Friday, January 04, 2008


Bush Legacy

By Tom Engelhardt

If you don't mind thinking about the Bush legacy a year early, there are worse places to begin than with the case of Erla Ósk Arnardóttir Lilliendahl. Admittedly, she isn't an ideal "tempest-tost" candidate for Emma Lazarus' famous lines engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. After all, she flew to New York City with her girlfriends, first class, from her native Iceland, to partake of "the Christmas spirit." She was drinking white wine en route and, as she put it, "look[ing] forward to go shopping, eat good food, and enjoy life." On an earlier vacation trip, back in 1995, she had overstayed her visa by three weeks, a modest enough infraction, and had even returned the following year without incident.

This time – with the President's Global War on Terror in full swing – she was pulled aside at passport control at JFK Airport, questioned about those extra three weeks 12 years ago, and soon found herself, as she put it, "handcuffed and chained, denied the chance to sleep… without food and drink and… confined to a place without anyone knowing my whereabouts, imprisoned." It was "the greatest humiliation to which I have ever been subjected."

By her account, she was photographed, fingerprinted, asked rude questions – "by men anxious to demonstrate their power. Small kings with megalomania" – confined to a tiny room for hours, then chained, marched through the airport, and driven to a jail in New Jersey where, for another nine hours, she found herself "in a small, dirty cell." On being prepared for the return trip to JFK and deportation, approximately 24 hours after first debarking, she was, despite her pleas, despite her tears, again handcuffed and put in leg chains, all, as she put it, "because I had taken a longer vacation than allowed under the law."

On returning to her country, she wrote a blog about her unnerving experience and the Icelandic Foreign Minister Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir met with U.S. Ambassador Carol van Voorst to demand an apology. Just as when egregious American acts in Iraq or Afghanistan won't go away, the Department of Homeland Security announced an "investigation," a "review of its work procedures" and expressed "regrets." But an admission of error or an actual apology? Uh, what era do you imagine we're living in?

Erla Ósk will undoubtedly think twice before taking another fun-filled holiday in the U.S., but her experience was no aberration among Icelanders visiting the U.S. In fact, it's a relatively humdrum one these days, especially if you appear to be of Middle Eastern background.

Take, for instance, 20-year veteran of the National Guard Zakariya Muhammad Reed (born Edward Eugene Reed, Jr.), who, for the last 11 years, has worked as a firefighter in Toledo, Ohio. Regularly crossing the Canadian border to visit his wife's family, he has been stopped so many times – "I was put up against the wall and thoroughly frisked, any more thoroughly and I would have asked for flowers…" – that he is a connoisseur of detention. He's been stopped five times in the last seven months and now chooses his crossing place based on the size of the detention waiting room he knows he'll end up in. It took several such incidents, during which no explanations were offered, before he discovered that he was being stopped in part because of his name and in part because of a letter he wrote to the Toledo Blade criticizing Bush administration policies on Israel and Iraq.

The first time, he was detained in a small room with two armed guards, while his wife and children were left in a larger common room. While he was grilled, she was denied permission to return to their car even to get a change of diapers for their youngest child. When finally released, Reed found his car had been "trashed." ("My son's portable DVD player was broken, and I have a decorative Koran on the dashboard that was thrown on the floor.") During another episode of detention, an interrogator evidently attempted to intimidate him by putting his pistol on the table at which they were seated. ("He takes the clip out of his weapon, looks at the ammunition, puts the clip back in, and puts it back in his holster.") His first four border-crossing detentions were well covered by Matthew Rothschild in a post at the Progressive Magazine's website. During his latest one, he was questioned about Rothschild's coverage of his case.

The essence of his experience is perhaps caught best in a comment by Customs and Border Protection agent made in his presence: "We should treat them like we do in the desert. We should put a bag over their heads and zip tie their hands together."

Or take Nabil Al Yousuf, not exactly a top-ten candidate for the "huddled masses" category; nor an obvious terror suspect (unless, of course, you believe yourself at war with Islam or the Arab world). According to the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer, Yousuf, who is "a senior aide to the ruler of the Persian Gulf state of Dubai," always has the same "galling" experience on entering the country:

"A U.S. airport immigration official typically takes Yousuf's passport, places it in a yellow envelope and beckons. Yousuf tells his oldest son and other family members not to worry. And Yousuf – who goes by 'Your Excellency' at home – disappears inside a shabby back room. He waits alongside the likes of 'a man who had forged his visa and a woman who had drugs in her tummy'… He is questioned, fingerprinted and photographed."

Despite his own fond memories of attending universities in Arizona and Georgia, Yousuf has decided to send his son to college… in Australia. Knickmeyer adds:

"A generation of Arab men who once attended college in the United States, and returned home to become leaders in the Middle East, increasingly is sending the next generation to schools elsewhere. This year, Australia overtook the United States as the top choice of citizens of the United Arab Emirates heading abroad for college, according to government figures here."

This is what "homeland security" means in the United States today. It means putting your country in full lockdown mode. It means the snarl at the border, the nasty comment in the waiting room, the dirty cell, the handcuffs, even the chains. It means being humiliated. It means a thorough lack of modulation or moderation. Arriving here now always threatens to be a "tempest-tost" experience whether you are a citizen, a semi-official visitor, or a foreign tourist. (After all, even Sen. Ted Kennedy found himself repeatedly on a no-fly list without adequate explanation.) Think of these three cases as snapshots from the borders of a country in which the presumption of innocence is slowly being drained of all meaning.

So far, of course, we've only been talking about the lucky ones. After all, Erla Ósk, Zakariya Muhammad Reed, and Nabil Al Yousuf all made it home relatively quickly. In the final weeks of 2007, a little flood of press reports tracked more extreme versions of the global lockdown the Bush administration launched in late 2001, cases in which, after the snarl, the door clanged shut and home became the barest of hopes.

Take, for example, a December 1st Washington Post piece in which reporter Craig Whitlock revealed one more small part of the CIA's global network of secret imprisonment. We already knew, among other things, that the CIA had set up and run its own secret prisons in Eastern Europe and probably in Thailand; that it had a network of secret sites in Afghanistan like "the Salt Pit" near Kabul; that it may have used the "British" island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as American ships, naval and possibly commercial, to hold prisoners beyond the purview of any authority or even the visits of the International Red Cross; that it ran an air fleet of leased executive jets (including some from Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, which made it back into the news in December because of a lawsuit launched by the ACLU); that these were used to transport terror suspects it snatched up off city streets or battlefields anywhere on the planet to its own "black sites" or which it "rendered" in "extraordinary" manner to the jails and torture chambers of Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and other lands whose agents had no qualms about torturing and abusing prisoners.

Whitlock, however, added a new piece to the CIA's incarceration puzzle: an "imposing building" on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. This turns out to be the headquarters of the General Intelligence Department, Jordan's powerful spy and security agency (and the CIA's closest Arab ally in the Middle East). Known as a place where torture is freely applied, it has been a way-station for "CIA prisoners captured in other countries." The first terror suspects kidnapped by Agency operatives were, it seems, flown to Jordan and housed in that building before Guantánamo was up and running or the Agency had been able to set up its own secret prisons elsewhere. There, the prisoners were hidden, even from the International Red Cross. To cite but one case Whitlock mentions:

"Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, a Yemeni microbiology student, was captured in a U.S.-Pakistani operation in Karachi a few weeks after 9/11 on suspicion of helping to finance al-Qaeda operations. Witnesses reported seeing masked men take him aboard a Gulfstream V jet at the Karachi airport Oct. 24, 2001. Records show that the plane was chartered by a CIA front company and that it flew directly to Amman. Mohammed has not been seen since. Amnesty International said it has asked the Jordanian government for information on his whereabouts but has not received an answer."

Also in December, because of that lawsuit against Jeppesen, we got our first insider's account of the CIA "black sites" (and, thanks to Salon.com, even architectural plans for a few of the interrogation rooms and prison cells at those sites, all of which seem to have cameras in them). It was here that "high-value targets" were incarcerated, isolated, and subjected to various "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni, was picked up by the Jordanians in Amman in 2003 and tortured into signing a "full confession" (to acts he had not committed). He was then turned over to the CIA and flown to Kabul (and possibly Eastern Europe as well) where he was imprisoned. He has offered in-depth accounts that give a sense of what those "enhanced interrogation techniques" the Bush administration sponsors so enthusiastically are all about at a personal level. In the end, while in CIA custody, Bashmilah was driven to several suicide attempts, including one in which, using a bit of metal, he slashed his wrist and wrote, "I am innocent," on a cell wall in his own blood.

Here is just part of a description he offered Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! of being prepared for transport by CIA air taxi into black-site hell:

"And then they put… like little plugs inside the ears, plastic. And then they put gauze on that, on the ears. And then they taped that with very strong adhesive tape. And then they put a hood over my head. And then, on top of that, they put a headphone. This is as far as the top of my body was. And then they handcuffed me with a chain, and also they chained my ankles. Then they put a belt above the pants, and then they tied the hands and the ankles to that belt. This was after being slapped and kicked until I almost fainted."

In his cell in a secret prison in Afghanistan, "[i]n the beginning, it was totally dark. It was as if you were inside a tomb. Then, after that, they would turn a light on. Above the door, there was a camera. And there was constant loud music." From then on, neither the lights, nor the music went off. As Mark Benjamin of Salon.com wrote, "His leg shackles were chained to the wall. The guards would not let him sleep, forcing Bashmilah to raise his hand every half hour to prove he was still awake… Guards wore black pants with pockets, long-sleeved black shirts, rubber gloves or black gloves, and masks that covered the head and neck. The masks had tinted yellow plastic over the eyes. 'I never heard the guards speak to each other and they never spoke to me,' Bashmilah wrote in his declaration…

"After 19 months of imprisonment and torment at the hands of the CIA, the agency released him [in Yemen] with no explanation, just as he had been imprisoned in the first place. He faced no terrorism charges. He was given no lawyer. He saw no judge. He was simply released, his life shattered."

No charges, no lawyers, no judge. This is increasingly the norm of – and a legacy of – George Bush's world. In this way, the snarl at the borders melds with the screams of terror in cells worldwide.


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