Instead of an official war crime investigation by Israel, the Awajahs were left with a dead son, physical and psychological injuries and a pile of rubble where their home used to be in the Gaza Strip.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
Rubble. That’s been the one constant for the Awajah family for as long as I’ve known them.
Four months ago, their home was demolished by the Israeli military — and it wasn’t the first time that Kamal, Wafaa, and their children had been through this. For the last six years, the family has found itself trapped in a cycle of destruction and reconstruction; their home either a tangle of shattered concrete and twisted rebar or about to become one.
I first met the Awajah family in August 2009, in the tent where they were living. I filmed them as they told me what had happened to them eight months earlier during the military invasion that Israel called Operation Cast Lead and said was a response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
I had no intention of making a film when I went to Gaza, but after hearing the family’s story, I knew I had to. I returned again in 2012 and have continued to stay in touch in the years since, realizing that the plight of the Awajahs opened a window onto what an entire society was facing, onto what it’s like to live with an interminable war and constant fear. The Awajahs’ story shines a spotlight on what Palestinians in Gaza have endured for years on end.
What stuck with me most, however, was the demand of the Awajah children regarding the reconstruction of their new home in 2012: they insisted that the house have two doors.
What The Awajahs Saw
In separate interviews in 2009, Wafaa and Kamal Awajah told me the same story, each breaking down in tears as they offered me their memories of the traumatic events that had taken place eight months earlier — a night when they lost far more than a home. The next day, a still grief-stricken Wafaa walked me through her recollections of that night, pointing out the spot where each incident had taken place.
On January 4th, as Operation Cast Lead’s ground campaign began, the Awajah family was at home. Wafaa’s eldest daughter, 12-year-old Omsiyat, woke her up at around 2 am. “Mom,” said Omsiyat, “soldiers are at the door.” Wafaa jumped out of bed to look. “There are no soldiers at the door, honey,” she reassured her daughter. When Omsiyat insisted, Wafaa looked again, and this time she spotted the soldiers and tanks. She lit candles in the window so that the Israeli troops would know that a family was inside.
Suddenly, the ceiling began to crumble. Wafaa, Kamal, and their six children fled, as an Israeli military bulldozer razed their home. No sooner had they made it outside than the roof collapsed. As tank after tank rolled by, the family huddled under an olive tree next to the house. When dawn finally broke, they could examine the ruins of their house.
Just as the Awajahs were trying to absorb their loss, Wafaa heard nine-year-old Ibrahim scream. He had been shot in the side. As more gunfire rang out, Kamal scooped up the injured boy and ran for cover with the rest of the family. Wafaa was hit in both hips, but she and five of the children managed to take shelter behind a mud-brick wall. From there, she saw Kamal, also wounded, lying in the middle of the road, Ibrahim still in his arms.
Israeli soldiers approached her husband and son on foot, while Wafaa watched, and —according to what she and Kamal both told me — without warning, one of them shot Ibrahim at close range, killing him. He may have assumed that Kamal was already dead. Despite Wafaa and Kamal’s wounds, the family managed to get back to their wrecked home, where they hid under the collapsed roof for four days with no food or clean water, until a passing family with a donkey cart took them and Ibrahim’s body to a hospital in Gaza city.
As far as I know, the Israeli military never investigated the incident. In fact, only a handful of possible war crimes during Operation Cast Lead were ever investigated by Israel. Instead of an official inquiry, the Awajahs were left with a dead son, grievous physical wounds that eventually healed, psychological ones that never will, and a home reduced to pile of rubble.
One Family in Gaza, Jen Marlowe's award-winning short documentary film featuring the Awajah family. (You can also view the video on Vimeo if your browser is having trouble loading the video on this page.)
Life Goes On
When I met them eight months later, the Awajahs were struggling to rebuild their lives. “What’s hardest is how to offer safety and security for my children,” Kamal told me. “Their behaviors are not the same as before.”
Wafaa pointed to three-year-old Diyaa. “This boy is traumatized since the war,” she said. “He sleeps with a loaf of bread in his arms. If you try to take it from him, he wakes up, hugs it, and says, ‘It’s mine.’”
“What you can’t remove or change is the fear in the children’s eyes,” Kamal continued. “If Diyaa sees a bulldozer, he thinks it’s coming to destroy a house. If he sees a soldier, whether an Israeli or Arab soldier, he thinks the soldier wants to kill him. I try to keep them away from violence, but what he experienced forces him to release his fear with violence. When he kisses you, you can feel violence in his kiss. He kisses you and then pushes you away. He might punch or slap you. I am against violence and war in any form. I support peaceful ways. That’s how I live and raise my children. Of course, I try to keep my children from violence, and help them forget what happened to them, but I can’t erase it from their memory. The memories of fear are engraved in their blood.”
I thought about Kamal’s words as I filmed Diyaa and his five-year-old sister Hala scrambling onto the rubble of their destroyed home — their only playground — squealing with glee as they rolled bullet casings and shrapnel down the collapsed roof.
What moved me deeply was the determination of Kamal and Wafaa to create a future for their surviving children. “Yes, my home was destroyed, my life was destroyed, but this didn’t destroy what’s inside me,” Kamal said. “It didn’t kill me as Kamal. It didn’t kill us as a family. We’re living. After all, we must continue living. It’s not the life we wanted, or had, but I try to provide for my children what I can.”
The Fragility of Hope
In 2012, I returned to Gaza and to the tent in which the Awajah family was still living. It was evident that the trauma of their experience in 2009 — along with the daily deprivation and lack of security and freedom that characterize Gaza under siege — had taken a toll. “I had thought that those were the most difficult days of my life,” Kamal said, “but I discovered afterwards that the days which followed were even more difficult.”
In 2009, Kamal told me that the war hadn’t fundamentally changed him. Now, he simply said, “I lost myself. The Kamal before the war does not exist today.” He spoke of the screams of his children, waking regularly from nightmares. “The war is still chasing them in their dreams.”
Most painful for Kamal was his inability to help his children heal. His despair and feelings of helplessness had grown to the point where he had become paralyzed with severe depression. “I tried and I still try to get us out of the situation we are in — the social situation, the educational situation for the children, and the mental situation for me and my family.” But their situation, he added, kept getting worse.
My 2012 visit, however, came during a rare moment of hope. After nearly four years, the Awajah family was finally rebuilding their home. Trucks were delivering bags of cement; gravel-filled wheelbarrows were being pushed onto skids; wooden planks were being hammered down. In 2009, I had filmed Diyaa and Hala playing on the rubble of their destroyed house. In 2012, I filmed them climbing and jumping on the foundation of their new home.
“I am building a house. It is my right in life for my children to have a house,” Kamal said. “I call it my dream house, because I dream that my children will go back to being themselves. It will be the first step to shelter me and my children, away from the sun and the heat and tents, our homelessness. The biggest hope and the biggest happiness I have is when I see my children smiling and comfortable... when they sleep without nightmares.” Kamal added, “I can’t sleep because of my fear over them.”
For Wafaa, while the new home represented hope for their future, its construction also triggered flashbacks to that night of the bulldozer. As she told me, “Bulldozers and trucks bringing construction material came at night, and, at that moment, it was war again. When I saw the bulldozers and the trucks approaching with big lights, my heart fell between my feet. I was truly scared.”
Planning for the new house also provided Wafaa and Kamal with a poignant reminder of the fragility of hope in Gaza. “The children say to make two doors to the house,” Wafaa told me. “One [regular] door and the other door so when the Israelis demolish the house, we can use it to escape. We try to comfort them and tell them nothing like this will happen, but no, they insist on us making two doors. ‘Two doors, Daddy, one here and one there, so that we can run away.’”
The Gaza War of 2014
After my 2012 visit, I periodically contacted the Awajah family. Construction was proceeding in fits and starts, Kamal told me, due to shortages of materials in Gaza and their lack of financial resources. Finally, however, in the middle of 2013 the home was completed and as the final step, glass for the windows was installed in February 2014.
Five months later, in July, the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza began. I called the Awajah family right away.
“The children are frightened but okay,” Wafaa told me.
The Israeli army had warned their neighborhood to evacuate and they were now renting a small apartment in Gaza City. During a humanitarian ceasefire, Kamal was able to return to their house: it had been demolished along with the entire neighborhood.
When I spoke to the Awajah family at the end of September, Kamal told me that rent money had run out. Seeking shelter at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school wasn’t a viable option, he said, because there were already so many families packed into each room. The Awajahs were back in a tent next to the rubble of their twice-destroyed home.
The family’s situation is far bleaker than in 2009. Then they were able to tap into an electricity source and there was a communal outhouse for all the tent-dwelling families in the area. This time, Kamal said, the area near their house was entirely deserted: no water tank, electricity, outhouse, gas, or stove for cooking. Their only possessions were the few items of clothing they managed to take with them when they fled. They were sleeping on the ground, he said, no mattresses or blankets to ward off the cold, only the nylon of the tent beneath them. The children had been walking several kilometers to fill jugs with water until villagers who lived nearby made their wells available for a few hours a day.
Wafaa told me that she was cooking on an open fire, using scrap wood scavenged from the remnants of her house. For the first week, the children returned home from school every day and, surrounded by nothing but rubble, began to cry. Seventeen-year-old Omsiyat briefly took the phone. Her typically warm and open voice was completely flat, no affect whatsoever.
Worse yet, Kamal still owes $3,700 for the construction of their previous house. Though the home no longer exists, the debt does. “We are drowning,” Wafaa said.
The Awajah family today. (You can also view the video on Vimeo if your browser is having trouble loading the video on this page.)
Drowning in Gaza
The Awajahs aren’t the only ones in Gaza who are drowning. The true horror of their repeated trauma lies in the extent to which it is widespread and shared. Nine-year-old Ibrahim Awajah was one of 872 children in Gaza killed in the 2009, 2012, and 2014 wars combined, according to statistics gathered by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. (There was also one Israeli child killed by mortar fire in that period.)
The flat affect in Omsiyat’s voice reflects the assessment of the United Nations Children’s Fund that nearly half of the children in Gaza are in urgent need of psychological help. And Kamal’s desire not to move into a communal shelter is understandable, given that 53,869 displaced people still remain crowded into 18 UNWRA schools. According to Shelter Cluster, an inter-agency committee that supports shelter needs for people affected by conflict and natural disaster, the Awajah family’s house is one of 18,080 homes in Gaza that were completely demolished or severely damaged in the 2014 war alone. A further 5,800 houses suffered significant damage, with 38,000 more sustaining some damage.
Shelter Cluster estimates that it will take 20 years for Gaza to be rebuilt — assuming that it does not face yet another devastating military operation. As the last six years indicate, however, unless there is meaningful political progress (namely, the ending of the Israeli siege and ongoing occupation), further hostilities are inevitable. It is not enough that people in Gaza be able to rebuild their houses yet again. They need the opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity.
Kamal Awajah said as much. “I don’t ask anyone to build me a home for the sake of charity. That’s not the kind of help we want. We need the kind of help that raises our value as human beings. But how? That’s the question.”
There seem to be no serious efforts on the horizon to address Kamal’s question, which has at its core an insistence on recognizing the equal value of Palestinian humanity. As long as that question remains unanswered and the fundamental rights of Palestinians continue to be denied, the devastating impact of repeated war will continue for every family in Gaza and the terrifying threat of the next war will always loom. The Awajah children have every reason to insist that their future home be constructed with two doors.
Jen Marlowe is a human rights activist, author, documentary filmmaker, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her books include I Am Troy Davis and The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker. Her films include Witness Bahrain and One Family in Gaza. She blogs at View from the donkey’s saddle and tweets at @donkeysaddleorg.
Note: To help the Awajah family rebuild their home, Jen Marlowe set up an Indiegogo campaign on their behalf, which you can visit and share by clicking here.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2014 Jen Marlowe
Photo by Fotolia/Rafael Ben-Ari
Mass global surveillance has gathered yottabytes of information on us, according to Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, thanks largely to the Internet and a "collect it all" mentality.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland, or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6% of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4% of us are meant to be left in the dark.
For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.
All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us. Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected. In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing. And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history. To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.
In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits. Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.
And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing. Against increasing odds, there has been some fine reporting in the mainstream media by the likes of James Risen and Barton Gellman on the security state’s post-legal activities and above all, despite the Obama administration’s regular use of the World War I era Espionage Act, whistleblowers have stepped forward from within the government to offer us sometimes staggering amounts of information about the system that has been set up in our name but without our knowledge.
Among them, one young man, whose name is now known worldwide, stands out. In June of last year, thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA and previously the CIA, stepped into our lives from a hotel room in Hong Kong. With a treasure trove of documents that are still being released, he changed the way just about all of us view our world. He has been charged under the Espionage Act. If indeed he was a “spy,” then the spying he did was for us, for the American people and for the world. What he revealed to a stunned planet was a global surveillance state whose reach and ambitions were unique, a system based on a single premise: that privacy was no more and that no one was, in theory (and to a remarkable extent in practice), unsurveillable.
Its builders imagined only one exemption: themselves. This was undoubtedly at least part of the reason why, when Snowden let us peek in on them, they reacted with such over-the-top venom. Whatever they felt at a policy level, it’s clear that they also felt violated, something that, as far as we can tell, left them with no empathy whatsoever for the rest of us. One thing that Snowden proved, however, was that the system they built was ready-made for blowback.
Sixteen months after his NSA documents began to be released by the Guardian and the Washington Post, I think it may be possible to speak of the Snowden Era. And now, a remarkable new film, Citizenfour, which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 10th and will open in select theaters nationwide on October 24th, offers us a window into just how it all happened. It is already being mentioned as a possible Oscar winner.
Director Laura Poitras, like reporter Glenn Greenwald, is now known almost as widely as Snowden himself, for helping facilitate his entry into the world. Her new film, the last in a trilogy she’s completed (the previous two being My Country, My Country on the Iraq War and The Oath on Guantanamo), takes you back to June 2013 and locks you in that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, and Poitras herself for eight days that changed the world. It’s a riveting, surprisingly unclaustrophic, and unforgettable experience.
Before that moment, we were quite literally in the dark. After it, we have a better sense, at least, of the nature of the darkness that envelops us. Having seen her film in a packed house at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Poitras in a tiny conference room at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss just how our world has changed and her part in it.
Tom Engelhardt: Could you start by laying out briefly what you think we've learned from Edward Snowden about how our world really works?
Laura Poitras: The most striking thing Snowden has revealed is the depth of what the NSA and the Five Eyes countries [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the U.S.] are doing, their hunger for all data, for total bulk dragnet surveillance where they try to collect all communications and do it all sorts of different ways. Their ethos is "collect it all." I worked on a story with Jim Risen of the New York Times about a document — a four-year plan for signals intelligence — in which they describe the era as being "the golden age of signals intelligence." For them, that’s what the Internet is: the basis for a golden age to spy on everyone.
This focus on bulk, dragnet, suspicionless surveillance of the planet is certainly what’s most staggering. There were many programs that did that. In addition, you have both the NSA and the GCHQ [British intelligence] doing things like targeting engineers at telecoms. There was an article published at The Intercept that cited an NSA document Snowden provided, part of which was titled "I Hunt Sysadmins" [systems administrators]. They try to find the custodians of information, the people who are the gateway to customer data, and target them. So there's this passive collection of everything, and then things that they can't get that way, they go after in other ways.
I think one of the most shocking things is how little our elected officials knew about what the NSA was doing. Congress is learning from the reporting and that's staggering. Snowden and [former NSA employee] William Binney, who's also in the film as a whistleblower from a different generation, are technical people who understand the dangers. We laypeople may have some understanding of these technologies, but they really grasp the dangers of how they can be used. One of the most frightening things, I think, is the capacity for retroactive searching, so you can go back in time and trace who someone is in contact with and where they've been. Certainly, when it comes to my profession as a journalist, that allows the government to trace what you're reporting, who you're talking to, and where you've been. So no matter whether or not I have a commitment to protect my sources, the government may still have information that might allow them to identify whom I'm talking to.
TE: To ask the same question another way, what would the world be like without Edward Snowden? After all, it seems to me that, in some sense, we are now in the Snowden era.
LP: I agree that Snowden has presented us with choices on how we want to move forward into the future. We're at a crossroads and we still don't quite know which path we're going to take. Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting. I think that Snowden has changed consciousness about the dangers of surveillance. We see lawyers who take their phones out of meetings now. People are starting to understand that the devices we carry with us reveal our location, who we're talking to, and all kinds of other information. So you have a genuine shift of consciousness post the Snowden revelations.
TE: There's clearly been no evidence of a shift in governmental consciousness, though.
LP: Those who are experts in the fields of surveillance, privacy, and technology say that there need to be two tracks: a policy track and a technology track. The technology track is encryption. It works and if you want privacy, then you should use it. We’ve already seen shifts happening in some of the big companies — Google, Apple — that now understand how vulnerable their customer data is, and that if it’s vulnerable, then their business is, too, and so you see a beefing up of encryption technologies. At the same time, no programs have been dismantled at the governmental level, despite international pressure.
TE: In Citizenfour, we spend what must be an hour essentially locked in a room in a Hong Kong hotel with Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and you, and it’s riveting. Snowden is almost preternaturally prepossessing and self-possessed. I think of a novelist whose dream character just walks into his or her head. It must have been like that with you and Snowden. But what if he’d been a graying guy with the same documents and far less intelligent things to say about them? In other words, how exactly did who he was make your movie and remake our world?
LP: Those are two questions. One is: What was my initial experience? The other: How do I think it impacted the movie? We've been editing it and showing it to small groups, and I had no doubt that he's articulate and genuine on screen. But to see him in a full room [at the New York Film Festival premiere on the night of October 10th], I'm like, wow! He really commands the screen! And I experienced the film in a new way with a packed house.
TE: But how did you experience him the first time yourself? I mean you didn't know who you were going to meet, right?
LP: So I was in correspondence with an anonymous source for about five months and in the process of developing a dialogue you build ideas, of course, about who that person might be. My idea was that he was in his late forties, early fifties. I figured he must be Internet generation because he was super tech-savvy, but I thought that, given the level of access and information he was able to discuss, he had to be older. And so my first experience was that I had to do a reboot of my expectations. Like fantastic, great, he's young and charismatic and I was like wow, this is so disorienting, I have to reboot. In retrospect, I can see that it's really powerful that somebody so smart, so young, and with so much to lose risked so much.
He was so at peace with the choice he had made and knowing that the consequences could mean the end of his life and that this was still the right decision. He believed in it, and whatever the consequences, he was willing to accept them. To meet somebody who has made those kinds of decisions is extraordinary. And to be able to document that and also how Glenn [Greenwald] stepped in and pushed for this reporting to happen in an aggressive way changed the narrative. Because Glenn and I come at it from an outsider’s perspective, the narrative unfolded in a way that nobody quite knew how to respond to. That’s why I think the government was initially on its heels. You know, it's not everyday that a whistleblower is actually willing to be identified.
TE: My guess is that Snowden has given us the feeling that we now grasp the nature of the global surveillance state that is watching us, but I always think to myself, well, he was just one guy coming out of one of 17 interlocked intelligence outfits. Given the remarkable way your film ends — the punch line, you might say — with another source or sources coming forward from somewhere inside that world to reveal, among other things, information about the enormous watchlist that you yourself are on, I’m curious: What do you think is still to be known? I suspect that if whistleblowers were to emerge from the top five or six agencies, the CIA, the DIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and so on, with similar documentation to Snowden’s, we would simply be staggered by the system that's been created in our name.
LP: I can't speculate on what we don't know, but I think you're right in terms of the scale and scope of things and the need for that information to be made public. I mean, just consider the CIA and its effort to suppress the Senate’s review of its torture program. Take in the fact that we live in a country that a) legalized torture and b) where no one was ever held to account for it, and now the government's internal look at what happened is being suppressed by the CIA. That's a frightening landscape to be in.
In terms of sources coming forward, I really reject this idea of talking about one, two, three sources. There are many sources that have informed the reporting we've done and I think that Americans owe them a debt of gratitude for taking the risk they do. From a personal perspective, because I’m on a watchlist and went through years of trying to find out why, of having the government refuse to confirm or deny the very existence of such a list, it’s so meaningful to have its existence brought into the open so that the public knows there is a watchlist, and so that the courts can now address the legality of it. I mean, the person who revealed this has done a huge public service and I’m personally thankful.
TE: You’re referring to the unknown leaker who's mentioned visually and elliptically at the end of your movie and who revealed that the major watchlist you're on has more than 1.2 million names on it. In that context, what's it like to travel as Laura Poitras today? How do you embody the new national security state?
LP: In 2012, I was ready to edit and I chose to leave the U.S. because I didn't feel I could protect my source footage when I crossed the U.S. border. The decision was based on six years of being stopped and questioned every time I returned to the United States. And I just did the math and realized that the risks were too high to edit in the U.S., so I started working in Berlin in 2012. And then, in January 2013, I got the first email from Snowden.
TE: So you were protecting...
LP: ...other footage. I had been filming with NSA whistleblower William Binney, with Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, people who have also been targeted by the U.S., and I felt that this material I had was not safe. I was put on a watchlist in 2006. I was detained and questioned at the border returning to the U.S. probably around 40 times. If I counted domestic stops and every time I was stopped at European transit points, you're probably getting closer to 80 to 100 times. It became a regular thing, being asked where I’d been and who I’d met with. I found myself caught up in a system you can't ever seem to get out of, this Kafkaesque watchlist that the U.S. doesn't even acknowledge.
TE: Were you stopped this time coming in?
LP: I was not. The detentions stopped in 2012 after a pretty extraordinary incident.
I was coming back in through Newark Airport and I was stopped. I took out my notebook because I always take notes on what time I'm stopped and who the agents are and stuff like that. This time, they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes. They said, "Put the pen down!" They claimed my pen could be a weapon and hurt someone.
"Put the pen down! The pen is dangerous!" And I'm like, you're not... you've got to be crazy. Several people yelled at me every time I moved my pen down to take notes as if it were a knife. After that, I decided this has gotten crazy, I'd better do something and I called Glenn. He wrote a piece about my experiences. In response to his article, they actually backed off.
TE: Snowden has told us a lot about the global surveillance structure that's been built. We know a lot less about what they are doing with all this information. I'm struck at how poorly they've been able to use such information in, for example, their war on terror. I mean, they always seem to be a step behind in the Middle East — not just behind events but behind what I think someone using purely open source information could tell them. This I find startling. What sense do you have of what they're doing with the reams, the yottabytes, of data they're pulling in?
LP: Snowden and many other people, including Bill Binney, have said that this mentality — of trying to suck up everything they can — has left them drowning in information and so they miss what would be considered more obvious leads. In the end, the system they’ve created doesn't lead to what they describe as their goal, which is security, because they have too much information to process.
I don't quite know how to fully understand it. I think about this a lot because I made a film about the Iraq War and one about Guantanamo. From my perspective, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. took a small, very radical group of terrorists and engaged in activities that have created two generations of anti-American sentiment motivated by things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Instead of figuring out a way to respond to a small group of people, we've created generations of people who are really angry and hate us. And then I think, if the goal is security, how do these two things align, because there are more people who hate the United States right now, more people intent on doing us harm? So either the goal that they proclaim is not the goal or they're just unable to come to terms with the fact that we've made huge mistakes in how we've responded.
TE: I'm struck by the fact that failure has, in its own way, been a launching pad for success. I mean, the building of an unparallelled intelligence apparatus and the greatest explosion of intelligence gathering in history came out of the 9/11 failure. Nobody was held accountable, nobody was punished, nobody was demoted or anything, and every similar failure, including the one on the White House lawn recently, simply leads to the bolstering of the system.
LP: So how do you understand that?
TE: I don't think that these are people who are thinking: we need to fail to succeed. I'm not conspiratorial in that way, but I do think that, strangely, failure has built the system and I find that odd. More than that I don't know.
LP: I don't disagree. The fact that the CIA knew that two of the 9/11 hijackers were entering the United States and didn't notify the FBI and that nobody lost their job is shocking. Instead, we occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. I mean, how did those choices get made?
Laura Poitras is a documentary filmmaker, journalist and artist. She has just finished Citizenfour, the third in a trilogy of films about post-9/11 America that includes My Country, My Country, nominated for an Academy Award, and The Oath, which received two Emmy nominations. In June 2013, she traveled to Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald to interview Edward Snowden and made history. She has reported on Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA for a variety of news outlets, including the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times. Her NSA reporting received a George Polk award for National Security Reporting and the Henri Nannen Prize for Services to Press Freedom.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.
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Copyright 2014 Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt
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There’s no science to Election-Day-Tuesday. In this TED talk, Jacob Soboroff humorously outlines the origins of this tradition and attributes it to the US’s dismal voter turnout, which ranks 138th out of 172 countries, despite being the world’s most famous democracy.
As Chris Rock famously put it, “They don’t want you to vote. If they did, we wouldn’t vote on a Tuesday. In November. You ever throw a party on a Tuesday? No. Because nobody would come.”
Image by Vox Efx, licensed under Creative Commons.
Several charges have been filed against the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police in connection with tactics used during police spying.
Originally published by Earth Island Journal and reprinted with permission from Adam Federman.
What are the limits — if any — to undercover policing? At what point is a moral, ethical, or legal threshold crossed when an undercover operative insinuates himself into a targeted group or the lives of its members?
Last Thursday British media reported that the UK's Metropolitan Police would pay £425,000 (about $686,000) in a settlement with a woman, known only as Jacqui, who was conned by a man who fathered her first child, said that he loved her, and then one day disappeared. She knew him as Bob Robinson. His real name, as she would learn 25 years later, was Bob Lambert. He was an operative with the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a special unit within the British police that infiltrated a host of environmentalist groups to gather intelligence. In several cases the operatives, almost always men, established long-term intimate relationships with women in order to gain access to the world of underground animal rights or environmental activists.
Jacqui was 22 when she first met Lambert. He was more than ten years older than her, and had already been a member of the Metropolitan police for several years. He went undercover in 1983 not long before he met Jacqui. As Rob Evans and Paul Lewis explain in their book Undercover, Lambert's mission was to work his way into the "intensely furtive, hard-core wing of the animal rights movement: the Animal Liberation Front." Having a girlfriend who was already trusted and well connected within activist circles was one of the easiest ways to become a "deep swimmer," a phrase used by members of the SDS to describe spies who completely immersed themselves in the groups they were monitoring. In addition to Jacqui, Lambert is known to have had romantic relationships with three other women during his career as an undercover operative. Seven other women have also filed charges against the Metropolitan police.
The revelation that she shared her life with a man she did not really know has wrecked Jacqui's life. The Guardian reports, "The woman has been receiving psychiatric treatment and has contemplated suicide since she read a newspaper in 2012 and found out the true identity of the man who had fathered her son before abandoning her and the child 24 years previously."
The extent to which such tactics were condoned is unclear. The police have denied that there was ever any formal policy authorizing such behavior, but the history of the SDS remains rather murky. It took the agency years to even acknowledge that Lambert had been a mole; only when it became publicly untenable to continue the denials did the agency move beyond the pro forma response of neither confirming nor denying his role. But clearly there was an informal culture of using relationships with women to gain access to activist circles. An internal police review, known as Operation Herne, found that, "There was informal tacit authority regarding sexual relationships and guidance was offered for officers faced with the prospect of a sexual relationship." Former SDS officer Peter Francis put it more plainly when he told the BBC that sex was "used by almost everybody who was serving in that unit."
To what end? To gain access, of course. In the process of destroying the lives of women like Jacqui, SDS agents may have committed other crimes as well. Lambert in particular has long been suspected of taking part in a bombing of a department store in 1987. Caroline Lucas, an MP for the Green Party, testified before parliament and alleged that Lambert was one of three individuals who took part in the attack. The other two spent several years in jail. Lucas also called for "a far-reaching public inquiry into police infiltrators and informers."
But last week's settlement may have the opposite effect. It heads off a potentially embarrassing lawsuit and essentially puts a lid on the case. As Jacqui told the BBC: "The amount of money [in the settlement] shows there is a cover-up." Indeed, Eveline Lubbers, the author of Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark, a history of corporate and police spying in Europe, says the settlement is yet another way for the police to "evade legal accountability." She notes that none of the police officers or their superiors, who were likely aware of the rampant sexual misconduct, have been prosecuted. "The money means that police abuse of power is not going to court," she wrote to me in an email over the weekend.
A full accounting of the SDS's activities throughout the 80s and 90s would have to include an investigation into the department's use of agents provocateur and incitement of violence, its sharing of intelligence with the private sector, and its role in recruiting activists. Lambert's story is sensational, but it is only one of many. By the 1990s, according to a Special Branch officer quoted by Evans and Lewis, there were some 100 paid informants working the ranks of the animal rights movement.
In the post-9/11 world there's little question that undercover policing is alive and well. Look no further than the streets of New York or Detroit. Environmental groups and activists remain targets of an ever-expanding national security state. Last year undercover officers infiltrated a tar sands resistance training camp in Oklahoma. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and state and local police routinely share information with the oil and gas industry with little or no public oversight.
Unlike Lambert, though, the stories of most deep swimmers never come to light. And the moral, ethical, and legal questions raised by their conduct are often obscured by the secretive nature of the work itself. When it comes to undercover policing, the rules of the game are almost always made behind closed doors. As Lubbers points out, it's about more than just sexual misconduct.
"It's about disruption of political dissent," she says. "We need to know the extent of the undercover activities. And we need an end to it."
Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.
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The Democratic Party, time and time again, win the majority of woman voters, often accusing Republicans for waging a “war on women” for denying rights to abortion and coverage for birth control. Whether this is nothing more than a liberal political tactic or a reality within the GOP is a frequent topic of debate. But there’s no arguing that Republicans need to come up with a strategy to appeal to female voters.
D.C. McAllister wrote in The Federalist that the GOP must identify which women could be most receptive to the GOP agenda. From the book What Women Really Want: How American Women are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live, by Celinda Lake, McAllister cited the eight types of female voters (or non-voters):
1. The Feminist Champion
: a politically engaged liberal, mostly secular and pro-choice, devoted to her career and community, strongly motivated by values of equality and opportunity
2. The Suburban Caretaker
: married with children, often spiritual and religious, highly invested in moral standards
3. The Alpha Striver
: a businesswoman who views herself as an agent of change, trying to have it all – in the conference room and at PTA meetings
4. The Religious Crusader
: views issues as “right vs. wrong” rather than “right vs. left”; church-going and often pro-life
5. The Multicultural Maverick
: young, single, urban, an individualist, liberal yet distrusting of politicians
6. The Waitress Mom
: blue-collar worker who seeks a balance in life and financial opportunities for her children, often a person of faith, swing voter
7. The Senior Survivor
: 65 years or older, security- and health-conscious, a political centrist who tends to vote in favor of the incumbent or status quo
8. The Alienated Single
: not doing well economically, politically disengaged, young, least religious and least educated, usually not registered to vote
She noted that the Religious Crusader and Suburban Caretaker are already likely Republican supporters, but now the party must first make an effort to reach the Waitress Mom and the Alpha Striver, with a secondary focus on the Alienated Single and Senior Survivor. It’s not a matter of “pandering or identity politics or tailoring policy to meet the desires of a faction,” McAllister cautioned. Rather, it’s about “crafting a message and wisely talking to voters in a relevant and meaningful way that will convince them to vote for the GOP and conservative principles.”
Which, for the midterm elections, might not be going so well. In this video, Stephen Colbert highlights the stereotypes politicians often implement when reaching out to women, with this TV commercial subtly suggesting, “Let him take care of the hard stuff.”
While presidential elections have pundits testing the public’s interest in politics years in advance—relentlessly covering primaries, controversial sound-bites, and analyses on debates—the midterms don’t seem to gain much intrigue. But they should, as control of the Senate and House is at stake, affecting the trajectory of what remains of Obama’s term.
BloombergPolitics lists five reasons the election on November 4, 2014 should be of interest:
- It’s a matter of national security. Whether or not Obama will use force in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State still needs to be addressed, and, more than a year after Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the issue of surveillance reform still remains politically divisive.
- Domestic policies are up for revision. Lawmakers from both parties could potentially modify the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, and key members of both parties have signaled they’re ready to deal with touchy issues, such as poverty and immigration. The debt ceiling will also come into play in the coming months.
- Obama’s place in history is not yet decided. With Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and the stimulus package having shaped much of Obama’s legacy, his final two years will be largely defined by his continued use (or not) of executive actions. His veto-powers and his 300 judicial nominees could also leave a mark on his lame-duck years.
- The direction of the Republican Party could be established (somewhat). Should Republicans take control of the Senate, the leaders’ agenda could guide the remainder of Obama’s term, as well as the response of 2016 presidential candidates. Fellow Republicans have largely blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his role in Congress’ gridlock, though he rarely loses control of his caucus. Meanwhile Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—the conservative ideologue—is fighting to keep his seat in Kentucky, possibly affecting the party’s future ambitions.
- November matters for 2016. Losing isn’t an option for many presidential hopefuls, and the policies they choose to pursue in either the House or Senate will influence the political discourse of the next presidential election. Candidates to keep an eye on: Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Peter King, and Sen. Joe Manchin.
This year, however, is expected to be rather predictable. Vox Editor-in-Chief and MSNBC contributor Ezra Klein explains the scenarios, donkey-kong style:
Image by Jeffrey Zeldman, licensed under Creative Commons
In a way, ISIS is in Washington and every other American city thanks to the post-9/11 hysteria over the dangers of terrorism.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
It happened so fast that, at first, I didn’t even take it in.
Two Saturdays ago, a friend and I were heading into the Phillips Museum in Washington, D.C., to catch a show of neo-Impressionist art when we ran into someone he knew, heading out. I was introduced and the usual chitchat ensued. At some point, she asked me, “Do you live here?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m from New York.”
She smiled, responded that it, too, was a fine place to live, then hesitated just a beat before adding in a quiet, friendly voice: “Given ISIS, maybe neither city is such a great place to be right now.” Goodbyes were promptly said and we entered the museum.
All of this passed so quickly that I didn’t begin rolling her comment around in my head until we were looking at the sublime pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat and his associates. Only then did I think: ISIS, a danger in New York? ISIS, a danger in Washington? And I had the urge to bolt down the stairs, catch up to her, and say: whatever you do, don’t step off the curb. That’s where danger lies in American life. ISIS, not so much.
The Terrorists Have Our Number
I have no idea what provoked her comment. Maybe she was thinking about a story that had broken just two days earlier, topping the primetime TV news and hitting the front pages of newspapers. On a visit to the Big Apple, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, claimed that his intelligence services had uncovered a plot by militants of the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS or ISIL), the extremists of the new caliphate that had gobbled up part of his country, against the subway systems of Paris, New York, and possibly other U.S. cities.
I had watched Brian Williams report that story on NBC in the usual breathless fashion, along with denials from American intelligence that there was any evidence of such a plot. I had noted as well that police patrols on my hometown’s subways were nonetheless quickly reinforced, with extra contingents of bomb-sniffing dogs and surveillance teams. Within a day, the leading officials of my state, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, were denying that they had any information on such a plot, but also taking very public rides on the city’s subways to “reassure” us all. The threat didn’t exist, but was also well in hand! I have to admit that, to me, it all seemed almost comic.
In the meantime, the background noise of the last 13 years played on. Inside the American Terrordome, the chorus of hysteria-purveyors, Republican and Democrat alike, nattered on, as had been true for weeks, about the "direct," not to say apocalyptic, threat the Islamic State and its caliph posed to the American way of life. These included Senator Lindsey Graham (“This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home"); Majority Leader John Boehner, who insisted that we should consider putting American boots on Iraqi and perhaps even Syrian ground soon, since “they intend to kill us”; Senator Dianne Feinstein, who swore that “the threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated”; Senator Bill Nelson, who commented that “it ought to be pretty clear when they... say they’re going to fly the black flag of ISIS over the White House that ISIS is a clear and present danger.” And a chorus of officials, named and anonymous, warning that the terror danger to the country was “imminent,” while the usual set of pundits chirped away about the potential destruction of our way of life.
The media, of course, continued to report it all with a kind of eyeball-gluing glee. The result by the time I met that woman: 71% of Americans believed ISIS had nothing short of sleeper cells in the U.S. (shades of “Homeland”!) and at least the same percentage, if not more (depending on which poll you read), were ready to back a full-scale bombing campaign, promptly launched by the Obama administration, against the group.
If, however, you took a step out of the overwrought American universe of terror threats for 30 seconds, it couldn’t have been clearer that everyone in the grim netherworld of the Middle East now seemed to have our number. The beheading videos of the Islamic State had clearly been meant to cause hysteria on the cheap in this country — and they worked. Those first two videos somehow committed us to a war now predicted to last for years, and a never-ending bombing campaign that we know perfectly well will establish the global credentials of the Islamic State and its mad caliph in jihadist circles. (In fact, the evidence is already in. From North Africa to Afghanistan to Pakistan, the group is suddenly a brand name, its black flag something to hoist, and its style of beheading something to be imitated.)
Now, the Shia opponent of those jihadists had taken the hint and, not surprisingly, the very same path. The Iraqi prime minister, whose intelligence services had only recently been blindsided when IS militants captured huge swaths of his country, claimed to have evidence that was guaranteed to set loose the professional terror-mongers and hysterics in this country and so, assumedly, increase much-needed support for his government.
Or perhaps that woman I met had instead been struck by the news, only days earlier, that in launching a bombing campaign against the militants of the Islamic state in Syria, the Obama administration had also hit another outfit. It was called — so we were told — the Khorasan Group and, unlike the IS, it had the United States of America, the “homeland,” right in its bombsites. As became clear after the initial wave of hysteria swiftly passed, no one in our world or theirs had previously heard of such a group, which may have been a set of individuals in a larger al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel outfit called the al-Nusra Front who had no such name for themselves.
Whatever the case, it seemed that the Obama administration and connected intelligence outfits had our number, too. Although Khorasan was reputedly plotting against airplanes, not subways, transportation systems were evidently our jugular when it came to such outfits. This group, we were told in leaks by unnamed American intelligence officials, was made up of a “cadre” or “collection” of hardened, “senior” al-Qaeda types from Afghanistan, who had settled in Syria not to overthrow Bashir al-Assad or create a caliphate, but to prepare the way for devastating attacks on the American “homeland” and possibly Western Europe as well. It was, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it, “potentially yet another threat to the homeland,” and it was “imminent.” As U.S. Central Command insisted in announcing the bombing strikes against the group, it involved “imminent attack planning.” The Khorasan Group was, said Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland."
Had we not hit them hard, they would be — so American intelligence officials assured us — on the verge (or at least the verge of the verge) of developing bombs so advanced that, using toothpaste tubes, rigged electronic devices, or possibly clothes soaked in explosives, their agents would be able to pass through airport security undetected and knock plane after plane out of the sky. Civilization was in peril, which meant that blazing headlines about the plot and the group mixed with shots of actual bombs (ours) exploding in Syria, and a sense of crisis that was, as ever, taken up with gusto by the media.
As Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain pointed out in a devastating report at the Intercept, the whole Khorasan story began to disassemble within a day or so of the initial announcement and the bombing strikes in Syria. It took next to no time at all for that “imminent threat” to morph into “aspirational” planning; for reporters to check with their Syrian sources and find that no one knew a thing about the so-called Khorasan Group; for the taking down of those airliners to gain an ever more distant (and possibly even fictional) look. As ever, however, pointing out the real dangers in our world was left largely to non-mainstream sources, while the threat to our way of life, to Washington and New York, lingered in the air.
Terror-Phobia and a Demobilized Citizenry
This sort of soundtrack has been the background noise in our lives for the last 13 years. And like familiar music (or Muzak), it evokes a response that’s almost beyond our control. The terror about terror, sometimes quite professionally managed (as in the case of the Khorasan Group), has flooded through our world year after year after year. ISIS is just a recent example of the way the interests of a group of extremists in making themselves larger than life and the interests of groups in this country in building up or maintaining their institutional power have meshed. Terror as the preeminent danger to our American world now courses through the societal bloodstream, helped along by regular infusions of fear from the usual panic-meisters.
On that set of emotions, an unparalleled global security state has been built (and funded), as well as a military that, in terms of its destructive power, leaves the rest of the world in the dust. In the process, and in the name of protecting Americans from the supposedly near-apocalyptic dangers posed by the original al-Qaeda and its various wannabe successors, a new version of America has come into being — one increasingly willing to bulldoze the most basic liberties, invested in the spread of blanket secrecy over government actions, committed to wholesale surveillance, and dedicated to a full-scale loss of privacy.
You can repeat until you're blue in the face that the dangers of scattered terror outfits are vanishingly small in the “homeland,” when compared to almost any other danger in American life. It won’t matter, not once the terror-mongers go to work. So, in a sense, that woman was right. For all intents and purposes, without ever leaving Iraq and Syria, ISIS is in Washington — and New York, and Topeka, and El Paso (or, as local fear-mongers in Texas suggest, ready to cross the Rio Grande at any moment), and Salt Lake City, and Sacramento. ISIS has, by now, wormed its way inside our heads. So perhaps she was right as well to suggest that Washington and New York (not to speak of wherever you happen to live) are not great places to be right now.
Let’s be honest. Post-9/11, when it comes to our own safety (and so where our tax dollars go), we’ve become as mad as loons. Worse yet, the panic, fear, and hysteria over the dangers of terrorism may be the only thing left that ties us as a citizenry to a world in which so many acts of a destructive nature are being carried out in our name.
The history of the demobilization of the American people as a true force in their own country’s actions abroad could be said to have begun in 1973, when a draft army was officially put into the history books. In the years before that, in Vietnam and at home, the evidence of how such an army could vote with its feet and through its activism had been too much for the top brass, and so the citizen army, that creation of the French Revolution, was ended with a stroke of the presidential pen. The next time around, the ranks were to be filled with “volunteers,” thanks in part to millions of dollars sunk into Mad Men-style advertising.
In the meantime, those in charge wanted to make sure that the citizenry was thoroughly demobilized and sent home. In the wake of 9/11, this desire was expressed particularly vividly when President George W. Bush urged Americans to show their patriotism (and restore the fortunes of the airlines) by visiting Disney World, vacationing, and going about their business, while his administration took care of al-Qaeda (and of course, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq).
In the ensuing years, propaganda for and an insistence that we “support,” “thank,” and adulate our “warriors” (in ways that would have been inconceivable with a citizen’s army) became the order of the day. At the same time, that force morphed into an ever more “professional,” “expeditionary” and “foreign” (as in Foreign Legion-style) outfit. When it came to the U.S. military, adulation was the only relationship that all but a tiny percentage of Americans were to be allowed. For those in the ever-expanding U.S. military-industrial-homeland-security-intelligence-corporate complex, terror was the gift that just kept giving, the excuse for any institution-building action and career enhancement, no matter how it might contravene previous American traditions.
In this context, perhaps we should think of the puffing up of an ugly but limited reality into an all-encompassing, eternally “imminent” threat to our way of life as the final chapter in the demobilization of the American people. Terror-phobia, after all, leaves you feeling helpless and in need of protection. The only reasonable response to it is support for whatever actions your government takes to keep you "safe."
Amid the waves of fear and continual headlines about terror plots, we, the people, have now largely been relegated to the role of so many frightened spectators when it comes to our government and its actions. Welcome to the Terrordome.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.
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Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
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