Law Enshrines Indefinite Military Detention
Capping a year of full-bore assaults on the livelihoods and rights of working people, on New Year’s Eve President Barack Obama signed a law sanctioning the indefinite military detention of any persons, including U.S. citizens, accused of supporting “terrorism.” The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) gives the military legal authority to abduct and imprison indefinitely without charge anyone deemed a member of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces.” The elastic provisions of the law—a bipartisan effort that overwhelmingly passed Congress—extend to American citizens who have committed or supported a “belligerent act” against the U.S., whether they are apprehended outside the country or on domestic soil.
There could hardly be a clearer illustration of how the capitalist rulers’ imperialist marauding abroad is packaged with attacks on the most fundamental rights of the population at home. The NDAA is the annual military appropriations bill, funding the operations of the Pentagon as well as some 1,000 U.S. bases around the world. It reaffirms detention practices under the September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution that gave the president carte blanche to carry out the “war on terror,” the pretext for the neocolonial wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and for the massive attacks on immigrants and democratic rights generally in the U.S. This year’s NDAA allots billions more to the occupation of Afghanistan and imposes additional punitive sanctions against Iran for its purported nuclear weapons program.
Obama had threatened to veto earlier versions of the bill, which he thought constrained “the President’s critical authorities”—i.e., Congress was overstepping by telling the chief executive how to conduct the “war on terror.” Obama explained when he signed the amended bill that he objected to “a rigid across-the-board requirement for military detention” when that is just one among many weapons—from assassination to prosecution in civilian courts—in his arsenal. He also did not want to invite “legal uncertainty” over detainees since the courts have rubber-stamped virtually every application of executive authority in this regard.
Obama also piously intoned on December 31, “My Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.” Whether or not that particular provision is used by Obama, who before reaching the White House promised to close down the Guantánamo detention/torture center, the law codifies prerogatives already claimed and exercised by both the Bush and Obama administrations under the 2001 Military Force resolution. The U.S. Commander-in-Chief is now legally licensed to disappear citizens, a hallmark of police-state dictatorships.
A direct precedent for this body blow to citizenship rights was set by the Bush administration in the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was seized by the military at Chicago’s O’Hare airport in May 2002, declared an “enemy combatant” and disappeared into a Navy brig in South Carolina. Forbidden to meet with attorneys or family, Padilla was subjected to a variety of torture techniques and incurred brain damage. Only at the end of 2005 were charges finally brought against him. Although the government had repeatedly accused Padilla of planning to set off a radioactive bomb inside the U.S., the indictment made no mention of this or of any other concrete terrorist attack or plot. Instead, the government filed empty “conspiracy” charges—a vehicle historically used against labor militants, political dissidents and others when the state can find no evidence of criminal activity. After a show trial, Padilla was sentenced in 2007 to more than 17 years in prison.
The Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee filed amici curiae (friends of the court) briefs against Padilla’s indefinite detention, challenging the entire construct of the “war on terror”—a “war” without end, waged against an undefined enemy, that has put unprecedented powers in the hands of the presidency. Our briefs noted that the “Executive’s declaration that its ‘war against terrorism’ forfeits constitutional protections for designated individuals” amounts to the government “proclaiming the right to disappear citizens of its choosing.” We stated:
“The case of Jose Padilla tests the very existence of the fundamental rights of due process—liberty of the individual from the arbitrary, discriminatory power of the state—and the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. It poses the evisceration of the rights and privileges of citizenship embodied in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution and secured on the battlefield of the Civil War and in class and social struggle over the past hundred and more years. If the imperial President is upheld, Padilla’s detention threatens to become the Dred Scott case of our time, a declaration that ‘Citizens have no rights that the government is bound to respect’.”
Now, under Obama, the NDAA further guts habeas corpus, due process and the Bill of Rights. This is not to mention the direct violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits military forces from engaging in domestic law enforcement.
Former officials of the Bush regime have lavished Obama with praise for extending his predecessor’s key policies: detention of “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo, Bagram and elsewhere; kangaroo-court military commissions for accused terrorists; torture and extraordinary rendition; expansion of domestic wiretapping and other surveillance. Obama has put his own stamp on the “war on terror,” from persecuting record numbers of government whistle-blowers in the name of protecting “state secrets” to the assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September by a drone missile strike. The White House ceaselessly trumpets the assassination of Osama bin Laden last May as demonstrating this administration’s prowess as the world’s top cop.
This did not deter the reformist Workers World Party (WWP) from supporting calls by sundry liberal groups on Obama to veto the NDAA (Workers World, 23 December 2011). The WWP was among the loudest voices on the reformist left that cheered the election of Democrat Obama in 2008, declaring it “a triumphant step forward” from the George W. Bush regime. But Obama’s interest in cleaning up after the Bush gang always was to wage a more effective “war on terror.” The rapturous reception attending his election gave Obama political capital to implement repressive measures that go well beyond what Bush accomplished. And today there is barely a squeak of protest from the liberals and reformist left over his trampling on basic rights. So-called socialists who seek to pressure the Democratic Party to “do right” are an obstacle to mobilizing the working class and the oppressed in defense of their rights, against the class enemy. The capitalist-imperialist system has been and will continue to be enforced by repression and war until it is swept away through proletarian revolution.
“War on Terror” Means War on Working People
For the capitalist class, “democracy” has always served as the velvet glove hiding the iron fist of its class dictatorship over the working class, minorities and the poor. The yawning abyss between the tiny class of capitalists—the owners of industry and the banks—and the working people they exploit for profit has been made even wider by three years of global economic crisis. Well aware that galloping inequality is increasing social tensions that sow the seeds of class struggle, the rulers are eager to use the panoply of “anti-terror” measures and laws to strengthen the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state against the working class and oppressed. Ultimately, the only rights the capitalists are committed to maintaining are their rights to hold property and exploit labor.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, we warned: “The rapidity with which the government rammed through the new laws and executive orders was made possible by the illusion that they were intended for a specific small and vulnerable sector of the population—immigrants from Muslim countries. In the government’s gun sights, however, is just about everyone perceived as an opponent by the capitalist rulers” (WV No. 770, 7 December 2001). At the same time, we stressed that what the government ultimately gets away with will be determined by class and social struggle.
We also warned that black people and the labor movement would be particular targets of “anti-terror” repression. There is a history to the capitalists going after unions and the left by broadening the scope of laws adopted ostensibly to go after much different forces. For example, the RICO “anti-racketeering” law, enacted in 1970 on the pretext of battling gangland crime, was the main lever by which the government assumed sweeping control over the Teamsters and other unions in the 1980s and ’90s. RICO also has been repeatedly invoked in lawsuits against striking unions for confronting scabs and defending picket lines.
Among the first “anti-terror” measures enacted by Bush were the USA Patriot Act and the Maritime Transportation Security Act, a direct threat to port and transportation workers. In response, the Bay Area Labor Black League for Social Defense, which is fraternally allied with the Spartacist League, and the PDC issued a call for a labor-centered, united-front protest. At the core of the 300-strong demonstration in Oakland on 9 February 2002 were black longshoremen who were members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, which endorsed the protest. The protest call, reprinted in WV No. 773 (25 January 2002), urged “the powerful multiracial unions in the Bay Area to mobilize against the government’s war on America’s integrated working class, on black people and on immigrants. Every bombing raid and missile attack on Afghanistan came together with new deadly assaults on the democratic rights of all of us.”
The West Coast ILWU was an early target of the government’s campaign for “national unity” against “terrorism.” During contentious contract negotiations in 2002, the Homeland Security chief phoned the ILWU International president to warn that a strike would “threaten national security.” The White House set up a special task force to manage its intervention into the contract battle, with Bush explicitly threatening to bring in federal troops in the event of a strike.
Nationwide, port authorities have spent at least $2.6 billion ramping up security over the last decade to meet federal guidelines. In 2008, the Transportation Workers Identification Credential (TWIC) program was first rolled out, vastly increasing the government’s ability to police port workers. Longshoremen, port truckers and others were forced to submit to extensive criminal background and immigration status checks. Tens of thousands were officially turned down. Many port truckers, a mostly immigrant workforce, opted not to apply out of fear of deportation or worse. Among the offenses that would permanently bar workers from the waterfront is involvement in a “transportation security incident.” This category includes “transportation system disruption or economic disruption in a specific area,” i.e., strikes and other labor actions.
The union-busting threat of these “port security” measures can be seen at the Port of Longview, Washington. The ILWU has been locked in a battle with the giant EGT grain consortium, which is out to break the union’s decades-long control of all loading and unloading of grain in the Pacific Northwest. Behind EGT stands the capitalist state. In response to militant labor actions by the ILWU and its allies that had stopped grain shipments into the EGT terminal, ILWU members and their supporters have been brutally assaulted by riot cops, subjected to over 200 arrests and more than $300,000 in fines levied against the union by the courts (see “ILWU Fights Deadly Threat,” WV No. 986, 16 September 2011, and “Defend Longview ILWU Against Bosses’ Cops and Courts!” WV No. 987, 30 September 2011). Right-wing pundits joined the chorus condemning longshoremen in this small port town as “terrorists.”
Now the grain in the EGT terminal, which has been worked by scabs from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701, is due to be shipped out. Over the past few months, Coast Guard officials have shown up at the Longview ILWU Local 21 hall threatening to revoke union members’ TWIC cards if there are any union protests that interfere with the loading of the first outbound ship. According to reports, the whole operation is to be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. Here is the union-busting domestic face of the government’s “war on terror.”
It is in the direct interest of the working class to fight against the wars, occupations and domestic repressive measures carried out in the name of combating “terrorism.” But this runs straight up against the class collaborationism of the trade-union bureaucracy, which openly embraces the “national security” interests of the capitalist exploiters as its own and chains workers to the Democratic Party. If the unions are to be revived and transformed into bastions of the class struggle that is so desperately needed, they must act in defense not only of themselves but also immigrants, black people and all those in the crosshairs of the capitalist state. Advancing the class consciousness and solidarity of the proletariat begins with fighting for its independence from the Democratic Party of U.S. imperialism. A new labor leadership must be forged as part of the struggle for a workers party that fights for a workers government.
Fight Criminalization of Political Dissent!
The NDAA signed by Obama opens the door to the military detention of those who provide legal or medical services or donate money to—or even interview—someone the government has branded a “terrorist.” This is no abstract matter. Obama’s Justice Department has sought to pin charges of “material support to terrorism” on leftist supporters of Latin American guerrillas and oppressed Palestinians, following FBI raids on the homes of Midwest activists in September 2010. Earlier that year, leftist attorney Lynne Stewart was hauled off to prison and resentenced to a much longer term of ten years for her vigorous defense of her client, an Islamic fundamentalist cleric. This is effectively a death sentence for the 72-year-old Stewart, who suffers from cancer.
Last month, in the pretrial hearing for the court-martial of Army Private Bradley Manning, the military prosecutors tried to make an amalgam between Manning, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and Al Qaeda. Manning faces 22 charges, including “aiding the enemy”—an offense punishable by death—for allegedly leaking hundreds of thousands of government and military documents, which WikiLeaks began disseminating in early 2010. The material cast a modest but welcome light on the machinations of the U.S. imperialists and other capitalist governments. Locked up for over a year and a half by the military after video of a U.S. war crime in Baghdad was posted online, Manning has endured solitary confinement, forced nakedness, sleep deprivation and other torturous conditions.
In a taste of what Manning faces if the court-martial proceeds, the presiding officer at the hearing refused to hear 46 of the 48 witnesses for the defense while granting the prosecution all its witnesses. The officer repeatedly denied defense requests, including one that he recuse himself on the grounds that he also works for the Department of Justice, which has convened a grand jury to investigate WikiLeaks. Presenting no evidence of actual “aid” provided by Manning, the lead prosecutor pressed the case by claiming that Manning “had actual knowledge” that “foreign adversaries like Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would use WikiLeaks to their advantage.”
As Marjorie Cohn observed in CounterPunch (26 December 2011): “If Manning had committed war crimes instead of exposing them, he would be a free man today. If he had murdered civilians and skinned them alive, he would not be facing the death penalty.” The Obama administration also has its sights set on Assange, who currently is fighting extradition to Sweden on trumped-up sex charges. If he loses his appeal, he could face extradition to the U.S. In trying to take down Manning and WikiLeaks, the military and the White House are sending the message that any exposure or even reporting of the imperialists’ many and varied crimes could bring the harshest punishment. Free Bradley Manning! Hands off Julian Assange!
What the capitalist government deems “material support to terrorism” and even the “terrorist” designation itself are determined by its own military/political purposes. In the 1980s, when Islamic reactionaries of the Al Qaeda and Taliban ilk were throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women in Afghanistan, they were hailed by Washington as “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Union and showered with billions in aid to kill Red Army soldiers. At the same time, the African National Congress, then fighting apartheid rule in South Africa, was officially classified as a terrorist group. Today in Libya, former Al Qaeda associates are embraced as part of the opposition that served as the ground troops for NATO in overthrowing the regime of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The Spartacist League has strenuously fought attempts by the government to criminalize political dissent, not least the branding of Marxists as “terrorists.” In 1981, we discovered that the office of California attorney general George Deukmejian had listed us as “left-wing terrorists” in a “Report on Organized Crime.” Lumping the Spartacist League together with the Manson family, the Hell’s Angels and prison gangs, the report portrayed us as some sort of outlaws, to be blown away in the dead of night. We noted at the time that if the report had been issued ten years earlier, it would have included the Black Panther Party, which saw 38 of its members assassinated and hundreds more locked away in America’s dungeons in the Feds’ infamous COINTELPRO operation.
We waged a legal battle that forced California authorities to retract the terrorist smear and distribute a statement to that effect to police and FBI offices nationwide. At a protest outside Deukmejian’s San Francisco offices, an SL spokesman remarked: “The efforts of the Spartacist League in California and elsewhere are to organize a workers party to struggle for the immediate and ultimate interests of the working class. The working class and its party have the right to organize” (WV No. 286, 31 July 1981). Subsequently, we filed a lawsuit against the FBI’s 1983 Domestic Security/Terrorism guidelines equating left-wing political activity with terrorism and organized crime. As a result of our challenge, the government conceded on this issue and changed its definition of the SL to what we are: a Marxist political organization.
Terror by Drone
A distinguishing feature of the Obama administration’s “war on terror” is its reliance on targeted assassinations, as detailed in a Washington Post (27 December 2011) article headlined “Under Obama, an Emerging Global Apparatus for Drone Killing.” This apparatus consists of “dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.” Not including its RQ-170 stealth drones, one of which recently crashed while spying in Iran, the U.S. fleet counts at least 775 Predators, Reapers and other models. Under Obama, the number of drone strikes in Pakistan alone has soared to 240, with at least 1,600 dead, among them innumerable “unintended” victims. Two weeks after four drones were deployed in the mission to assassinate al-Awlaki, the imperialist butchers killed his son in Yemen in a separate drone strike.
With the explosive growth in drone technology and the erosion of Fourth Amendment safeguards against warrantless searches, all the elements are aligning for the introduction of routine aerial surveillance of the American population. Already the U.S. Border Patrol operates Predator B drones along the border with Mexico. The Los Angeles Times (10 December 2011) reported that local police departments have secretly made use of these drones for law enforcement operations. Meanwhile, the Miami police department and others have received permission from the federal government to test aerial drones. Some of these vehicles, such as an unmanned helicopter acquired in October by a sheriff’s department outside Houston, are designed to carry weapons like tasers and beanbag guns. Even without drones, police already have access to powerful tools of spycraft, from ubiquitous video cameras to GPS tracking devices and satellite images.
In this way, too, measures first used against “terrorists” redound against the working people at home, even as the president declares that Al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat.” Continuing to build up the forces of domestic repression is an essential task for the bourgeoisie as it takes the ax to jobs, wages and social services in an attempt to restore its profits. These are hallmarks of the capitalist system in its epoch of decay.
As V.I. Lenin observed in his seminal pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916): “Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom. Whatever the political system the result of these tendencies is everywhere reaction.” Lenin’s Bolshevik Party showed how to defeat this reaction, leading the working class of Russia to power in the October Revolution of 1917. Only the victory of proletarian revolutions in the U.S. and around the world can end the wars and occupations, the exploitation and racist oppression of capitalist class rule and its barbaric state repression.