I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The company we keep

The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a new report documenting the rise of what it considers to be one of the most dangerous trends -- the arrest and detention of journalists who are held indefinitely without any charges being brought. China, Cuba, Eritrea and Ethiopa "were the top four jailers among the 24 nations who imprisoned journalists."

Those four countries are followed on the list by seven other countries which have more than one journalist in custody. The U.S. is part of that group, tied with Russia. Both Russia and the U.S. are each holding two journalists without charges (that we know of). Also in that group are Algeria, Azerbajian, Burma, Burundi, and Uzbekistan. Iran did not make it into that group because it is holding only one journalist in custody, and the same is true for Vietnam (Venezuela, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are holding none).

The U.S. has in its custody Associated Press Photojournalist Blial Hussein (held eight months somewhere in Iraq without charges), and Al Jazeera Photographer Sami Muhyideen al-Haj (held for more than five years in Guantanamo). There has also been a string of violent attacks on journalists by the U.S. military over the years -- almost always journalists perceived as unfriendly -- under rather questionable circumstances, to put it mildly.

None of this is to equate the level of press freedoms in China, Cuba or Iran to the United States. They're not comparable. But that isn't the point. That the U.S. violates press freedoms less than Communist China, Iranian mullahs, and Fidel Castro mitigates nothing. For those who believe in the U.S. and the values it has long embraced (even if its adherence to those values, like all countries, has been imperfect), what is so striking and genuinely tragic is lists of this type -- from credible and essentially nonideological sources which document abuses of basic liberties around the world -- now invariably includes the U.S., because no list would be complete without it.

The track record of the U.S. in arresting journalists should inspire absolutely no confidence that the journalists we detain are guilty of anything:

In 2005, the U.S. detention of al-Haj and at least four journalists in Iraq placed the United States sixth among countries jailing journalists, just behind Uzbekistan and tied with Burma. In Iraq, each journalist was held for months without charge. Each was eventually freed; no charges were substantiated in any of the cases.

What kind of American isn't angered by our Government's detention of journalists with no charges who are guilty of nothing? If that behavior doesn't bother someone, what would? As always, if there is evidence to support the claim that a journalist or anyone else actively worked with Al Qaeda and the individual is found guilty of that allegation as part of a fair procedure, I think the U.S. Government has every right to detain that individual. But that is not what we do.

We detain people, including journalists, with no charges, no fair process, and usually with no opportunity even to know the "evidence" against them, have a lawyer present, or anything else. Here is the statement of Al Jazeera's al-Haj during his "Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Guantanamo, the absurdity and shamefulness of which I described yesterday and which is documented in full here:

Thank you for the opportunity to address you. Obviously, I would really like to have my attorney here to help me put my case, but since this is not allowed, I must speak for myself.

I am a husband and a father. I have not seen my wife or my son for three years. My son was just one year and three months when I last saw him and the idea of missing those important years of his young life saddens my soul, as I am sure you realize it would any parent.

I was told that I have been found to be an enemy combatant. I do not know how this came to be and I do not know the evidence against me.

The charges against him have repeatedly been changed. Virtually all of the original ones have been dropped. The U.S. has repeatedly refused to advise him of what evidence they are using to declare him an "enemy combatant." And the Congress just enacted legislation permanently blocking his ability to contest the validity of his detention in any court, thus consigning him to permanent imprisonment in Guantanamo for as long as George Bush (and then subsequent Presidents) desire for him to remain there.

Worse, I don't think there is any question about the fact that Bush administration attacks on journalists of this sort are going to escalate. As I noted the other day, there is growing agitation among Bush followers for express restrictions on the First Amendment. They routinely blame the media for most of the woes of the U.S., attributing such problems to the media's treasonous motives.

Last night, Bill O'Reilly's first guest was Mark Steyn (who, just by the way, has literally become The New Republic Publisher Marty Peretz's most-praised foreign policy prophet). As part of his first answer, Styen said this:

I believe that the majority of American newspapers, which are filled with Associated Press content, on the central issue of our time, they are either duped at best, or actually semi-treasonous, and colluding with the enemy and demoralizing America on the homefront, including having agents of the enemy on their payroll. This is a disgraceful organization.

Blial Hussein was one of the examples Steyn cited as an "enemy agent" on the payroll of the Associated Press.

Much of this ties into the discussion yesterday regarding the Baker-Hamilton Report, including in the comments section, where numerous people seemed to want to defend the Report. I recognize that the Report contains some nice acknowledgments and some ideas which might be theoretically praiseworthy. It's also true that the Report deviates from -- and at time criticizes -- the neoconservative view of the world (which is why rabid neoncons hate it).

Nonetheless, the reason I expressed such disdain for the Report is because it not only fails to advocate short-term, genuine withdrawal, but it does the opposite. It advocates that we stay until at least 2008, and endorses the notion that we should keep fighting in the hope that we will achieve something positive. It also expressly and emphatically opposes all efforts to withdraw now.

But beyond what the Report says, its effect -- in the real world, in actuality -- is that it alleviates the pressure on the President to remove our troops from Iraq, thereby ensuring that this war continues indefinitely. And as long as we remain in Iraq, abuses of this sort -- Abu Grahib and Bilal Hussein and more and more slaughter -- are going to continue and worsen. Fiddling around with "tactics," finding new excuses to stay longer, and proposing incremental strategic changes which will be ignored (and hopelessly botched if adopted) are all just cosmetics -- and dangerous ones at that. I agree completely with what Kevin Drum said:

Every extra day that we spend in Iraq merely makes our eventual disengagement harder and bloodier. Always remember: things can get even worse than they are now. They have for each of the previous three years, after all.

Independent of whether something good in theory could be squeezed out of Iraq by remaining, nothing good can come from staying in Iraq under this particular "Commander-in-Chief," which is the only one there is in reality. Staying in Iraq means a Bush-led occupation, just like invading Iraq meant a Bush-led invasion.

This administration simply does not believe in -- and is intent on further violating and eroding -- the most basic liberties and values of human rights which we have long sought to defend. And their disregard for human rights is matched only by their total ineptitude. They degrade and destroy everything they touch.

The war in Iraq enables an erosion of liberties, our standing in the world, and our national character in all sorts of devastating ways. Thus, anything which helps prolong it -- and the Baker-Hamilton Report unquestionably does that -- is something that deserves to be discredited, no matter what nice language it contains.


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