Human Rights Day & U.S. Hypocrisy: Defensive America’s Contempt for Full Court, Press
Sixty-two years ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the Declaration, to which the United States is undoubtedly beholden, affirms:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Well, except for WikiLeaks, of course.
Internet giant Amazon.com, which hosted the whistle-blowing website, dropped WikiLeaks last week, “only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security.” Lieberman’s call for censorship was also heeded by the Seattle-based software company, Tableau, which was hosting some informational, interactive charts linked to by WikiLeaks. These graphics contained absolutely no confidential material whatsoever and merely provided data regarding where the leaked cables originated and in what years they had been written. Nevertheless, for fear of government retribution, Tableau removed the charts, explaining,
“Our decision to remove the data from our servers came in response to a public request by Senator Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, when he called for organizations hosting WikiLeaks to terminate their relationship with the website.”
But Lieberman hasn’t stopped there. A few days ago, the Senator suggested that the New York Times could potentially be charged with violating U.S. law by publishing the leaked diplomatic cables. “To me, New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship,” Lieberman said, during an interview with Fox News. “And whether they’ve committed a crime, I think that bears very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department,” he continued.
Direct connections can, and should, be made to the 2006 revelations in the New York Times about the Bush administration’s widespread domestic surveillance program, when then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested that “the government has the legal authority to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information.”
In addition to being a perfect example of the exploitation of state power to protect unflattering, revealing, and possibly damaging information about the government, Lieberman’s censorship crusade is also amazingly ironic considering statements he has made in the past regarding internet freedom. Lieberman is a member of the less than nine-month-old “Global Internet Freedom Caucus,” founded in late March 2010 by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE) in an effort to further demonize countries that occasionally push back against American imperialism and hegemony.
In his announcement of the new caucus, Brownback proudly declared, “Walls of oppression today are built out of networks and software as much as bricks and mortar. In China, Iran, and around the world, authoritarian governments censor information, suppress communication, and persecute free speech. Just as we stand against physical brutality of oppressive regimes, so too we must stand against this new digital tyranny that violates human rights and threatens all free nations.”
Not wanting to be outdone, Lieberman chimed in, saying, “Cyberspace is a critical battlefield in the global struggle for human freedom. The United States has both a strategic interest and a moral imperative to ensure that the Internet works to empower people everywhere to secure their inalienable human rights – rather than allow the dictators who hope to use new technologies to achieve greater control and stifle dissent.”
Apparently, according to Lieberman, these “inalienable human rights” do not include knowledge of one’s own government’s war crimes and whitewashing. Serial violations and violators of human rights abuses are to be unconditionally protected from exposure, scrutiny, investigation, prosecution, and punishment, while those who reveal the truth are crucified on the altar of vital state secrecy and false cries of national security threats.
The hypocrisy of the U.S. government was yet again on display with characteristic oblivious-to-irony and self-unawareness on Thursday, when State Department spokesman and professional liar P.J. Crowley posted this on Twitter:
“New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information.”
If only someone could identify which authoritarian, secretive, and oppressive governments would do such a thing! Maybe Joe Lieberman knows.
Recent American history contradicts Crowley’s tweet. Though the United States is without a doubt the world’s leading preacher on the fundamental necessity of human rights and transparency, its actions reflect somewhat different priorities. As the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote in On Anger, “Saying is a different thing from doing; we must consider the sermon and the preacher distinctly and apart.”
On his first full day as president, Barack Obama signed a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government which stated his supposed commitment to a new level of openness in government. The memo stated, “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”
In what ways these pretty words square with the recent, petty efforts of Obama’s own Attorney General, Eric Holder, to try and threaten WikiLeaks with criminal charges is unclear and most likely not forthcoming. Holder, in the most honest example of the Obama’s administration openness, explained, “We are looking at all the things we can do to try to stem the flow of this information.”
This past September, in front of the United Nations General Assembly, Obama declared that “the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments,” continuing that “the arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable…Open society supports open government, but it cannot substitute for it.”
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has relentlessly prosecuted those who have sought to publicize government wrongdoing, while simultaneously refusing to even investigate those in the previous administration for domestic spying and authorization of torture.
Regarding the indictment of Thomas Drake, who revealed failures and wasteful spending of the NSA’s illegal spying and eavesdropping program, the New York Times reported in June that “the Obama administration is proving more aggressive than the Bush administration in seeking to punish unauthorized leaks,” and that, in his first year and a half in office, “President Obama has already outdone every previous president in pursuing leak prosecutions. His administration has taken actions that might have provoked sharp political criticism for his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was often in public fights with the press.”
Sometimes, though, George W. Bush was not merely content to have “public fights with the press.” Sometimes he kidnapped them, imprisoned them, and tortured them. Other times, he just killed them.
On December 15, 2001, Sami Al-Haj, a Sudanese journalist and cameraman for Al Jazeera, was seized on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan and was subsequently held without charge, let alone trial, by the U.S. military at Guantánamo Bay for six and a half years. Over that period, al-Haj was interrogated 130 times and repeatedly mistreated, beaten, and sexually assaulted. British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who represented al-Haj, was finally allowed to visit his client at Guantánamo in 2005 and revealed that “The only reason he has been treated like he has is because he is an Al Jazeera journalist. The Americans have tried to make him an informant with the goal of getting him to say that Al Jazeera is linked to Al Qaida.” Al-Haj was unconditionally released on May 1, 2008 without ever being charged with a crime or presented with any evidence for his illegal incarceration.
Associated Press photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Bilal Hussein was taken into U.S. custody on April 12, 2006 in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. He was held in Iraq, without charge, for nearly two years, eventually being released on April 16, 2008.
Furthermore, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2007:
“Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists – mostly Iraqis — have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents.”
CPJ has since reported that “In at least 12 cases in Iraq, journalists were held for prolonged periods. No charges were substantiated in any of the cases.”
Another Iraqi photojournalist, Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, was working for Reuters when he was abducted by U.S. and Iraqi forces from his home in Mahmudiya on September 2, 2008. Even though, as Reuters reported in late 2008, “The Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled on November 30 that there was no evidence against Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, and ordered the U.S. military to release him from Camp Cropper prison near Baghdad airport,” the U.S. military refused to abide by the decision, claiming that Jassam was still considered “a threat to Iraq security and stability.”
At the time, a military spokesman told the press, “He will be processed for release in a safe and orderly manner after December 31st, in the order of his individual threat level, along with all other detainees.” Jassam was finally released on February 11, 2010, after 17 months of imprisonment.
And still, these were some of the lucky ones.
On November 16, 2001, U.S. bombs destroyed the Kabul office of Al Jazeera in what was almost certainly a deliberate attack. A report in The Guardian, published two days after the bombing, warned that the attack “opens up a worrying development for news organisations covering wars and conflicts: now they could be targeted simply for reporting a side of the story that one party wants suppressed.”
Al Jazeera cameraman Tareq Ayyoub died from wounds sustained during a U.S. bombing raid in Baghdad that targeted the offices of both Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, another Arabic-language news network on April 8, 2003. Three other journalists were wounded in the attack.
The very same day, a U.S. tank fired heavy artillery at Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, the well-known base for most of the foreign media covering the invasion of Iraq at the time. The assault killed Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Spanish television network Telecinco cameraman José Couso. The recently leaked embassy cables have now revealed that the U.S. government pressured Spain to drop all investigation into the death of Couso.
After WikiLeaks released the Iraq War Logs this past October, The Guardian reported that “US troops killed several Iraqi journalists at checkpoints or near US bases, in most cases without accepting responsibility. Often they promised to hold investigations but never released their findings.” The article continued,
“One of the most notorious incidents was the killing of Asaad Kadhim and his driver, Hussein Saleh, who worked for the US-funded TV station al-Iraqiya. They were shot by US troops outside a base at Samarra, 80 miles north of Baghdad, on 20 April 2004. At a press conference Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the deputy director of operations for coalition forces in Iraq, said there were signs banning filming or stopping near the base. US forces at the entrance warned the driver to stop by firing several shots. When they were ignored, Kimmitt said, forces fired at the car.”
News agency Bikya Masr reports that 230 journalists have been murdered in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Four journalists have been killed since the announced withdrawal of the U.S. combat forces at the end of August of this year.
But, of course, as P.J. Crowley tweeted: no one believes in press freedom like the United States. Then again, the U.S. government is no stranger to double standards, especially when it comes to the importance of addressing past crimes in order to build a stronger country in the future.
Despite Obama’s repeated insistence that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” thereby somehow prohibiting him from launching investigations into well documented and publicly admitted U.S. war crimes even though the UN Convention Against Torture unequivocally and explicitly compels him to do so, the United States consistently tells other countries to do precisely what it refuses to do itself.
Amazingly, during an interview in March 2010 with an Indonesian television outlet, Obama was asked his opinion on an Indonesian national commission charged with investigating the human rights atrocities perpetrated by its own government under the U.S.-backed Suharto regime “in an attempt to finally bring the perpetrators to justice.” When Obama was asked, “Is your administration satisfied with the resolution of the past human rights abuses in Indonesia?,” he replied, “We have to acknowledge that those past human rights abuses existed. We can’t go forward without looking backwards.”
Obama should have added, “Oh, and by we, I of course mean you, not us.”
This past November, while in Cambodia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “visited a former Khmer Rouge torture house…and urged the nation to proceed with trials of the former regime’s surviving leaders in order to ‘confront its past.’” Perhaps without even realizing the painful irony of her statements, Clinton also declared that “a country that is able to confront its past is a country that can overcome it,” continuing, “Countries that are held prisoner to their past can never break those chains and build the kind of future that their children deserve. Although I am well aware the work of the tribunal is painful, it is necessary to ensure a lasting peace.”
An identical double standard has also be presented by the United States with regards to scrutinizing Burma’s past.
This past August, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration declared its support for “the creation of a United Nations commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma, a sign of a tougher U.S. policy against a regime long accused of murdering and raping its political foes.”
Even more recently, in Honolulu, Clinton reaffirmed the U.S.’s support for an official, international inquiry into Burma’s atrocities, in an effort to, as she herself put it, “underscore the American commitment to seek accountability for the human rights violations” and to “make clear to Burma’s new leaders, old and new alike, that they must break from the policies of the past.”
Clinton’s comments echoed those of ubiquitous spokesman P.J. Crowley who, a couple weeks earlier in mid-October,
declared the administration’s “hope that a new government will take a different approach than it has in the past.”
If only Crowley, Clinton, and Obama realized that Americans – at least the ones who are actually offended by wholesale slaughter, torture, rendition, indefinite detention, a totalitarian surveillance state, extrajudicial assassination, the lack of due process, drone attacks, and the illegal and immoral invasion, destruction, and occupation of two countries (while bombarding and murdering civilians in many more) – still hold the same hope for their own government.
With the New York Times reporting early this year that “the Obama administration has decided to continue to imprison without trials nearly 50 detainees at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba because a high-level task force has concluded that they are too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release,” these issues are not going away.
With regard to the perceived necessity of punishing WikiLeaks for its crime of telling the inconvenient truth about American conduct in Afghanistan, Iraq, and within US Embassies worldwide, Senator Joe Lieberman recently opined, “And, again, why do you prosecute crimes? Because if you don’t, well, first you do because that’s what our system of justice requires. Second, if you don’t prosecute people who commit crimes, others are going to do it soon and again. And I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen here.”
Indeed, Joe, we all are. But not about WikiLeaks; rather, about what we already know and WikiLeaks has once again revealed.
*Nima Shirazi is a writer and musician from New York City. His political commentary is published on his website, Wide Asleep in America.com. His analysis of United States policy and Middle East issues, particularly with reference to current events in Iran, Israel, and Palestine, can also be found in numerous other online and print publications.