Guerrilla News Network

The Miami Model

We were loading our video equipment into the trunk of our car when a fleet of bicycle cops sped up and formed a semi-circle around us. The lead cop was none other than Miami Police Chief John Timoney. The former Police Commissioner of Philadelphia, Timoney has a reputation for brutality and hatred of protesters of any kind. He calls them "punks," "knuckleheads" and a whole slew of expletives. He coordinated the brutal police response to the mass-protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. After a brief stint in the private sector, Timoney took the post of Miami police chief as part of Mayor Manny Diaz's efforts to "clean up the department."

We had watched him the night before on the local news in Miami praising his men for the restraint they had shown in the face of violent anarchists intent on destroying the city. In reality, the tens of thousands who gathered in Miami to protest the ministerial meetings of the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit were seeking to peacefully demonstrate against what they consider to be a deadly expansion of NAFTA and US-led policies of free trade. There were environmental groups, labor unions, indigenous activists from across the hemisphere, church groups, grassroots organizations, students and many others in the streets. What they encountered as they assembled outside the gates to the building housing the FTAA talks was nothing short of a police riot. It only took a few hours last Thursday before downtown Miami looked like a city under martial law.

On the news, Chief Timoney spoke in sober tones about the tear gas that demonstrators fired at his officers. No, that is not a typo. Timoney said the protesters were the ones launching the tear gas. He also said the demonstrators had hurled "missiles" at the police. "I got a lot of tear gas," Timoney said. "We all got gassed. They were loaded to the hilt. A lot of missiles, bottles, rocks, tear gas from the radicals."

Seeing Timoney up close and personal evokes this image of Mayor Daley at the '68 Democratic Convention ordering his men to shoot protesters on sight. He is that kind of guy.

Back at our car, Timoney hopped off his bike as a police cameraman recorded his every move. It all had the feel of being on an episode of COPS. He demanded the license and registration for the car. Our colleague Norm Stockwell of community radio station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin gave him his license. We informed him we were journalists. One of his men grabbed Norm's press pass, looking it over as though it was a fake. They looked at all of us with nasty snares before getting back on their bikes and preparing to continue on to further protect Miami. Timoney gave us this look that said, you got away this time but I'll be back. You could tell he was pissed off that we weren't anarchists (as far as he knew).

As Timoney was talking with his men, one of the guys on the bikes approached us with a notepad. "Can I have your names?" he asked.

I thought he was a police officer preparing a report. He had on a Miami police polo shirt, just like Timoney's. He had a Miami police bike helmet, just like Timoney's. He had a bike, just like Timoney's. In fact there was only one small detail that separated him from Timoney-a small badge around his neck identifying him as a reporter with the Miami Herald. He was embedded with Chief Timoney.

That reporter was one of dozens who were embedded with the Miami forces (it's hard to call them police), deployed to protect the FTAA ministerial meetings from thousands of unarmed protesters. In another incident, we saw a Miami Herald photographer who had somehow gotten pushed onto the "protesters side" of a standoff with the police. He was behind a line of young kids who had locked arms to try and prevent the police from advancing and attacking the crowds outside of the Inter-Continental Hotel. He was shouting at the kids to move so he could get back to the safe side. The protesters ignored him and continued with their blockade.

The photographer grew angrier and angrier before he began hitting one of the young kids on the line. He punched him in the back of the head before other journalists grabbed him and calmed him down. His colleagues seemed shocked at the conduct. He was a big, big guy and was wearing a bulletproof vest and a police issued riot helmet, but I really think he was scared of the skinny, dreadlocked bandana clad protesters. He had this look of panic on his face, like he had been in a scuffle with the Viet Cong.

Watching the embedded journalists on Miami TV was quite entertaining. They spoke of venturing into Protesterland as though they were entering a secret al Qaeda headquarters in the mountains of Afghanistan. Interviews with protest leaders were sort of like the secret bin Laden tapes. There was something risque, even sexy about having the courage to venture over to the convergence space (the epicenter of protest organizing at the FTAA) and the Independent Media Center. Several reporters told of brushes they had with "the protesters." One reporter was quite shaken after a group of "anarchists" slashed her news van's tires and wrote the word "propaganda" across the side door. She feared for the life of her cameraman, she somberly told the anchor back in the studio. The anchor warned her to be careful out there.

So dangerous was the scene that the overwhelming majority of the images of the protests on TV were from helicopter shots, where very little could be seen except that there was a confrontation between police and "the protesters." This gave cover for Timoney and other officials to make their outrageous and false statements over and over.

Timoney spun his tales of "hard-core anarchists" rampaging through the streets of Miami; "outsiders coming to terrorize and vandalize our city." He painted a picture of friendly restrained police enduring constant attacks from rocks, paint, gas canisters, smoke bombs and fruit. "We are very proud of the police officers and their restraint. Lots of objects were thrown at the police officers," Timoney said. "If we didn't act when we did, it would have been much worse."

It was much worse.

Timoney's Paramilitaries

After last week, no one should call what Timoney runs in Miami a police force. It's a paramilitary group. Thousands of soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms with full black body armor and gas masks, marching in unison through the streets, banging batons against their shields, chanting, "back... back... back." There were armored personnel carriers and helicopters.

The forces fired indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed protesters. Scores of people were hit with skin-piercing rubber bullets; thousands were gassed with an array of chemicals. On several occasions, police fired loud concussion grenades into the crowds. Police shocked people with electric tazers. Demonstrators were shot in the back as they retreated. One young guy's apparent crime was holding his fingers in a peace sign in front of the troops. They shot him multiple times, including once in the stomach at point blank range.

My colleagues and I spent several days in the streets, going from conflict to conflict. We saw no attempts by any protesters to attack a business or corporation. With the exception of some graffiti and an occasional garbage can set on fire, there was very little in the way of action not aimed directly at the site of the FTAA meetings. Even the Black Bloc kids, who generally have a rep for wanting to smash everything up, were incredibly restrained and focused.

There was no need for any demonstrator to hurl anything at the forces to spark police violence. It was clear from the jump that Timoney's men came prepared to crack heads. And they did that over and over. After receiving $8.5 million in federal funds from the $87 billion Iraq spending bill, Miami needed to have a major combat operation. It didn't matter if it was warranted.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz called the police actions last week a model for homeland security. FTAA officials called it extraordinary. Several cities sent law enforcement observers to the protests to study what some are now referring to as the "Miami Model."

This model also included the embedding of undercover police with the protesters. At one point during a standoff with police, it appeared as though a group of protesters had gotten into a brawl amongst themselves. But as others moved in to break up the melee, two of the guys pulled out electric tazers and shocked protesters, before being liberated back behind police lines. These guys, clearly undercover agents, were dressed like any other protester. One had a sticker on his backpack that read: "FTAA No Way."

The IMC has since published pictures of people dressed like Black Bloc kids-ski masks and all walking with uniformed police behind police lines.

The only pause in the heavy police violence in Miami came on Thursday afternoon when the major labor unions held their mass-rally and march. Led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the march had a legal permit and was carefully coordinated with the police. Many of the union guys applauded the police as they marched past columns of the body-armored officers on break from gassing and shooting unarmed demonstrators.

But as soon as the unions and their permits began to disperse, the police seized the moment to escalate the violence against the other protesters. Fresh from their break during the union rally, Timoney's forces ordered the protesters to clear the area in front of the Inter-Continental. Some of the demonstrators shouted back that they had a right to peaceably protest the FTAA.

Boom. The concussion grenades started flying.

Hiss. The tear gas was sprayed.

Rat-a-tat-tat. The rubber bullets were fired.

Bam, bam. The batons were swinging.

The police methodically marched in a long column directly at the several hundred protesters who believed they had a right to protest, even without John Sweeney at their side. They fired indiscriminately at the crowds. One woman had part of her ear blown off. Another was shot in the forehead. I got shot twice, once in the back, another time in the leg. My colleague, John Hamilton from the Workers Independent News Service was shot in the neck by a pepper-spray pellet-a small ball that explodes into a white powder. After a few moments, John began complaining that his neck was burning from the powder. We doused him in water, but the burning continued. When I tried to ask the police what the powder was, they told me to "mind myself."

I've been in enough police riots to know that when the number of demonstrators dwindles and the sun sets, that's when the real violence begins. Eventually, the police forced the dissipating group of protesters into one of the poorest sections of Miami, surrounding them on 4 sides. We stood there in the streets with the eerie feeling of a high-noon showdown. Except there were hundreds of them with guns and dozens of us with cameras and banners. They fired gas and rubber bullets at us as they moved in. All of us realized we had nothing to do but run. We scattered down side streets and alleys, ducking as we fled. Eventually, we made it out.

After nearly an hour, we managed to find a taxi. We got in and the driver started choking from our pepper-sprayed clothes. She wanted us to get out of the taxi. We apologized for our smell and offered her more money just to get us to the hotel. She agreed.

The Real Crime: Failure to Embed

The next day, we went to a midday rally outside the Dade County Jail where more than 150 people were being held prisoner. It was a peaceful assembly of about 300 people. They sang "We all live in a failed democracy," to the tune of "We all live in a yellow submarine." They chanted, "Free the Prisoners, Not Free Trade," and "Take off your riot gear, there ain't no riot here."

Representatives of the protesters met with police officials at the scene. The activists said they would agree to remain in a parking lot across the street from the jail if the police would call off the swelling presence of the riot police. They reached an agreement...or so the police said.

As the demonstration continued, the numbers of fully armed troops grew and grew. And they moved in from all four sides. They announced that people had 3 minutes to disperse from the "unlawful assembly." Even though the police violated their agreement, the protesters complied. A group of 5 activists led by Puppetista David Solnit informed the police they would not leave. The police said fine and began arresting them.

But that was not enough. The police then attacked the dispersing crowd, chasing about 30 people into a corner. They shoved them to the ground and beat them. They gassed them at close range. My colleague from Democracy Now!, Ana Nogueira, and I got separated in the mayhem. I was lucky to end up on the "safe" side of the street. Ana was in the melee. As she did her job-videotaping the action-Ana was wearing her press credentials in plain sight. As the police began handcuffing people, Ana told them she was a journalist. One of the officers said, "She's not with us, she's not with us," meaning that although Ana was clearly a journalist, she was not the friendly type. She was not embedded with the police and therefore had to be arrested.

In police custody, the authorities made Ana remove her clothes because they were soaked with pepper spray. The police forced her to strip naked in front of male officers. Despite calls from Democracy Now!, the ACLU, lawyers and others protesting Ana's arrest and detention, she was held in a cockroach-filled jail cell until 3:30 am. She was only released after I posted a $500 bond. Other independent journalists remained locked up for much longer and face serious charges, some of them felonies. In the end, Ana was charged with "failure to disperse."

The real crime seems to be "failure to embed."

In the times in which we live, this is what democracy looks like. Thousands of soldiers, calling themselves police, deployed in US cities to protect the power brokers from the masses. Posse Comitatus is just a Latin phrase. Vigilantes like John Timoney roam from city to city, organizing militias to hunt the dangerous radicals who threaten the good order. And damned be the journalist who dares to say it-or film it-like it is.

Jeremy Scahill is a producer and correspondent for the nationally syndicated radio and TV program Democracy Now! He can be reached at

Uncovering the Weapons of Mass Deception

The toppling of Saddam's statue at Fardus Square is just one scene in a campaign of lies, distortions and made-for-TV spectacles highlighted by authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in their new, highly-informative book, "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq." The authors, founders of the Wisconsin-based PR Watch, document how the Bush Administration played the U.S. media like a fiddle from the git-go: from planning the war months prior to "selling it," to manipulating the evidence to fit their agenda, to using the "big lie" tactic of repeating the same distortion over and over so that it becomes reality in the public's mind.

Tell us about your new book, "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq."

It's the story of how the Bush Administration sold the War on Iraq to the American people and it's, like all our books, a case study in the use of propaganda.

Give us a short history of how propaganda and war in Iraq.

I think if you step back and you look at how the U.S. came to attack Iraq based on phony assertions of that country's involvement in 9/11, that country's connections with the terrorist group Al Qaeda, that country's possession of weapons of mass destruction, this whole deception really traces back to the first Gulf War, and it's very important to understand that Saddam Hussein did desire nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein did use chemical and biological weapons, as we hear so often, against Iranians and Kurdish Iraqis, and that those weapons came from western countries -- especially U.S. and France -- and that Saddam Hussein was a close ally of the U.S. right up to the moment that he invaded Kuwait to take over their oil fields, and that precipitated a complete sea change ...

Right, what is amazing is that those arms sales -- this was a scandal in the late 80s that they called Iraq-gate that Ted Koppel himself said, quite possibly, could be worse than Watergate. But people forget that -- that we were selling arms to Saddam. It never really carried over. The first Gulf War happened and there was a collective amnesia about it.

A part of that is just due to the abysmal reporting on foreign policy issues in the American media and the tendency of the American media to take its lead on foreign policy from the U.S. government. During that time, the editorial writing in The Washington Post, for instance, essentially made light of Iraq's use of chemical and biological weapons against Iranians -- sort of saying, "What's the big deal here? Weapons of war are really nasty, and do some weapons deserve to be considered nastier than others?"

When April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador, was meeting with Saddam shortly before he invaded Kuwait and took over their oil fields back in 1990, they were reportedly discussing how they could improve the dictator's image in the United States, because the press was beginning to report more and more on his atrocities and this was a political problem for the U.S. Well, that problem suddenly disappeared when Saddam invaded Kuwait, and many analysts think that Glaspie apparently unwittingly gave Saddam indications that the U.S. wouldn't be too concerned if Saddam happened to take over those oil fields. But once that happened, of course, everything changed, and then Saddam had to be turned into the great evil -- a Satanic or Hitler-like character.

I think one of the interesting things we discovered doing our research is that the scandal that surrounded the Hill & Knowlton campaign that sold the first Gulf War to the people of the U.S. involving phony testimony before a phony Congressional hearing by a 15 year-old girl who claimed that Iraqi soldiers were murdering babies in hospitals in occupied Kuwait by throwing them out of incubators, now we see in a new light. That was a bizarre story that came to light a year after the U.S. drove Iraq out of Kuwait.

One of the mysteries has always been: Why do these PR people always have to invent these atrocities and foist them upon the American people? I mean Saddam committed plenty of atrocities.

The answer I think now, as we discovered in writing this book, is that because Saddam was so much an ally of the U.S. and because the U.S. basically looked the other way when he was using poisonous gas against Iranians and against Iraqi Kurds -- drudging up those true atrocities where thousands and thousands of people were killed by Saddam -- innocent civilians, women and children -- would have really reflected badly on the U.S. since the weapons components came from us and he was our ally.

This whole campaign was built around these false perceptions of how an invasion was going to affect the Middle East, how the Iraqis would react to American troops coming in. It's almost like there was this huge facade of lies that they were telling themselves.

I think that's exactly right. And one of the problems with propaganda is that governments and corporations that use it tend to believe their own propaganda and really cut themselves adrift from reality. And the story of the war against Iraq is a story very much of hardcore neo-conservatives, neo-Reaganites who have for a decade wanted to see the U.S. attack Iraq and topple Saddam and assert U.S. power in the middle east and really create a new American empire. And the Project for the New American Century -- PNAC -- which was begun by Bill Kristol was a much under-analyzed under-publicized organization that really seized power with the election of George Bush and 9/11.

People like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and others who have their ideological roots in PNAC and the neo-con movement, within hours of the 9/11 attacks, were seizing on the attacks as a green light to attack Iraq. And if you look today at the current situation in the U.S. with public opinion and the incredible ignorance and misunderstanding that surveys are picking up regarding Iraq's role in 9/11, Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's relations with Al Qaeda, what you see is that the 'big lie tactics' that were employed by the Bush Administration beginning with 9/11 to create the false beliefs that are held by Americans to justify the war, those big lie tactics were tremendously successful. The history of the Big Lie tactic (and we don't go into this in the book because we had to cut so much out of it) is simply that if those in authority repeat a falsehood over and over enough and it remains unchallenged by the media, it will become the truth. The history is that this was a tactic extensively employed by the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. And it's especially disturbing that something as crude as the big lie tactic could be used effectively to rally support for a pre-emptive war by the U.S.

Going back to the idea of believing their own hype, one of the lightning rods of controversy is that a lot of people within the CIA in particular have been leaking information anonymously about the Iraqi National Congress (INC). A lot of people in the U.S. Government are sort of split. A lot of people who were behind Ahmed Chalabi (INC leader) now view his information regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction as part of the problem. They worked closely with a big PR firm, tell me about that.

The Rendon Group. If we had a more sane political situation in this country where we were pursuing aggressive investigations of the selling of this war, the Rendon group and its head, John Rendon, would be called as one of the very first witnesses, probably along with Torie Clarke, former head of the Hill & Knowlton office in Washington DC, who suddenly in June resigned as the under secretary of defense for public relations, or public affairs as they call it. The Rendon Group is a favorite CIA Pentagon public relations firm. Exactly what they do is top secret. They have received and spent tens of millions of dollars in the last decades working on foreign policy for the Pentagon and the CIA and a lot of that work has been in Iraq.

The Iraqi National Congress is actually in many ways a creation of the CIA through the Rendon Group, although it certainly seems to have taken on a life of its own, and as you say, it seems to fall out of favor with people in the CIA but remain in favor with people in the Pentagon. The name 'Iraqi National Congress' obviously is a knockoff name copying the 'African National Congress' of Nelson Mandella and that name was dreamed up by John Rendon. One of the interesting little footnotes that occurred during this war was that an Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter named Paul Moran was killed by a suicide bomber in northern Iraq, and it turned out that while Moran really did work for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he was also on the payroll of the CIA's PR firm, Rendon. And John Rendon himself flew to Australia for this poor man's funeral.

It should be a huge ethical controversy for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation but they've just sort of glossed over it. And again, going back to the fact that the big lie was the primary tactic used to sell this war, it's impossible for the big lie tactic to work if the news media and the press is doing its job.

Exactly -- I mean it's an indictment of both institutions.

And Bush has been tossing around this sort of revisionist history charge, which is hilarious because most people are now realizing that the war didn't end when he engaged in his publicity stunt at taxpayer's expense, landing on the deck of that carrier. The war is very much ongoing. It's now a guerrilla war and we are not going to see the major media publicizing this information in a book. We are not going to see the major media calling for a thorough investigation of the deception and the selling of the war because they were so involved in promoting the war.

What do you see as the next move in this PR spin battle? What's going on right now in terms of the reorganization of the message?

If you look at what the Republicans are saying, they are sort of letting their longtime pollster Frank Luntz talk to them, and basically he is saying, "Look, people in the U.S. don't care, it was a good war, we didn't lose many troops, it played well on TV, it avenged 9/11, everyone loves the president and maybe we got into it for the wrong reasons, but once people found out how truly evil Saddam Hussein was, just overthrowing Saddam was reason enough." So the big spin now from the Republicans is that the American people loved this war, it was great theatre and was definitely worth it, and any Democrats who dare call for investigations or question the heroic struggle that overthrew the brutal dictator, are just setting themselves and their party up for defeat. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, since so many Democrats voted for the war, that message does resonate within the Democratic Party.

Exactly where this all is going to go, I think, is going to be answered in large part by the peace movement. And what I find interesting is that so far, the peace movement has sort of sat back on its haunches and seems to be somewhat in disarray and coalescing more around the political theme of 'anybody but Bush,' and hoping that somehow one of these Democratic candidates will pull a rabbit out of the hat and topple this dastardly regime a year from November. I think that is a strategy for losing, because back in Vietnam, the term 'hearts and minds' was used by the military and the Johnson and Nixon Administrations -- they realized the importance of winning the hearts and minds. And what I really feel the peace movement needs to do in the U.S. is to gain the offensive and become very proactive and educate our fellow citizens to the ways in which we were masterfully duped by the Administration and by the media, and to force politicians to investigate this outrageous political scandal. And since it is becoming pretty clear that, with the Republicans in control of both Houses and the Democrats somewhat divided and really afraid to do the right thing, I would like to see the peace movement organize commissions of inquiry at the grassroots.

I am old enough to remember the war in Vietnam. I was in high school when Bertrand Russell was convening public inquiries into U.S. atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam, and eventually that was picked up here in the U.S. and that helped heighten a lot of contradictions, and veterans of that war came forward and talked about the reality as opposed to the government media sell job. And it really took the peace movement mobilizing and educating the populace to get out the message of what was going down in Vietnam. I think that if the peace movement doesn't coalesce and force the media and force the politicians to fully investigate the selling of this war, it is unlikely that there will be any regime change in the U.S. in 2004 because the incredible misinformation campaign that got the U.S. into this war will simply continue to cloud the minds of a majority of citizens.

I really think that the next move is up to the anti-war movement. It's all well and good to run virtual primaries and get excited about the former governor of Vermont or whomever, but no Democrat on a white horse with a tremendous cash disadvantage is going to topple this regime here in the U.S. I think -- I am hoping in the months ahead as the scales fall from the eyes of the American public, we will be seeing a new peace and justice movement galvanizing and really leading a movement for democratic regime change here in the U.S. But it's gonna take a mobilization at the grassroots and so far the peace movement still seems a little stunned. And hoping that just casting a flag for whatever Democrat manages to stumble forward is going to be enough, won't be enough.

Anthony Lappe is the Executive Editor at the Guerrilla News Network.

Prisoners of Hypocrisy

"American intelligence agents have been torturing terrorist suspects, or engaging in practices pretty close to torture. They have also been handing over suspects to countries, such as Egypt, whose intelligence agencies have a reputation for brutality."
-- The Economist, London, January 11

You probably haven't heard this said too many times on progressive sites like this one before, and you most likely won't hear it again soon, so enjoy: Donald Rumsfeld is right.

When Iraqi television aired footage of five American POWs being interrogated by Iraqi officials they did in fact violate the Geneva Conventions, as the visibly pissed off Secretary of Defense charged Sunday in interviews with CNN and other networks.

"It is absolutely clear that POWs have to be protected against insult and public curiosity under Article 13 of the [Third] Geneva Convention," Dina Dinah PoKempner, General Counsel for Human Rights Watch, told GNN. "Public humiliation isn't part of humane treatment."

The footage, which also included grisly images of dead American soldiers, aired around the world on the Arab-language Al-Jazeera network. The footage showed a prisoner who identified herself as Shoshana, 30, from Texas. Her eyes darted back and forth as she was interviewed and she held her arms tightly in her lap as she was questioned.

At one point, the camera panned back, showing a massive white bandage wrapped around her ankle. Her voice was very shaky.

The prisoners looked scared. One captive, who said he was from Kansas, answered all his questions in a shaky voice, his eyes darting back and forth between an interviewer and another person who couldn't be seen on camera.

Iraqi TV attempted to interview a wounded man lying down, at one point trying to cradle his head so it would hold steady for the camera.

Geneva Rules

The first Geneva Convention was held in 1864 to adopt a universal code of conduct for nations at war. In 1949 the Third Geneva Convention was signed in an effort to address the many abuses of prisoners and civilians suffered during World War II. It included provisions to protect captured soldiers from being used as propaganda tools.

With images of thousands of surrendering Iraqi troops being treated decently by U.S. and British forces over the last couple of days, it seems the Americans have, at least for now, scored a grim PR victory. Despite claims they are not mistreating the prisoners, the Iraqis appear thuggish.

However, the U.S. is in a precarious position to be complaining about Iraqi war crimes. In the already ignored Afghanistan campaign (which Dan Rather called the "forgotten war" this evening), the U.S. has a dismal human rights record.

In November 2001, it's alleged that Northern Alliance warlord, heroin trafficker and U.S. top-ally Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum rounded up hundreds of Taliban fighters on behalf of U.S. forces and stuffed them into cargo containers.

They were supposed to be headed for Sheberghan prison. But hundreds never made it. They were left to asphyxiate in the air-tight containers. Before dying, many licked each other's sweat, bit off their fingertips or tore into their own arms and legs -- and those of others -- in a desperate search for fluid.

A confidential UN memo leaked to Newsweek magazine in Sept. 2002 quoted a witness saying that 960 prisoners had died and were buried in mass graves near Dasht-i-Laili.

Taliban Johnny's Magic Carpet Ride

Then there's America's most famous "enemy combatant" Taliban Johnny, aka John Walker Lindh. Immediately after being captured following the the brutal prison rebellion at Mazar-e-Sharif, the frail, frightened American jihadist was interviewed by war zone aficionado Robert Young Pelton (who was staying at Dostum's compound at the time). According to an account in the New Yorker magazine, after asking his Special Forces buddies to wait to "shoot him" until he was done, Pelton interrogated the wounded Lindh under the gun of U.S. military personnel. Later the military stripped him naked, taped him to a gurney and threw him in the back of a transport plane back to the U.S. Pelton's interview ran on CNN and was used to convict Lindh for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He is currently serving a 20-year sentence.

Gloves Come Off

Further complicating the United States' position on the top of the moral high ground are allegations of on-going mistreatment of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at Camp X-Ray, in Afghanistan and other "undisclosed" locations.

In December, the Washington Post ("U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations," 12/26/02) exposed how U.S. interrogators at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and at other overseas sites, have been systematically abusing al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in a "brass-knuckled quest for information" to uncover future terrorist plots. "Take-down teams," consisting of U.S. Army Special Forces troops, FBI and CIA agents and Northern Alliance troops, blindfold and beat prisoners, throwing them into walls, binding them for long periods in contorted positions and depriving them of sleep for days at a time.

The teams then allegedly "package" some prisoners by hooding them, duct-taping them to stretchers and then flying them to friendly states less picky about the norms of human decency. According to the Post article, approximately 100 prisoners have been sent to basements in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia for interrogations.

There has been little outcry over these charges because torture as an interrogation technique has largely been embraced by the American establishment.

When Cofer Black, then head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, told House and Senate intelligence committees in Sept. 2002 that "there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off" -- few politicians complained.

Influential Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter wrote in a Nov. 2002 article that while he didn't support legalizing physical torture in the U.S., he did suggest we consider using "legal" forms of psychological torture at home, while "transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies."

Even prominent liberals like celebrity civil rights attorney and death penalty opponent Alan Dershowitz have implicitly recognized a gray area between torture and humane treatment.

But human rights advocates have been clear. In a letter to President Bush, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote: "Torture is always prohibited under any circumstances. U.S. officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world."

Rumsfeld has insisted that Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners have been handled humanely. He will not, however, grant them "prisoner of war" status. The U.S. position is they are not part of a "regular" army, and are thus not protected by the Geneva Conventions -- a distinction that allows the Pentagon convenient wiggle-room.

Rumsfeld stated in Jan. 2002, "They will be handled not as prisoners of war, because they're not, but as unlawful combatants. Technically unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention. We have indicated that we do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva conventions, to the extent they are appropriate."

In other words, the law applies to us, only when we feel like it.

Let's hope, for Shoshana's sake, the Iraqis don't share such a flexible interpretation.

Anthony Lappé is Excutive Editor of He has written for The New York Times, New York, Details, and Salon, among many others.
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