closing Guanta'namo Fades as a Priority," Charlie Savage reported in my hometown paper that "the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guanta'namo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013." Admittedly, it would never have been an easy thing to do, not given domestic politics and the outsized fear of terrorism that goes with it. It would, however, have been a lot easier than sweeping away much of the rest of the legacy of the Bush administration: the Global War on Terror, the Department of Homeland Security, the Fear Inc. that now rules our lives and somehow managed to convince us, even with unemployment through the roof and the Gulf of Mexico turning into a dead sea, that the main danger to this country is "terrorism."
As it happens, the only thing the Obama administration seems to have swept away was the name, Global War on Terror. The war itself, like Guantanamo, has proven as unstaunchable as that gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. However named, that "war," the Afghan war, and the CIA's drone war in the Pakistani borderlands have all expanded, while the war in -- or at least occupation of -- Iraq has been shrinking ever so slowly on a schedule the Bush administration set up before it left office.
Perhaps none of this is surprising, not with a holdover Secretary of Defense from the end of the Bush administration, the hawkish Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and a national security advisor who was a friend of John McCain's, and might as easily have been chosen by him for the same post (had he won in 2008). Minus a few speeches and a friendlier attitude toward Russia, it's increasingly hard to tell the difference between Obama's imperial policy abroad and the Bush version of the same.
Meanwhile, at home, we remain scared to death by a fear machine that, 24/7, turns every inept doofus into public enemy number one. The latest news from our $281 billion Afghan war is this: there are, according to CIA director Leon Panetta, 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and, according to Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, "more than 300" al-Qaeda leaders and operatives in the Pakistani tribal areas. That's the "other superpower." At home, too, as Stephan Salisbury, author of the invaluable Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, makes clear, we are largely fighting ghosts and phantasms, some helpfully conjured up by the government itself. Too bad we can't wake up from this nightmare. (Check out Salisbury in Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview discussing how these cases are created via entrapment and informers by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, here.) Tom
Stage-Managing the War on Terror
Ensnaring Terrorists Demands Creativity
By Stephan Salisbury
Informers have by now become our first line of defense in our battles with the evildoers, the go-to guys in the never-ending domestic war on terror. They regularly do the dirty work -- suggesting and encouraging the plots, laboring as bag men to move the money, fashioning the bombs, and eliciting the flamboyant dialogue, even while following the scripts of their handlers to the letter. They have attended to all the little details that make for the successful and now familiar arrests, criminal complaints, trials, and (for the most part) convictions in the ever-distracting war against... what? Al-Qaeda? Terror? Muslims? The inept? The poor?
The Liberty City Seven, the Fort Dix Six, the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy, the Newburgh Four -- each has had their fear-filled day in the sun. None of these plots ever came close to happening. How could they? All were bogus from the get-go: money to buy missiles or cell phones or shoes and fancy duds -- provided by the authorities; plans for how to use the missiles and bombs and cell phones -- provided by authorities; cars for transport and demolition -- issued by the authorities; facilities for carrying out the transactions -- leased by those same authorities. Played out on landscapes manufactured by federal imagineers, the climax of each drama was foreordained. The failure of the plots would then be touted as the success of the investigations and prosecutions.
A band of virtually homeless and penniless men in Florida, we were told, were planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. They just needed the right combat boots to pull it off, and a little free money.
A cell of New Jersey roofers, handymen, and cab drivers was scheming to use a laminated pizza delivery map to guide them through a devastating attack on Fort Dix, the enormous military base in Burlington County, south of Trenton.
Ex-cons in Detroit, mostly known for patronizing a weekly soup kitchen to stave off hunger, were also planning to set up their own country in Michigan under Islamic law.
And a band of Orange County New York parolees and former drug peddlers placed bombs at two Bronx synagogues and was preparing to launch missile attacks on military cargo planes at Stewart National Guard Air Base in Newburgh.
In the Liberty City Seven case, which revolved around two informants paid in excess of $130,000 for their services, the government tried the hapless defendants three times before finally wresting a conviction from a jury. One defendant was acquitted at the first trial, another in the third, and five were eventually convicted of at least some terrorism-related charges. In the Fort Dix case, jurors were shown horrific films said to be on a computer owned by one of the defendants, who claimed an FBI informant demanded more and more videos for viewing.
Another defendant actually called the Philadelphia police, mid-plot, and said he was being pressured to commit radical acts by what turned out to be an FBI informer. Prosecutors dismissed this as an obvious decoy maneuver. The key informer in that case -- the FBI eventually paid two people to spy on the group -- an Egyptian on probation, received $236,000 for his services.
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