Gabrielle Banks

Staffing the Homeland

The first day of 4700, the year of the Ram, came and went without great fanfare for most Americans. But if you happen to be one of the 175,000 readers of AsianWeek newspaper you may have stumbled upon the tastefully designed half-page ad wishing you "Happy Chinese New Year" from your friends at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Since when did they care? After a period of scaled-back operations during the post-Cold War '90s, the CIA landed congressional funding to step up recruiting in 1997. The "war on terror" has added a new sense of urgency to the agency's hiring. Recruiters are eager to bring in more tech-savvy personnel, more foreign language speakers, and more "diversity" hires.

"We have special ad campaigns that are designed for different ethnic groups," says CIA spokesman Tom Crispell. "We have a Chinese American campaign that we've kicked off to correspond with the Chinese New Year, a Hispanic campaign, an Arab American one."

In the age of Homeland Security, many federal agencies are looking to "diversify" their workforce. You may have heard the Border Patrol appeal on your Clear Channel hip-hop station or the U.S. Navy plug on your Spanish-language banda station. Colin Powell is mugging for the State Department in Hispanic Business magazine. The National Security Agency (NSA) is stumping at the NAACP National Convention. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the Coast Guard are amassing electronic real estate at And the FBI is hunting down recruits in publications like Turkish Times, Korean Times, Gujarat Times, Al Atrana International, Sher-e-Punjab, and Sing Tao.

Anyone with a rudimentary background in American history might wonder at the motives behind this targeted government outreach. The NSA's College Relations Manager Ken Acosta explains his agency's "diversity" and foreign language needs like this: "Our workforce must anticipate and respond to the actions of our extremely diverse targets. Therefore, we rely on the diversity of our workforce to envision all the possibilities, to conceive of a world very different from the one we live in. Diversity is critical to the success of our missions."

In other words, the color-recruiting effort is more than a magnanimous salute to affirmative action. What's implied in Acosta's "diversity" pitch is that U.S. intelligence and security agencies are also hoping to people the ranks with some cross-cultural emissaries who might serve as a buffer between the gray-suited old guard and the unknown "other."

In George W. Bush's America, cultural buffering is no small task. This is the administration that has screened thousands of Iraqi Americans in places like Dearborn, Michigan, in hopes of uncovering high-level military secrets. It's the administration that offers "snitch visas" in exchange for information about the terrorist next door. It's the administration that plans -- through "special registration" -- to regulate the comings and goings of Americans from 25 enemy countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Twenty months into the "war on terror," the "with us or against us" message has seeped into the fabric of America. Appeals for patriots to step forward, like the Chinese New Year ad, are brilliantly cloaked in the language of civil rights, equal opportunity, and cultural uplift.

The agency knows whom it wants, and according to Crispell at the CIA, applicants are lining up. "After 9/11, we were getting thousands of applications online a week -- and we continue to get hundreds a day -- but a very small percentage are actually qualified. We have more requests from universities and colleges to come recruit on campus than we have capacity of handling. So, one of the primary requirements in choosing where to recruit is the student population has to be a diverse one."

A former Justice Department attorney of color believes the administration is "very cynically and very deliberately using people of color where it's convenient and expedient." She explains: "It gives the administration a certain level of cover, because they can send out people who look like the community while at the same time doing damage to that community. It's really smart. They're working on two fronts."

Dangers of "Diversifying"

The feds are coming after the same communities with both the carrot (employment) and the stick (interrogation). The Central Intelligence folks are offering up cushy, equal-opportunity jobs -- like "Clinical Psychologist, fluent in Arabic" or the Clandestine Service Trainee Program, "the gateway to a unique overseas experience." Meanwhile, in a policy move reminiscent of the Japanese internment, federal immigration officials are instructing male immigrants from targeted communities to register their names at their local immigration office. And the FBI has conducted more than 5,000 "voluntary" interviews with -- and detained about 20 -- Iraqi Americans since the U.S. and the U.K. launched the war on Iraq.

In effect, carrot-and-stick campaigns have targeted communities in areas of the country with large populations of Arab and Muslim Americans. Last year FBI recruiters hit up a career fair at a New Jersey mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County -- in the same community where several of the September 11 hijackers had rented an apartment prior to the attacks and where a good portion of the individuals from the FBI's 9/11 roundups were housed. It's possible the mosque's invitation was a response to the kind of patriotic pressure felt in many Muslim communities after 9/11. Whatever the impetus, Magdy Mahmoud, director of New Jersey's Council on American-Islamic Relations says, "The event was not well attended and many people criticized the idea, so the mosque decided not to do it again in the future." Overall, Mahmoud says, the community is split on the issue. "Some people think its good to have representation in law enforcement. Other people say law enforcement is approaching people in an illegal and intimidating way. I think the latter opinion is gaining ground."

Arnoldo Garcia, who heads immigration law enforcement oversight at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, foresees a worst-case scenario for people of color who join the ranks. "My experience with Border Patrol agents who are of color is they tend to be worse than their white counterparts because they always have to prove themselves. When you give someone a badge, they become super-white," he says.

Certainly, there's no guarantee that Latino border agents will be more compassionate to Mexican border crossers or that Pakistani FBI agents will be less prone to needlessly meddle in the affairs of Muslim Americans under surveillance. But American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee spokesman Hussein Ibish does not concern himself with the dangers of "diversity." "I don't see how people of color joining these agencies can make it worse. But I don't think I would advise my nearest and dearest to take a position in the intelligence community."

Another Justice Department attorney who left his post (and wishes to remain anonymous) says it was a toss-up. "I wasn't happy about working for John Ashcroft, but the benefits of my being there to help victims of civil rights violations outweighed the costs. Part of why I left was I didn't want to be part of an institution that was promoting these policies." Community leaders nationwide have challenged the immigrant-targeted recruiting campaign, but very few ethnic media outlets, to date, have turned away the ads on moral grounds.

Ethics of Ethnic-Media Targeting

Targeted recruiting poses a critical dilemma for executives at ethnic news organizations. Advertising departments are charged with keeping the organizations afloat. It's difficult to turn down clients with the economy in a tailspin. At the same time, editorial boards must decide whether it's in the best interests of their organizations to risk the tacit affirmation they seemingly give by running recruitment ads.

"A publisher risks losing his credibility by running overt ads, because people might think we were in cahoots with [intelligence agencies]. Readers will say, 'If I subscribe, they probably have my address and telephone number.' They might pull their subscriptions because they are concerned about privacy," says PakNews editor Asim Mughal. Mughal says PakNews, which averages 1 million hits daily and skyrocketed to 2.9 million after 9/11, has not been approached by any agencies that are recruiting but his site was linked to the government's immigration information site during "special registration."

Many publications are driven by financial pressures and rely on ad revenue to survive. Neela Banerjee, who was editor-in-chief at AsianWeek at the time the Chinese New Year ad ran, says, "The CIA and the Army are the ones that are throwing around the most money for ads. There's talk of having the U.S. Army be the top sponsor for the Asian Pacific American Heritage month special edition of the paper."

Bay Area hip-hop activist and radio personality Davey D speculates that people see employment sound bites as a matter of equity. "If these government agencies didn't reach out and try to attract people of color via ads on the mediums we tend to listen to, a lot of us would be upset. If we had an all-white Border Patrol, INS, CIA, etc., everyone would be asking how come these agencies we pay taxes for did not reach into communities of color and offer the opportunity?"

Sandy Close, who founded the New California Media network and has her finger on the pulse of hundreds of print, broadcast, and online ethnic media organizations, subscribes to Davey D's line of thinking. Close says, "I would not only provide access to those ads, but would actively solicit them for our media network. I agree with Al Sharpton and others that the disparities in advertising in mainstream vs. ethnic media markets amount to an affirmative action issue. This issue is not without ironies, of course. Black media depend on tobacco and alcohol advertising, as do a lot of Hispanic media." On the content side, Close adds, "We would also be working to publicize abuses of civil liberties by these agencies within ethnic communities."

Filipinas magazine editor Vivian Zalvidea Araullo agrees on the equity question. "They're also trying to do recruiting in the mainstream. So I don't care if they use the same method in the ethnic community. We can't assume to read between the lines." But Araullo's percolating ambivalence about the agencies' policies comes through: "If it were a racist ad, that would be a totally different issue. I'm very much against TIPs and state-sponsored spying."

Filipinas makes its advertising decisions independent of its editorial staff, which is standard practice at many news organizations. At print pubs, the employees in layout generally organize paid ads according to section and size. Whether they are conscientious or inadvertent, odd juxtapositions often result. The CIA's Chinese New Year ad in AsianWeek ran below an article on legal clinics for Bangladeshi males -- one of the groups singled out for "special registration." With a loosely regulated market on ad space and air time, these things happen. So where should news executives draw the line?

"We try to avoid anything that can become controversial," says Ali Khan, advertising department spokesman at India Abroad, which recently ran an FBI recruiting ad. "We don't accept cigarette ads."

At AsianWeek, Banerjee recalls one occasion when her editorial and advertising staff bumped heads. "A couple of years ago our advertising director was running a lot of ads for casinos. Gambling is a problem in the Asian American community, and they were specifically targeting that population. We were running gambling addiction PSAs and we were also running casino ads." Upper management "took the matter under consideration," leaving the conflict unresolved. Ultimately, for a debate to get anywhere, the controversy itself must be deemed worthy of resolving.

Running government job ads is not inherently controversial if you're talking about, say, Post Office jobs. But intelligence work is quintessentially political. Many distinguished historians have implicated the CIA in the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende. J. Edgar Hoover himself once said that the purpose of the FBI's counterintelligence program was to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize" groups like the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, the NAACP, the National Lawyer's Guild, and the American Friends Service Committee and prominent civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez. If targeting is part of the intelligence legacy, then it's not unreasonable to entertain a debate about the pros and cons of "diversity" hires entering the fold. These government institutions have a history of overextending themselves; adding color to the mix does not undo this dynamic.

Some say people of color might not go after punitive homeland industry jobs if there were steady, well-paying, hazard-free alternatives being offered in other sectors. "After being underemployed or not employed at all with a stack of bills and a couple of mouths to feed, any job looks good to most folks," Davey D says. "Very few are thinking about the politics behind it. The main concern is: 'Is it a steady job and will it help me pay bills and eat and not get evicted?'"

But Asian Week columnist Emil Guillermo rejects the whole "advertising vs. editorial" framing of the dilemma. "The best approach," he says, "would be to allow the business side of the ethnic media to be the best it can be. And then let the editorial side be as dogged in pursuing the truth with skeptical, even critical, articles on the CIA, government policy, and the war effort. That's called balance."

Banerjee sees the situation as far more perilous, and has decided -- AsianWeek management has also asked her -- to resign because of the political direction the paper is taking. "I think recruiting by agencies like the CIA in ethnic communities is scary and problematic, because even though there might be some good they could do, the reasons behind it are to have spies in the community."

As she sees it, AsianWeek is sidestepping the very notion of controversy. "I'm used to the back and forth that goes on here [at AsianWeek]. Because our community is so diverse, contradiction was always okay. But they're trying to take a more moderate-to-conservative stance now. Special registration affects South Asians, Muslims, and North Koreans, but it's difficult for more traditional people in our community to see how the CIA is targeting our communities as a whole. I think it's a sign of the times."

Gabrielle Banks is ColorLines' senior writer.

Culture-Trafficking for the 21st Century

The consummate politicized performance artist and radical linguist, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, has fearlessly explored and exposed the underbelly of American culture. In the 25 years since he emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, he has crucified himself under the initials INS in his "gala mariachi rockero" suit, crashed Ellis Island as a "cybervato," and skewered everything from free trade to revolutionary tourism, Ricky Martin, and the ubiquitous Taco Bell Chihuahua.

His organization, La Pocha Nostra, is currently involved in collaborative projects that connect the Chicano experience to the post-9/11 experience of British Pakistanis, Hindus and Arabs, and to border conflict resolution between Jews and Palestinians. Gómez-Peña has authored six books; numerous video, audio, and in-person installations; poetry and journalistic projects -- including projects for PBS, NPR and HBO. We caught up with him recently at his home base in San Francisco, where he's surrounded by Tijuana velvet artwork, lucha libre memorabilia, and other pop culture artifacts. He poured himself a strong cup of coffee, lit up a cigarette, and we launched in.

At various times you've called yourself a "cyber-immigrant," a "conceptual coyote," a "jalapeño pusher," a "Mexican in the process of chicanoization." I want to know more about one of these terms. What's a "borderólogo?"

Well, border culture is above all a culture of misunderstanding. We cross the border, therefore we get misinterpreted. So, border artists and border writers have performed the role of interpreting Mexico for the U.S., the U.S. for Mexico, and also interpreting Chicanismo for Latin Americans. In this process of building bridges, we have developed a new vocabulary to name the new hybrid realities and border cultural phenomena. In a sense, we are border semioticians and vernacular linguists. And I joke around calling myself a borderólogo, an expert in border culture.

And a "reverse anthropologist," is that the same thing?

No. In the late '80s, when "multiculturalism" was at its peak, we realized that something was fundamentally wrong with the multicultural premise. Our job was to perform our authenticity so that the self-proclaimed center, the mainstream, could understand us and accept us on its own terms. That was, fundamentally, a neo-colonial model. So we decided to insurrect, to assume a fictional center and push the dominant culture to the margins -- treat it as exotic and unfamiliar, and anthropologize it. We said, "Enough is enough; we are no longer giving you access." In fact, we are going to attempt to explain the U.S. through our own Chicano eyes.

In the early '90s, we began to work with political contingencies. What if the U.S. was Mexico? What if Chicanos were in power? What if Spanish was the official language? What if Anglos were nomadic minorities crossing illegally into Mexico to work for Mexican fast food taquerias? So we created a character called Gran Vato, the first Chicano president of the U.S. and working out of the Brown House.

What was it that inspired your first performance art?

I was 23 years old. I had just arrived in Los Angeles and I was experiencing the loneliness that an immigrant feels during the first couple of years. And I felt compelled to do this performance piece in which I wrapped myself in a serape with rope and some friends of mine placed me in a public elevator in downtown Los Angeles for 24 hours. We had notified the owner of building, and he had agreed, but we had not told anyone else. So for 24 hours I went up and down this elevator, bound in cloth and rope. The yuppies and the workers in the building had to confront this extremely pathetic image of utter isolation.

At the time, I didn't really know exactly why I was doing it. I just felt compelled to do it. And then later on the performance art community in Los Angeles heard about the piece and they were quite impressed and they decided to embrace me. They themselves were the ones who started telling me that what I was doing was actually called performance art. Prior to that, to me, it was just a kind of an existential gesture.

Who are the great performance artists in world history -- who may or may not have known they were performance artists?

In Native American culture, it was the coyote or the Nanabush, the sacred clown who was allowed to cross the borders of gender, the borders of dreams, and witchcraft. In the Middle East, you have Dervishes. In medieval times, you had jugglers, alchemists, witches, and street performers. Even in the most traditional and conservative societies there has always been a space for the accepted provocateur, the antihero, the neighborhood loony who performs the role of being the public consciousness of that place, making sure that madness gets protected. Performance artists perform this role in postmodern times.

What's your take on the "reality show" concept? Do you have any ideas of how you might redesign a show like 'Survivor' your style?

I think reality shows are extremely interesting anthropological experiments with absolutely no content. So what would happen if suddenly we were to add content and have, say anthropologists and sociologists casting the show? We could have a reality show with the members of the U.N. Security Council trying to negotiate extreme difference ¿Qué no?.

Would you put them in an apartment together?

In a really small apartment. Or I can easily imagine applying a reality show to race relations. A city dealing with abrupt racial conflicts would carefully select representatives of the warring communities and put them in a kind of laboratory situation where they would have to come up with new models of conviviality, of co-existence.

What historical, literary or pop culture figures should people of color look to for guidance, or should folks try to stay away from hero worship of people like César Chávez, Subcomandante Marcos, you name it?

What worries me is the absolute lack of enlightened political leadership in the Latino community. A year and a half ago I interviewed tons of Latino professionals and Anglos and asked them to name the most famous Latino figures. Number one was the Taco Bell Chihuahua -- unanimously -- followed by Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas and Christina Aguilera. Then Enrique Iglesias, Cristina, the talk-show hostess, Daisy Fuentes, and a few others. There was not one intellectual, civic leader, activist or visionary. They were all just kind of superficial celebrities.

Do you have any feelings about Saddam Hussein either as a dramatic character or as an anti-hero?

He's clearly a despicable tyrant, but the world is full of tyrants who are equally scary. He just happened to be chosen by Bush's screenwriter to replace Osama bin Laden in the latest Hollywood -- slash -- White House production of Robocop Against the Global Evil Other. This has nothing to do with the fact that Saddam looks like my uncle.

Is the fact that he's a brown person with a mustache a factor in convincing the American people?

Oh yes, absolutely. In many ways Arabs replaced Mexicans overnight in the old stereotype of the seditious brown man with a mustache. Ethnic profiling, which used to be a common practice in this country but nevertheless a silent one, has become national policy.

Chicano, Mexican, Americano -- how should people be defining themselves these days? Does it matter? Will identity politics ever be resolved with language?

All terms referring to identity politics are imperfect. We need a new terminology. There was a time in which Chicano barrios were just Chicano, now you probably cannot find one pure Chicano barrio in the U.S. There are 80 or 90 languages spoken in California school districts. The barrio where my 14-year-old son lives in San Diego and the friends he has are completely multiracial. The language of my generation cannot explain the realities of my son's.

Does he have a new vocabulary that he's teaching you?

If he does, he hasn't told me. But every time he sees my performances or reads my writings, he tells me that what for me was a conscious political project, for him is everyday reality.

That's a starting point for him?

Yes, and that humbles me. But at the same time it gives me a lot of hope. Every now and then I revise my performance poetry from the late '80s -- it seems awfully quaint. At the time, it was quite outrageous. I was imagining a full hybridized America in the 21st century and trying to coin all these neologisms to explain what America would look like. Now 12, 15 years later, reality has way surpassed the wild imagination of my generation.

So mestizaje is crossing the border?

Mestizaje is a thing of the past. Mestizaje was originally coined to try to grapple with the fusion between the Spanish and the indigenous. What do you do when the new Americans are the product of five or six races and many overlapping subcultures? Kids are cultural cyborgs. They're way beyond mestizaje. My son is fluent in Spanish, English, Spanglish, African American slang, cybertalk -- and he doesn't even reflect on it.

So his identity crisis will not happen? Or it just will be different?

Right now the entire world is experiencing a profound crisis of identity. We are all clumsily trying to understand what is our new place in the new cartography. The identities we have inherited are dysfunctional and somewhat useless. One of the lessons that performance art has taught me is that we can reinvent our identities; we are not straightjacketed by them. We have the capability to pick and choose and pastiche and sample from our multiple selves to construct a better human being.

Why use the arts to break open misconceptions, borders, about cultural difference?

I think that artists make great border crossers. Why? Perhaps because the stakes are so low in our field, or perhaps because we love to take risks. Artists make great traffickers, great smugglers of ideas. We may be clumsy political organizers, but we are good cultural brokers. It's just that society has lost its understanding of how to use artists.

I'm constantly telling my political activist friends: "Instead of going to the streets with stupid-looking puppets and '70s retro-protest language, your organization could hire a couple of experimental poets and visual artists to upgrade your political language. Performance artists and choreographers could help you stage demonstrations that would be much more appealing and sexy for the media."

One of the challenges we have as a society is to make sure the voice of artists and intellectuals gets carefully taken into consideration. If a society doesn't listen to the voices of its artists and intellectuals, it won't have the necessary mirror of critical culture to see its own reflection. The U.S. is a country that listens to lawyers, celebrities, opportunistic politicians, sportsmen, and movie stars -- but it doesn't listen to poets, you know, and artists. That's a symptom of a profound spiritual malaise. You know what I mean?

Gabrielle Banks is ColorLines' senior writer.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra present works-in-progress at The LAB, 2948 16th Street, San Francisco, June 27-29. Tickets at the door: $10-$20 sliding scale. For more info, call 415.864.8855.

Coughing While Asian

You've probably heard of "driving while black?" These days you've got to watch out if you're caught "coughing while Asian."

Ask any Asian American who has had hay fever in the past few weeks. A few hundred people get sick on the other side of the Pacific, and suddenly everyone who looks Asian is the new Typhoid Mary. Since the first reports of a "killer virus" abroad, an equally infectious SARS-related hysteria began to take hold here. Fox News caught the bug. Conan O'Brien delivered ill-conceived "Asian man" punch lines. Soon, Internet prophets were dishing out fire-and-brimstone e-mails about fatal outbreaks in Chinatowns from Boston to Sacramento -- none of which turned out to be true. Airplane passengers demanded to be moved from seats beside Asian travelers. U.C. Berkeley banned summer-session students from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. After a public outcry, Berkeley retracted the ban, and then quietly arranged for isolation rooms, just in case.

Hundreds of homeland security retailers are tapping into the panic industry. has SARS-proof respirators at $45 a pop. Their model for this product is a young Asian man whose mouth and nose are shielded from view by a sturdy face-mask. SaferAmerica also sells a SARS-repelling, ultra-mini air purifier -- the size of a Bic® lighter-that hangs on a neckstrap. This product -- "ideal for airport travelers!" and modeled by a smiling blonde bombshell -- goes for $145. The not-so-subtle message: Asians should cover their mouths so that white America can breathe free and easy.

It's not the first time Americans have jumped to race-based conclusions about a disease. In the early days of AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control announced that Haitians -- along with gay men, hemophiliacs, and IV-drug users -- were at the highest risk for HIV infection. According to University of Pennsylvania scholar Tonya Nicole Taylor, this was the first time the CDC assigned at-risk status to an entire population based on their nationality, rather than any particular high-risk behaviors. In the eyes of the INS, Haitian refugees were presumed HIV-positive until they could prove otherwise.

Could SARS-phobia prompt similar treatment for Asian immigrants? Ultra-conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly is telling her readers to contact their representatives about screening foreigners entering the U.S. "to stop the extraordinary rise in cases of ... SARS." Schlafly may attract only a small constituency of supporters, but her appeal is perilous in the bigger scheme of things. It's an anti-immigrant free-for-all nowadays, with foreign student and visitor tracking programs, "special" registration of thousands of visa-holders from 25 designated countries, and other crackdowns on sundry dangerous foreigners.

The coronavirus can't discriminate between a white tourist with a blue passport and an Asian student with a red one. Both are equally susceptible to SARS.

There's still time to get a jump on history and help reframe the public reaction to SARS. There's time to reflect on the fact that more lives will be harmed by frantic finger-pointing than by this disease. There's time to set a new precedent. Stigmatization gets in the way of solving any public health crisis. SARS or no SARS, the contagion we should be combating is race-baiting. When it flares up, all Americans are at risk of infection.

Gabrielle Banks is senior writer for ColorLines.

Top-Secret Prisoners in the USA

During his six months at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, Anser Mehmood spent 123 days in a supermax lockdown facility, where guards slammed his face into a wall and threatened to kill him.

His crime? Overstaying a tourist visa.

Mehmood's is one of hundreds of stories that have prompted concern in the international human rights community about the precipitous round-up of 1200 Muslim and Arab immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) blocked access to monitors from Amnesty International and other groups. However, a March Amnesty report -- based on visits to Hudson and Passaic county jails in New Jersey and interviews with witnesses of INS detention centers in 26 states -- depicts a pattern of abuse that belies the basic principles of justice. In flat, diplomatic language, the report details the arbitrary imprisonment of hundreds of people who've been denied access to their families and lawyers, and are often prosecuted in secret trials.

The New Jersey facilities hold the majority of INS detainees swept up in the "terror dragnet." According to the most recent Justice Department disclosure, 325 detainees still remain in INS custody -- the vast majority on visa violations. Only one inmate, Zacarias Moussaoui (who was actually detained prior to Sept. 11), is accused of terrorism.

Not surprisingly, many detainees have abandoned any illusions they had about "the land of the free."

"You remove the charm of fairness and justice -- it all seems meaningless if you’ve been in jail for four or five months," said Sohail Mohammed, who has represented about 15 of the so-called "special interest" detainees. "Prior to 9/11, people would hire attorneys like me to prolong their stay in the US. Now they hire attorneys to get out of the county as soon as they can. We should not be holding secret detentions, secret trials, or secret prosecutions here. Those are akin to repressive regimes."

For the past several months, the Justice Department has refused to provide lawyers and immigrants' rights advocates with basic information about the detainees, not even their names. Most detainees are incommunicado without access to valid legal directories; and, lawyers may only visit detainees if they know their names.

Carlos Muñoz, Bloomberg Fellow for Human Rights Watch, expressed amazement at the breaches of fundamental rights. "It’s amazing that in a democracy you can have secret arrests and people don’t have access to detention centers. It’s suspicious if a human rights group can’t visit the jails. I guess [the Justice Department and the INS] feel confidence the American public is on their side." Human Rights Watch has tracked down and interviewed detainees across the country and will soon release a comprehensive report on its findings.

Rachel Ward, the co-author of the Amnesty report was slightly more delicate in renouncing the detention centers. Her response to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn denying access to Amnesty and several other groups was tempered acceptance. "They can deny our request. We’re a non-governmental organization. But, obviously, when that happens, it’s a concern. Allowing access to outside monitors is important from the point of view of public accountability."

In the first few months after the 9/11 attacks, community advocates and civil rights groups were wary of criticizing the government’s secrecy around the wide-scale detention of Muslim men. The Justice Department took the seemingly level-headed position -- at the time -- that releasing information about the detainees would jeopardize national security.

Then, with one far-reaching little memo on Sept. 21, 2001, Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy ordered all immigration judges to bar access to the press, public, and family members on cases designated by the Attorney General to be of "special interest" to the FBI. (The AP reported in April that the INS had already conducted at least 700 such secret proceedings.) Attorney General Ashcroft followed up with a fervent warning to the media and other curious parties at a November press conference (quoted by Hanna Rosin in a Washington Post article): "When the United States is at war, I will not share valuable intelligence with our enemies. We might as well mail this list [of detainees] to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network."

The USA PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001, gave the government the flexibility to certify individuals as suspected terrorists and detain them up to seven days without charges. Given all the indefinite detentions, it's perplexing that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not certified a single long-term detainee as a suspected terrorist under the PATRIOT Act.

Instead, the Department is employing an obscure interim administrative rule enacted by the Bush administration to detain inmates indefinitely. The rule extends the amount of time a non-national can be held in INS custody without being formally charged from 24 to 48 hours, "or in the event of an emergency or other extraordinary circumstance in which case the service must make such determinations within an additional reasonable period of time."

In the case of one Saudi the "reasonable" time period translated to a 119-day stint in prison before he was charged with any offense.

When it became clear in the late fall that 99 percent of the "special interest" detainees had done nothing more than overstay a visa or obtain employment with fraudulent identification, advocates jumped into gear. In December, sixteen civil rights groups filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) lawsuit against the Justice Department demanding information about the detainees. And the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won a state suit challenging the government’s policy of holding secret hearings for 9/11 hundreds of detainees. The DOJ -- which now faces five separate lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of closed hearings in "special interest" cases -- has asked an appeals court to extend the deadline for releasing the names.

When requests for information began to backfire, ACLU’s new director, Anthony Romero, came up with an ingenious tactic. He realized that although the INS has no duty to release names to anyone domestically, the agency is obligated to release the information to foreign consulates. So the ACLU began contacting consulates of countries likely to have citizens detained and urging foreign diplomats to contact the DOJ for information. (The majority of the detainees are natives of Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Jordan.)

Commentator Jennifer Van Bergen pinpointed the irony of this bureaucratic glitch in an article for "If national security concerns prevent the US government from revealing such information to its own lawmakers and citizens, how is it that it can reveal this information to nations like, say, Pakistan?"

Many battles are being fought to poke holes in the government's secrecy around the detentions. The court proceedings of Muslim cleric Rabih Haddad in Detroit were cloaked in so much secrecy, The Independent (UK) reported, "that even Haddad has been barred from attending; he has had to watch them on video from his jail cell, without the right of participation." A great deal of publicity and support from Representative John Conyers (D) and other prominent figures may have made the difference for Haddad.

In April, US District Judge Nancy Edmunds declared the Creppy memo unconstitutional. Opening Haddad's case, she said, would not cause irreparable harm to national security. This decision may have set a precedent for 9/11 cases. However, the DOJ is appealing several cases, across the nation, to protect against information leaks.

In a plea to maintain confidentiality in a New Jersey case in early May, US Attorney Michael Lindeman told the federal courtroom, "This is the most important national security investigation in US history. . . . Details you and I might think are innocuous" would allow foreign investigators to "piece together a picture" of where the US terror probe is heading.

Immigration attorney Sandra Nicholls, whose office is near ground zero in Manhattan, has a different take. She looks down on the pit everyday and she has the same concerns as other Americans, but as the weeks turn into months she does not believe the INS detainees are actually being investigated. After representing several 9/11 clients at INS hearings, Nicholls has concluded that "special interest" detentions only create a false sense of security for Americans seeking resolution.

The latest ruling in the New Jersey case indicates that the DOJ may be losing ground on the secrecy issue. On May 29, US District Judge John W. Bissell rejected the "national security" argument for holding secret hearings in "special interest" cases.

While the Justice Department attempts to conceal any and all information about the detainees, the INS continues to slip up publicly, harming the DOJ's reputation (albeit in good faith). While hundreds of detainees still languished in anonymity, Commissioner James W. Ziglar fumbled to explain, in March, how the INS managed to issue visas to Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, the 9/11 hijackers who piloted planes into the Twin Towers.

Last month's INS escapade involved accidentally handing over to the General Accounting Office the "top secret" list of 9/11 detainees Senator Russ Feingold (D) and Congressman Conyers had requested. "We're fighting all these court battles to not give this out," a Justice Department source told the New York Daily News. "[Ziglar] will get reamed out" for this, he said.

On Martin Luther King Day 2001, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and several other community groups in New York and New Jersey kicked off a "Stop the Disappearances" campaign to demand INS accountability. Since then, DRUM has compiled a list of more than 100 missing persons associated with Sept. 11 sweeps. "We still get numerous reports of abuses and bad conditions," said DRUM organizer Monami Maulik.

DRUM hopes to locate more of the missing through the voluntary "Know Your Rights" trainings the ACLU and the American Friends Service Committee offer in prison facilities. "It's more difficult to organize in immigrant communities. Most of the people we work with are low-wage undocumented workers who are specifically targeted from certain jobs," Maulik said. DRUM's documentation indicates that recent INS raids have rounded up immigrants employed at restaurants, corner stores, gas stations, and cab companies. "They're working to silence political dissent -- from immigrants and other disenfranchised communities -- to a war abroad."

Anser Mehmood is now one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, INS Commissioner Ziglar, and the warden and guards of MDC. The civil rights suit, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleges Muslim detainees have been subjected to "unreasonable and excessively harsh conditions." The international press reported in April that immigration lawyers anticipate approximately 100 detainees (and former detainees) will file similar allegations.

An Iranian detainee at the Wackenhut facility in Denver suffered what may have been a stroke in solitary confinement. He received no treatment for three months in spite of his symptoms. And Muhammed Butt, a Pakistani detained on visa violation, died of a heart attack at Hudson county correctional center in New Jersey. According to an investigative report by Anne-Marie Cusac of The Progressive, Butt's cellmate told Human Rights Watch monitors Butt had requested medical attention many times in the 10 days prior to his death. He banged on the door to no avail the day he died.

Unfortunately, the Justice Department's investigation into a mounting number of civil rights violations in INS detention has prompted retaliation from prison guards. On May 24, The Washington Post reported that immediately after the DOJ interviews, MDC guards stepped up their verbal and physical abuse of detainees. MDC inmates organized a hunger strike to protest the new round of harassment.

From so close a vantage point, it's hard to assess the historical repercussions of 9/11 detention. Regardless of any remedies the courts may provide, many estimate the damage has been done. "Surely, in 21st century America the INS can do better than saying if you're Arab, you’re a suspect. These practices are counterproductive and send a chill through the entire Arab-American and American Muslim community," Congressman Conyers wrote in a press release.

Sohail Mohammed concurs. "Fifty years later we realized we made a mistake with Japanese Americans, and 50 years down the line we’ll be saying the same to American Muslims. We should be promoting rule of law, rather than lawlessness. Once determination is made about the cases, we should keep the detainees or leave them -- not just hold them without any charges. It seriously undermines the democratic process we espouse around the world."

Gabrielle Banks is Rights & Liberties and Activism Editor of AlterNet.

US Gets Failing Grade on Amnesty Report Card

Whether willingly or unwittingly, Americans have begun to sacrifice many of the rights they took for granted prior to Sept. 11. Privacy. Due process. Dissent. Yet the annual Amnesty International Report released this week suggests the greatest casualty of Sept. 11 and the Bush Administration's subsequent war on terrorism may be credibility.

As a moral authority, the US can no longer rightfully wag a finger at human rights abusers around the world. "The year 2001 witnessed a direct challenge to long-accepted human rights standards by the very governments that campaigned for their establishment," the report notes. The most glaring "challenge" in the report involves the US military breaching the rules of war in Afghanistan. On December 29, a UN spokesperson said that relatives identified 52 bodies, including 25 children, killed in the US bombing of a village near the eastern town of Gardez.

The 300-page report, covering events of 2001, enumerates the executions, disappearances, torture, unlawful arrests and abuses, and lesser offenses committed by governments around the world. It also offers a brief summary of good news from 2001 including pardons, commutations, and the release of prisoners of conscience.

The report alleges that the US government overlooked international human rights violations for the sake of increased national security. In order to form a coalition against terror, the US refrained from criticizing repressive regimes, and silently consented to the abuses of its allies, including Singapore, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, India, and Malaysia.

"The horrific events of 11 September were a crime against humanity that shocked and changed the world. However, a number of governments jumped on the 'anti-terrorism' bandwagon and seized the moment to step up repression, undermine human rights protections and stifle political dissent," the report says.

According to an Agence France Presse review of the Amnesty report, coalition governments after Sept. 11 "rushed through repressive new laws, increased the role of the military and promoted a pernicious climate of racism in the name of security." The US and Britain created new legislation "defining new crimes, banning organizations and freezing their assets, curbing civil rights, and reducing safeguards against violations."

A chart titled "Eight Significant Human Rights Failings of the US Government that Undermine its Global Leadership on Human Rights," notes the use of military tribunals and secret trials and the mistreatment and indefinite detention of immigrants being investigated in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Among the general "failings" unrelated to Sept. 11, the report charges the US with offering safe haven to torturers, mistreating asylum seekers, and exporting tools for torture to other nations. It goes on to say "the actions of the US government provide a de facto green light for other nations to ignore fundamental human rights standards."

"The US government needs to recognize that its own record cannot be compromised . . . if it intends to remain a global leader on human rights," Amnesty USA Executive Director William F. Shulz told the Washington Post. The London-based organization anticipates some backlash over the report in the US. "Amnesty is used to not being popular," he said.

While turning a blind eye to others, the US may be covering for its own violations. The US State Department website reports on prison conditions for each country. According to Sohail Mohammed, an immigration attorney representing some of the INS detainees swept up in connection with Sept. 11, "The sections on secret detention in the 2001 report have been removed. Just compare 2000 and 2001," he said. "Take any country. Take Egypt. Information that has not changed for years is now reflecting a change. Conditions such as what we’re imposing on our detainees -- those are the sections that have been modified. You don’t want other countries to be saying, 'how come you don’t practice what you preach?'"

Among other key human rights developments globally, the report notes that there are more refugees and less mercy for asylum seekers. Amnesty also spotlights the unlawful killings and torture by the IDC and Palestinian resistance groups in Israel and the Occupied Territories. More than 460 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces and 187 Israelis were killed by armed Palestinians.

In one of the more alarming statistics, the report cites that 3048 persons were executed in 31 countries in 2001 and 2468 of that total were killed in China, including many for non-violent crimes such as "bribery, pimping, embezzlement, tax fraud, selling harmful foods, and drug offences."

Gabrielle Banks is Activism Editor of AlterNet.

Colombian Tribe Topples Mighty Oil Giant

U'wa girl.
(photo by Javier Vesga)

There's not much good news coming out of war-torn Colombia these days. Friday was a notable exception. With no great fanfare, Occidental Petroleum, the multinational giant that has gained infamy in environmental circles, announced at its annual shareholder meeting in Santa Monica, Calif. that it was relinquishing control of Siriri, the oil block in Colombia on the ancestral land of the U'wa people.

The official line was that after exploratory drilling came up dry last summer, Occidental geologists concluded it was not scientifically wise to carry on the project. "This was a high-risk well from a technical standpoint," said Occidental spokesman Larry Meriage.

But environmentalists had a different take. "It just shows that drilling for oil in ancestral territories of indigenous communities in a tropical rainforest region is an unviable and untenable business plan," said Michael Brune of the Rainforest Action Network.

According to one activist who has closely followed local developments, when the U'wa realized Occidental intended to proceed with the drilling, the tribe prayed for the oil to "move." Maybe the dry well was simply proof that the universe is the best arbiter in matters of such consequence.

However you spin it, this was a colossal victory for the U'wa, a tribe of just 5,000 souls, whose scrappy, grassroots struggle against Occidental began nearly a decade ago. The U'wa said the oil operation threatened the basic welfare of civilians who would be caught in the cross-fire of Colombia's civil war.

The battle over power and resources -- perpetrated by the Colombian military, leftist FARC guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers -- has ravaged any semblance of normalcy for Colombians. People are kidnapped and murdered in what amounts to a perpetual, surreal chess match. (Staking its own territorial claim in the war, the Bush Administration is pushing the U.S. Congress to authorize $98 million in military aid to defend another Occidental venture, the Caño-Limon pipeline, a private enterprise which runs through U'wa land.)

U'wa boy.
(photo by Terence Freitas)

At great odds and at great risk to their survival, the U'wa have taken a non-violent tack toward self-determination. When Occidental's plans in Siriri became clear in the early 90s, U'wa tribal leaders diligently filed lawsuits, lobbied at corporate headquarters, and mobilized peaceful blockades at well sites to block Occidental. When the magnitude of the multinational's political muscle proved insurmountable, the U'wa took their struggle to sympathetic progressive groups in United States and around the world where it galvanized an overwhelming response.

In one of the best-covered protests, demonstrators outside the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles denounced Al Gore's insensitivity to the U'wa people. At the time, Gore was a major stockholder in Occidental and the U'wa had threatened a mass suicide if the company went forward with its plan to drill.

Occidental -- which banked $14 billion in sales last year -- probably didn't lose much sleep over the bad press. After six months of drilling, the company says it decided it was no longer fiscally worthwhile to continue to explore this "wildcat well," where the likelihood of striking oil was one in 12.

We may never know why Occidental pulled its operations out of the Siriri block, but this rare, non-violent triumph of the few offers a powerful lesson to the mighty armed masses at war in Colombia (and in many places throughout the world). No matter how daunting the opponent, true victory can never be attained through bloodshed.

Gabrielle Banks is Activism Editor for AlterNet.

One Hundred Innocent Men

Last week, Ray Milton Krone -- pegged for the 1991 stabbing death of a Phoenix waitress -- was finally let off death row. New DNA evidence proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Krone had not committed the crime. After three years on death row and a total of 10 years in prison, Krone became the 100th innocent death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973.

Compared to many others, Krone was lucky he survived long enough to prove his innocence. While Krone waited out the appeals process, more than 600 death row prisoners were put to death in the United States. He might owe his life to the arbitrary fact that Arizona doesn't kill its death row inmates at the breakneck pace of, say, Texas.

While many Americans still support the death penalty in principle, they also worry about innocent people paying the ultimate price for crimes they didn't commit. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in 2000 found that 80 percent of Americans believe an innocent person has been executed in the United States in the past five years. It is impossible to know if they're right, but with 100 innocents released in the last 29 years, it seems quite likely.

With this rate of execution, more world leaders have voiced mounting concerns about the finality of capital punishment. UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, articulated his ambivalence when accepting the "Moratorium 2000" petition for a stop to executions worldwide. "The forfeiture of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process," Annan said. "And I believe that future generations throughout the world will come to agree."

A closer look at a few of the 100 innocent people who have been released from death row gives sobering weight to Annan's statement:

- Charles Ray Giddens, an 18-year-old black man in Oklahoma, was sentenced to death for the murder of a grocery store cashier after an all white jury deliberated for only 15 minutes. Three years later, the state dropped all the charges against Giddens.

- Anthony Porter of Illinois was one of the lucky death row defendants taken on by Professor David Protess and a handful of journalism students from Northwestern University. Porter came within two days of execution in 1998 and was only granted a stay because the court wanted to examine his mental competency. Porter had an IQ of 51. One year later, his conviction was overturned.

- Timothy Hennis spent three years incarcerated in North Carolina because he resembled the actual murderer.

- Joseph Green Brown of Florida waited 13 years to be exonerated and came within 13 hours of execution before a new trial was ordered. Brown walked out -- a free man -- a year later when the state decided not to retry the case.

- The former prosecutor for Delbert Tibbs, whose conviction was overturned in Florida, said that the original investigation was tainted from the beginning. If there were ever a retrial, the prosecutor said, he would gladly appear as a witness for Tibbs.

- Peter Limone of Massachusetts was sentenced to the electric chair in 1968. Although Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1974, Limone spent an unimaginable 33 years behind bars before he was proven innocent of the charges against him.

These, of course, are the stories of the fortunate ones, saved by tireless efforts of pro-bono lawyers, new evidence or the built-in checks and balances of the justice system. Untold numbers of innocent inmates don't get those breaks.

Upon Ray Krone's release last week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) reflected on the unavoidable margin of error in capital cases. "There should be no shame in errors made by well-meaning jurors, because human error is inevitable. But what is deeply shameful is a political and legal establishment that lives in denial. What shocks me most about this case is not that yet another innocent man's life was ruined; it is that the prosecutor then called the system that did this 'the best in the world.'"

Along with Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), Leahy is leading the effort to pass the Innocence Protection Act (S.486), a bill that would provide new safeguards in capital cases, including DNA testing and highly competent lawyers. The Act currently has 25 cosponsors in the Senate, and the House already has the support of half its members for the counterpart bipartisan bill (H.R. 912).

And according to the New York Times, Illinois's Republican governor, George Ryan, boldly appointed a commission to study capital punishment in his state. Ryan's commission, which issued its report this week, "proposes a menu of reforms, among them videotaping interrogations to prevent dubious confessions, expanded use of DNA testing and diminishing reliance on single-witness or stool-pigeon accounts."

The growing support for such measures is encouraging. Most politicians want to impress their constituents as being tough on crime, so popularity often gets in the way of mercy -- especially around election time. But the more death row inmates are found innocent, the more the tide will turn among elected officials toward protecting the innocent at the risk of letting the guilty live on behind bars.

Even the most adamant supporters of capital punishment do not want the blood of innocents on their hands. We could all learn a lesson from retired Judge James McDougall, who presided over Ray Krone's 1996 re-trial. "I'm still very shaken about the whole thing," McDougall told the Associated Press. "I keep going over it in my mind, and it still bothers me ... It's not easy to tell a jury you think they're wrong."

Gabrielle Banks is Activism Editor of AlterNet.

McKinney Mouths Off

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney seems to have triggered a raw nerve among lawmakers with her recent suggestion on a Berkeley radio station that Congress should investigate whether the Bush Administration had prior knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. McKinney (D-Georgia) alleged that President Bush might have been protecting the interests of the Carlyle Group, an investment firm where George Bush, Sr., is a board member.

"Instead of congress investigating what went wrong, President Bush placed a phone call to Majority leader Tom Daschle asking him not to investigate the events of Sept. 11. And hot on the heels of the president's phone call was another phone call from the vice president asking that Tom Daschle not investigate," McKinney told Flashpoints host Dennis Bernstein. "My question is what do they have to hide?"

McKinney quoted a Los Angeles Times report that on a single day in 2001 the Carlyle group had earned $237 million selling shares in United Defense Industries, the Army's fifth largest contractor. Bush's admonition to Daschle is all the more suspicious, she went on to say, because "The Carlyle officials say they decided to take the company public only after the Sept. 11 attacks."

From the uproar provoked by McKinney's remarks, you might think conspiracy theory had made a madcap escape from the dark corners of the Internet into hallowed halls of congress. McKinney's allegation drew fierce criticism and outright mockery from the media and several prominent national figures. The Washington Post quoted Carlyle Group spokesman Chris Ullman, "Did she say these things while standing on a grassy knoll in Roswell, New Mexico?" White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher also cast McKinney upon the proverbial green mound of Kennedy conspiracy legend. "All I can tell you is the congresswoman must be running for the hall of fame of the Grassy Knoll Society."

Senator Zell Miller, a fellow Georgia Democrat, issued a scathing response to McKinney's remarks. Apparently Miller felt his reputation as a Democrat, perhaps even as an American, was on the line. "It would be easy to pass this off as just another loony statement. But at second glance, it is more than that. It is very dangerous and irresponsible."

But McKinney's statement has struck a welcome chord with the man on the street, or some of them anyway. While lawmakers pushed their way to the podium to submit indictments of the congresswoman, aides at McKinney's office said they've entertained a barrage of calls from enthusiastic constituents. On Friday, McKinney issued a response to critics and supporters clarifying that she has no knowledge of any impropriety on the part of the Bush Administration and arguing, in essence, that there is nothing so radical about requesting an investigation.

"We hold thorough public inquiries into rail disasters, plane crashes, and even natural disasters in order to understand what happened and to prevent them from happening again or minimizing the tragic effects when they do. Why then does the Administration remain steadfast in its opposition to an investigation into the biggest terrorism attack upon our nation?" 

Whether or not there are sufficient grounds to warrant an investigation into negligence or wrongdoing among White House staffers, post-Sept. 11 congressional culture clearly offers no room for deviation from the pack. Congresswoman McKinney's initial remarks on Flashpoints indicate she is still mourning the theft of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, a sentiment that is no longer tolerable these days. In the aftermath of the Trade Center tragedy, any criticism of the Bush Administration is frowned upon. You're for the war or you're un-American. You support racial profiling or you support the terrorists. And somehow, after all those troublesome Supreme Court squabbles, the flag no longer has anything to do with free speech.

Perhaps she aimed a bit far with her accusations. Perhaps her suspicions are unfounded. But the impulse to question is quintessentially American. We're all innocent until proven guilty. There's no harm in questioning our leaders. After all, we elected them. Didn't we?

Gabrielle Banks is a senior editor at