Friday, February 20, 2009

Disappeared in the Name of National Security

Mohamed Farag Bashmilah

Mohamed Farag Bashmilah

From October 2003 until May 2005, I was illegally detained by the U.S. government and held in CIA-run "black sites" with no contact with the outside world. On May 5, 2005, without explanation, my American captors removed me from my cell and cuffed, hooded, and bundled me onto a plane that delivered me to Sana'a, Yemen. I was transferred into the custody of my own government, which held me -- apparently at the behest of the United States -- until March 27, 2006, when I was finally released, never once having faced any terrorism-related charges. Since my release, the U.S. government has never explained why I was detained and has blocked all attempts to find out more about my detention.

What I do know is that the Jordanian government -- after torturing me for several days -- handed me over to a U.S. "rendition team" in Amman, which then abducted me, forced me onto a plane, and flew me to Afghanistan. During this, and several other transfers between CIA prisons, I was subjected to a brutal and deeply humiliating "preparation" ritual. I was stripped naked, dressed in a diaper, shackled, blindfolded and hooded, and then boarded onto a waiting plane. I was forced into painful positions, often reeling from the blows and kicks of the men who had "prepared" me for flight.

During my detention, I agonized constantly about my family back in Yemen, knowing they had no idea where I was. They never once received information about who had taken me, why I was taken, or even whether I was alive. They were never contacted by the U.S. government or the International Committee of the Red Cross. My mother and wife were in such anguish that they had to be hospitalized for illness, stress, and anxiety. My father passed away while I was disappeared and I am still distraught thinking that he died without knowing whether I was dead or alive. I continue to suffer from bouts of illness that medical doctors attribute to the treatment I experienced in the "black sites." My physical symptoms are made worse by the anxiety caused by never knowing where I was held, and not having any form of acknowledgment that I was disappeared and tortured by the U.S. government.

I believe that acknowledgment is the first step toward accounting for a wrongdoing. The American public needs to face what has happened to those of us who were disappeared and mistreated in the name of their national security, demand accountability for those who committed torture and other crimes, and acknowledge the suffering of those who became victims. Today, a group of concerned Americans called on President Obama to take the first steps to do just that, by demanding that he establish an independent commission of inquiry into the treatment of detainees in the "War on Terror."

President Obama himself recently said that "democracy requires accountability and accountability requires transparency." If he establishes this commission, it would break the silence about what has happened and signal a real commitment not only to changing the practices of the past but also to ensuring that they do not happen again. Both the American public and the victims of these past policies need to understand what the CIA did in the name of U.S. national security. We need to find out where we were all held and who is still missing. And we need justice for the crimes that were committed in violation of our most basic human rights -- rights the United States has always claimed to uphold and defend. President Obama's recent order to the CIA to shut down its secret prisons was a significant step in the right direction, but it did not resolve the unfinished business of establishing accountability and restoring transparency.

The American public deserves to know what was done to people like me -- and I deserve to know why I lost nineteen months of my life -- all in the name of protecting their security. It gives me faith to see that Americans are standing up for my rights and calling for the truth to be exposed. It is my hope that the President will not only establish this commission, but that he will also direct the relevant authorities to investigate and prosecute those who broke American laws in ordering the torture and disappearance of people like me. Truth and justice are not in opposition; both are necessary, and both are the right of all Americans and the victims harmed in their name.

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Bloomberg's Tax Lesson

Let us now praise New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has learned a few things about tax rates and incentives.

New York state and city revenues are falling amid the collapse of Wall Street, and state lawmakers in Albany are considering income tax hikes for households earning between $250,000 and $1 million, who already pay 6.85% to the state. Meanwhile, the New York Post reports that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn wants to increase the city's top tax rate of 3.68% for households earning as little as $297,000 (to 4.25%); those earning $532,000 to $1.2 million would pay 4.45%; and above that 4.65%.

But late last week Mayor Bloomberg was channelling these columns when he said that raising taxes on high earners could drive them from the city. "One percent of the households that file in this city pay something like 50% of the taxes," explained the Mayor. "In the city, that's something like 40,000 people. If a handful left, any raise would make it revenue neutral. The question is what's fair. If 1% are paying 50% of the taxes, you want to make it even more?"

This is a different argument than Hizzoner made in 2003, when he called New York City a "luxury product" and said people would gladly pay more to live there. But that was when the federal government was cutting tax rates, and Wall Street was set to boom. Now the financial industry -- which has provided about 20% of city and state revenues -- will emerge from recession smaller than before, and grand bonuses may not return for years.

New York's combined state-local tax rate of 10.5% is already well above New Jersey (8.97%), Pennsylvania (6.98%), Connecticut (5%), or Florida (0%). Which is to say that Mr. Bloomberg is right that New York's upper middle class has plenty of options if the politicians give them another reason to move.

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The Quiet American: How the World Sees Obama

By Joe Klein

At this year's U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, speaker after Muslim speaker had nothing particularly awful to say about the United States. The Muslims were, in fact, hopeful about, and slightly amazed by, the new American President. Some even wondered aloud what they could do to help him succeed. Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader, listed the significant gestures that Obama had made toward the Islamic world, from the President's interview with al-Arabiya television network to the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East negotiator. Obama had even made reference to "a hadith, which is something not many Islamic leaders do!" Ibrahim added, referring to the sayings of the Prophet that are not included in the Koran. Then Ibrahim went further: "But will the U.S. find credible partners in the Muslim world? ... How do we expect the President of the United States to solve our problems when we do nothing?" (Read "Talking to Iran: What Are Washington's Options?")

It was a rare slash of candor in the annual winter policy-conference festivities — the worthy caravan of world-class bloviation that migrates from the now soiled majesty of the economic wizards at Davos to the Cold War clutch of the Munich Security Conference, to the think-tanky but heartfelt attempts to reach across the cultural chasm at Doha. These conferences were not much fun for Americans during the George W. Bush years, when a solid plurality of the questions began with "How could you?" But the U.S. election promised a change, and I attended Munich and Doha this year to find out how the world was reacting to the new Administration. I found the world slightly nonplussed — mildly euphoric, if a bit nervous.

The nerves were rattled by the studied opacity of the official American speakers, who are awaiting the Administration's policy reviews on Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan before venturing anything interesting. The clearest statement of American intent came from Vice President Joe Biden in Munich, in a speech so important that Biden read it word for word, without Bidenic huzzahs — he didn't say, for example, "Vladimir Putin, Lord love 'im!" He did say quietly startling things like "We will listen. We will consult." And "We will strive to act preventively, not pre-emptively." And "America will act aggressively against climate change." He offered an unclenched fist to Iran and a willingness to push "the reset button" with Russia. (Read "Europe: No Blank Check for Obama on Global Security".)

This clarion statement of international sanity had a curious effect on its audience: stunned silence, as the assembled Europeans and Russians were confronted with a terrifying new reality. They were out of excuses, especially our NATO allies. If the U.S. was done with thoughtless bellicosity, the peaceable Euros might have to respond more substantively to our requests for them to live up to their pledges in Afghanistan. This seemed the underlying tension in Munich — the split between countries whose troops actually fight in Afghanistan and those whose troops do not. It is a breach to watch, one that could cripple the alliance.

The tension splattered into full view once, in an indirect confrontation between the Defense Ministers of Germany and the U.K. The German, a Gandhian archetype named Franz Josef Jung, gave a ridiculously optimistic report about progress in Afghanistan. The British Defense Minister responded elegantly during the next panel, "We need more of a wartime rather than a peacetime mentality at NATO ... There's too much of an obsession with process and prevarication."

It has become clear that there's a bit of an obsession with process in the Obama Administration as well, but this is a necessary corrective. Rather than making peremptory judgments, pro and con, about foreign leaders, as Bush did, Obama seems predisposed to see every foreign policy problem in its global context — the decision to press the reset button with Russia, for example, could have a profound influence on the start of talks with Iran, especially if the Russians agree to help dissuade the Iranians from an illegal nuclear program (in return for a U.S. pledge to halt the antimissile defense system that Russia fears). Every decision will be evaluated for its synergy with other decisions: troop levels in Afghanistan will reflect, among other things, the level of tension between India and Pakistan.

As a result, Obama's foreign policy will move at the speed of diplomacy — slower than a sclerotic donkey — punctuated by the occasional laser whoosh of a Hellfire missile in Waziristan. His policies will be nuanced and will not please anyone overmuch — not the Muslims (nor the Israelis) nor our NATO allies nor those Americans seeking ideological clarity or consistency. This will make for a round of more argumentative policy conferences next year, but perhaps fewer "How could you?" questions directed at Americans.

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Holder: US a nation of cowards on racial matters

By DEVLIN BARRETT, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, said Wednesday the United States was "a nation of cowards" on matters of race, with most Americans avoiding candid discussions of racial issues. In a speech to Justice Department employees marking Black History Month, Holder said the workplace is largely integrated but Americans still self-segregate on the weekends and in their private lives.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said.

Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, but "we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."

Holder's speech echoed President Barack Obama's landmark address last year on race relations during the hotly contested Democratic primaries, when the then-candidate urged the nation to break "a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years" and bemoaned the "chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races." Obama delivered the speech to try to distance himself from the angry rhetoric of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Holder cited that speech by Obama as part of the motivation for his words Wednesday, saying Americans need to overcome an ingrained inhibition against talking about race.

"If we're going to ever make progress, we're going to have to have the guts, we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other. It also means we have to be able to accept criticism where that is justified," Holder told reporters after the speech.

In the speech, Holder urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for honest discussion of racial matters, including issues of health care, education and economic disparities.

Race, Holder said, "is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable... If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

In a country founded by slave owners, race has bedeviled the nation throughout its history, with blacks denied the right to vote just a few decades ago. Obama's triumph last November as well as the nomination of Holder stand as historic achievements of two black Americans.

Holder told hundreds of Justice Department employees gathered for the event that they have a special responsibility to advance racial understanding.

Even when people mix at the workplace or afterwork social events, Holder argued, many Americans in their free time are still segregated inside what he called "race-protected cocoons."

"Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago. This is truly sad," said Holder.

Matt Miller, a spokesman for Holder, said later the attorney general used "provocative words to be clear that Americans of all races should stop avoiding the difficult issues of race."

Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, praised Holder's general message but said the wording of the speech may alienate some.

"He's right on the substance, but that's probably not the most politic way of saying it. I'm certain there are people who will hear him and say, 'That's obnoxious,'" he said, adding that what was missing from Holder's speech were specific examples of what painful subjects need to be addressed.

Hilary Shelton, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the speech "constructively provocative."

"Nobody wants to be considered a coward. We've learned to get along by exclusion and silence. We need to talk about it. People need to feel comfortable saying the wrong things," said Shelton.

Holder is headed to Guantanamo Bay early next week to inspect the terrorist detention facility there. Obama has assigned Holder to lead a special task force aimed at closing the site within a year.

Holder's Justice Department will have to decide which suspects to bring to U.S. courts for trial, which to prosecute through the military justice system, and which to send back to their home countries.

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