Thursday, December 28, 2006


By William Fisher

My recent column, “Where Are The Christians?” drew a bundle of answers in emails from Truthout readers. That piece was about the bigoted remarks of Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va) attacking newly–elected Congressman Keith Ellis, a Muslim, from taking his unofficial oath of office with his hand on the Quoran – and mindlessly predicting that this would somehow lead to a vast increase in illegal Muslim immigration (unless, of course, we close our borders).

It might be instructive to quote a couple of the emails I received.

Reverend Joy A. Bergfalk, of the Life Listening Resources at Labyrinth House Rochester, NY, wrote, “We progressives…do not have the finances of the Religious Right. We do not have Big Business and Sun Jung Moon to back us and the oil industry is certainly not with us. That kind of money goes to those who will let the corporate world take over America. Plus, we tend to try to use our finances to change the world by helping it.”

In answer to my “Where Are The Christians?” question, Rev. Bergfalk wrote, “We are almost all of the places where peacemaking is going on. We are at marches and rallies. We are at our computers writing responses, letters to Congress and whomever we can. I have written a response to Goode's statements. There was no way to e-mail it to him from outside of Virginia, so I have prepared a letter to be sent to each of his five offices.”

She added, “And we are speaking out in churches and from the pulpits. I think my parishioners now realize that Muslims and Christians worship the same God
by different names.”

And she closed with, “We may not be as obnoxious and flamboyant as the Religious Right, but we are here and active. Maybe if people would quit leaving the church in reaction to right wingers, the church would be a stronger force for change in our world.”

Another reader, Rev Jim Altman, Pastor of Cadott, Stanley, and Thorp United Methodist Churches in Stanley, WI, called my article “a cheap shot.” He explained, “There are credible progressive Christian voices out there who are rarely reported by even the progressive media. My response to Mr. Fisher's question is that nobody's asking us. I, for one, would love to give a Christian's response to Rep. Virgil Goode's outrageous rant against his fellow Congressman, Keith Ellison, but media outlets seem only interested in conflating Christianity with the religion of Falwell and Robertson. The majority of Christians in this country do not subscribe to ‘The Old-Time Gospel Hour’’ or ‘The 700 Club’, and do not worship in ‘mega-churches’, yet when journalists look for the American ‘Christian’ response we get Jerry, Pat, or some blow-dried dandy from the Church of What's Trendy. Most of the Christians I know would support Rep. Ellison's freedom of religion and more than a few would argue that the world still has much good to learn from Islam, but in the theater of journalism inflammation trumps reason and cartoon trumps reality.”

Well, that is exactly the point I was trying to make. I wrote, “You might not be aware of it, but there is a robust community of progressive Christians in America, struggling to get its voice heard. That’s a tough task when you don’t have the deep pockets and the cynical White House connections to effectively drown out dissent. Or change the subject. It’s a lot easier for this wedge constituency to get people worried that if same-sex unions become legal, they’ll all be forced to marry a gay or a lesbian than it is to speak out for the homeless, the poor, those who have no health care, and for religious tolerance to find common ground.”

There are dozens of progressive Christian websites and blogs and many of them have spoken out against Rep. Goode. For example, the simple advice from Rev. Tim Simpson’s Christian Alliance for Progress was, “Stand up for religious freedom, tell Rep. Virgil Goode that America is still ‘one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all’."

Or Cross Left’s admonition to its readers to “Stand Up for Religious Freedom, Tell Rep. Virgil Goode to Stop Attacking US Muslims.”

The Christian Alliance’s reader response was plentiful and passionate.

One reader wrote, “The attempt to conflate Islamophobia with immigration reform is laughable, except I can only imagine that we'll only see more of it from the Right. Once they come up with an intellectually unfounded conflation of issues, they tend to use it relentlessly until it takes hold in the minds of enough people for it to enter the cultural discourse (see their attempts to claim that all gays are pedophiles).”

Another wrote, “No matter what nonsense Congressman Virgil Goode spouts, he'll continue to be reelected by his constituency of good-ole-boys from Franklin County, Virginia. I live in a Congressional district adjacent to Goode's so I know whereof I speak. Please, please let's all allow good ole Virge to keep on writing and speaking as he pleases. The more Rep. Goode writes and says to expose his own narrow-minded ignorance, the more progressives will feel emboldened to vote against his willful stupidity.”

And yet another said, “It is truly sad that the people of Goode's district and believe me, their are many, many good people in that district aren't standing up and demanding either a retraction of his remarks or his removal from office… The former bastion of the Confederacy lingers with those like Goode who have no respect or tolerance for anyone different from them.”

Well, I’m afraid these are voices in the wilderness. The websites and broadcasts run by “values” groups like Focus on the Family, the 700 Club, and the Family Research Council, attract many more people and, as one of my readers rightly points out, are routinely turned to by journalists in need of a “religious source.”

It is worth noting that Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council website claims it has “led the way in defending religious freedom in the public square,” yet has been silent on the Goode affair. The websites of the other major right-wing “values” groups have either ignored the issue, or presented it as “straight news”, but using code-words such as references to Goode’s opposition from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) or the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). The Foundation for Moral Law, led by dismissed Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore, inveighed that Ellis should not be allowed to take his congressional seat at all.

True, there are some counter-balances with national reputations, like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the Interfaith Council, and the National Council of Churches, but they attract nothing like the media coverage given to the religious right.

All of which suggests that if religious extremism doesn’t really represent the views of most Christians, the more progressive forces within Christianity – and Judaism and Islam – need to become as unified and aggressive and determined as those who have sadly become the public faces of these great faiths by hijacking. They need to do more to organize nationally, to raise substantial funds, and to be much more proactively media savvy.

That’s not an easy task and it won’t happen quickly. But it’s the only way to at least level the playing field of religious discourse.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


By William Fisher

It’s not rocket science to understand why Republicans have gone into hibernation on the issue of Rep. Virgil Goode’s outrageous rant against his fellow Congressman, Keith Ellison – the first Muslim ever elected to either legislative house – to want to take his oath on the Quran.

After all, Goode is one of their own. He’s from the same party that brought us George Allen’s “Macaca Moment” and the flirtatious “Call Me” tagline from a cute white blonde in a campaign commercial in the recent senate race against black Rep. Harold Ford.

To refresh your memory, Goode is the congressman who wrote his constituents: 'If American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran in his personal private ceremony.'

Immigration? What has a single Muslim congressman got to do with immigration? Easy. If you’ve learned anything from Messrs Bush and Cheney over the past six years, it’s that conflating wildly unrelated issues can get people so spooked that it works. The president and the veep did it with Iraq and 9/11. Goode does it with an unofficial swearing-in and dark visions of illegals pouring across our borders. If we don’t stop Rep. Ellison from taking his oath on a Quran, the numbers of illegal Muslim immigrants will become a tsunami.

Never mind that the real swearing-in is administered to new members of Congress enmasse and without any holy book at all. The ceremony at which Ellison wants to use the Quran is a private, unofficial event for friends and family, a kind of memory-book photo-op. Also never mind that Muslim immigration into the U.S. is miniscule and overwhelmingly legal. Unlike the 9/11 hijackers who were in the U.S. legally on valid visas, most Muslim immigrants become citizens and many have been here for generations and more.

An extensive search suggests that only two Republicans have uttered a single word against this no-nothing attack. One of them is Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who delivered a robust smackdown of this bigot on one of the Sunday morning talk shows. Graham asked why the newly-elected Minnesota lawmaker shouldn’t be allowed to take his oath on a book he believes in?

The other is Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who offered the half-hearted comment that he respects the right of all members of Congress to freely "exercise the religion of their choice, including those of the Islamic faith utilizing the Quran."

California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, presidential wannabee, Guantanamo booster, and outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, dodged the Goode question put to him by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer

Good for Senator Graham. He did the right thing.

But the more important question – particularly at this season of the year -- is “where are all the Christians?” Unless I’ve completely misunderstood the Scriptures, Christ believed in helping “the least of these,” for love, compassion, and tolerance.

But the silent Christians seem to have forgotten to ask, “What Would Christ Do?”

One wouldn’t expect the likes of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Pat Robertson to be caught dead defending a Muslim’s right to be a Muslim. They’ve already made the denigration of this religion a cottage industry for the far right in Christendom.

So have senior military officers like Gen. Jerry Boykin, who has inveighed in uniform that his God is better than their God.

But there are tens of millions of other Christians out there. They ought to know that love of all God’s creatures is at the core of their religion. They ought also to know that an attack against one religion is an attack against all religions. Next week, it could be Jews. Next month, it could be Christian fundamentalists or evangelicals.

You might not be aware of it, but there is a robust community of progressive Christians in America, struggling to get its voice heard. That’s a tough task when you don’t have the deep pockets and the cynical White House connections to effectively drown out dissent. Or change the subject. It’s a lot easier for this wedge constituency to get people worried that if same-sex unions become legal, they’ll all be forced to marry a gay or a lesbian than it is to speak out for the homeless, the poor, those who have no health care, and for religious tolerance to find common ground.

Lately, however, we, the people, have been doing a bit better. As of Nov. 7, voters have sent their message to the Congress, to the White House, and to the religious
far-right. America has grown weary of their divide-and-conquer strategies.

Republicans may find some hope in this message. Now, they might not be quite so terrified of losing their campaign contributions and maybe their seats by taking principled stands against the never-mind-what-Christ-would-do wing of their party.

Mainstream Christians can play a big role here. Expressing their outrage at Virgil Goode’s mindless xenophobia and their support for Keith Ellison would be a good first step.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


By William Fisher

Daniel Sutherland, head of the civil rights division of the Department of Homeland Security, says the government needs the help of American Muslims and Arab-Americans to fight terrorism at home: "Homeland security isn't gonna be won by people sitting in a building inside the Beltway, " he says.

But, five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “Islamophobia” -- intensified by the war in Iraq and U.S. government actions at home – has left millions of American Muslims fearful of harassment, discrimination, and questionable prosecutions, and confused about their place in American society.

What is the impact on Muslims and Americans of Arab descent? One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “It sometimes feels suffocating being in the U.S. now. We cannot turn on our TV in the evening to watch CNN or MSNBC or the other ‘news stations’ because of people like Glenn Beck and others who consistently spew hate, nonsense and misinformation about Islam and Arabs on primetime. And if we try to watch mindless drama on TV we are bombarded with shows about Middle East/Arab and Islamic terrorism -- shows like 24, Sleeper Cell, The Agency, etc. It is very difficult being an Arab/Muslim American these days.”

That appears to correctly sum up the feelings of those whose help the government says it is seeking.

Most members of these communities believe that the government is – perhaps inadvertently -- fanning the flames of bigotry by using phrases like “Islamo-Fascist” from the lexicon it has crafted for the “Global War on Terror” and by actions such as high-profile press conferences announcing prosecutions that often collapse.

Recent polls indicate that almost half of Americans have a negative perception of Islam and that one in four of those surveyed have "extreme" anti-Muslim views. A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that a quarter of Americans consistently believe stereotypes such as: "Muslims value life less than other people" and "The Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred."

In 2005, CAIR received 1,972 civil rights complaints, compared to 1,522 in 2004. This constitutes a 29.6 percent increase in the total number of complaints of anti-Muslim harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment from 2004. It is the highest number of Muslim civil rights complaints ever reported to CAIR.

Following 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice began rounding up Arabs and other Muslims and – mistakenly – anybody who looked “Middle Eastern,” including Sikhs from South Asia. In the months after the attacks, some 5,000 men were held in detention without charges, most without access to lawyers or family members. As confirmed in an investigation by the DOJ Inspector-General, many were held in solitary confinement and physically abused.

There were no prosecutions and no convictions of any of these people. Some, who were in the U.S. with expired visas or who had committed other immigration infractions, were deported.

Since then, the seemingly endless catalog of harassment and infringements on the civil rights of U.S. citizens has grown unabated. A few examples:

Ahmad Al Halabi graduated from high school in Dearborn, Michigan, the center of the nation’s Muslim community. He joined the Air Force and was assigned as a translator for al-Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was accused of spying and spent 10 months in solitary confinement before the spy charges were dropped.

Osama Abulhassan and Ali Houssaiky, both 20 and from Dearborn, were charged with supporting terrorism in Marietta, Ohio, in August after making bulk purchases of cheap, prepaid cell phones from discount stores. The charges were dropped a week later.

Four men were accused after the 9/11 attacks of being part of a "sleeper cell" that was planning terrorist attacks. Two of the men were convicted of conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists, but a federal judge overturned the verdicts at the Justice Department's request in 2004 because prosecutors withheld evidence at the trial that could have helped the defendants.

Farooq Al-Fatlawi, a bus passenger en route to Chicago, was put off with his bags in Toledo, Ohio, after he told the driver he was from Iraq.

A San Francisco Bay Area civil rights activist, Raed Jarrar, was barred from a plane for wearing a T-shirt that said, "We will not be silent" in Arabic and English.

A respected upstate-New York oncologist, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, was arrested as a possible terrorist in 2003. Political leaders like then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and Gov. George Pataki happily served as cheerleaders by making inflammatory terror-related public statements. But when their terrorist claims failed to materialize, the government expanded its case. And the judge in his trial granted a prosecution motion to exclude any reference to terrorism from the courtroom. Dhafir was convicted of Medicare fraud and using his charitable organization, Help the Needy, to violate Iraq sanctions to send money to illegal groups in Iraq. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Six imams seen praying in a Minneapolis airport terminal were later removed from their US Airways flight after a passenger passed a note to a flight attendant saying that the men were acting suspiciously. The imams were removed from the plane in handcuffs. They were questioned and released, but the airline says the crew acted properly in having the imams removed, and refused to issue them new tickets the following day. The imams are suing the airline.

Often cited as “Islamophobia Exhibit A,” Canadian Muslim Maher Arar, was abducted by U.S. officials at Kennedy airport in New York in 2002, and then transported to a prison in Syria where he was confined for more than 10 months in a cell that looked like a grave. He was beaten, tortured, and forced to make a false confession about having ties to Al Qaeda. A Canadian commission of inquiry ruled after a two-year investigation that all the charges were unfounded. But Arar was barred from suing the U.S. Government, which claimed that a trial would divulge “state secrets.”

The U.S. government agreed to pay $2 million and issue a written apology to a Muslim attorney in Oregon who was jailed after the FBI mistakenly linked him to the Madrid train bombings. Brandon Mayfield sued the FBI, alleging that his civil rights had been violated and that he was arrested in part because he is a Muslim convert.
Fox television’s hit drama '24' portrayed an American Muslim family as being at the heart of a terrorist 'sleeper cell.' A spokeswoman for CAIR said the show was 'taking everyday American Muslim families and making them suspects.”

When Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, announced that he was planning to take a ceremonial oath of office on a Qur’an, right-wing radio and Internet bloggers went into high paranoia mode. Oh my God, talk show host Dennis Prager fumed, Ellison can't be allowed to do that; it "undermines American civilization."

The American Family Association (AFA), a conservative religious group, posted an "Action Alert" on its Web site requesting that supporters urge lawmakers to pass "What book will America base its values on, the Bible or the Koran?" the AFA said.

The U.S. Treasury Department, in its efforts to cut off financing for radical Islamic organizations, has used a provision of the Patriot Act to designate charities that support Muslim causes as terrorist organizations. Once a charitable organization is designated as a supporter of terrorism, all of its materials and property may be seized and its assets frozen. Thus far, the effort has resulted in the government shutting down five charities. But there has only been one indictment, no trials, and no convictions. Only one official criminal charge has been brought against a Muslim organization for support of terrorism, and that case has not yet made it to trial. Three months ago, Federal agents raided the offices of one of the nation's largest Islamic charities, Life for Relief and Development. Agents seized computers and donor records. But no charges have been filed and the charity remains in business.

While many American Muslims serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, they have less luck trying to get jobs in the civilian agencies involved in national security. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when on a recruiting binge to find and hire new analysts and translators, many Arab-Americans and other American Muslims came forward and applied. But they have met with little success because they are frequently denied security clearances on grounds that they have friends and family back in the Middle East.

Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, probably speaks for the feelings of most of the U.S. Muslim community, “Quite simply,” he says, Islamophobia “produces an environment that is fundamentally at odds with what the U.S. is supposed to be about; our values for treating everyone fairly and not discriminating on the basis of skin color, race, religion, gender, etc.”

Prof. Shehata adds, “This is damaging certainly for all Americans and it is also damaging for the reputation of the U.S. overseas. One of the questions I hear the most whenever I am in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East is: how is it like now in the U.S. for Arabs? Have you been the victim of discrimination, bigotry, abuse?”

It is obvious that our government has not yet achieved a rational balance between investigation and intimidation. If it doesn’t get it right, it will have lost a critical resource.

Nobody wants terrorists in our midst. But we cannot win by losing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


By William Fisher

NEW YORK, Dec 13 (IPS) - A coalition of U.S. religious and progressive groups has stepped up a formal campaign to protest a controversial new Christian fundamentalist video game in which players battle the "forces of the Anti-Christ" and kill or convert non-believers.

"This is the first time any Christian religious instructional video has recommended killing all non-Christians who refuse to convert to Christianity. It is unprecedented and dangerous," Rev. Timothy Simpson, president of the Jacksonville, Florida-based progressive advocacy group the Christian Alliance for Progress, told IPS.

The game, titled "Left Behind: Eternal Forces", is packaged with a book explaining its philosophy, and is currently being sold by WalMart, the United States' largest retailer. The chain has thus far has refused demands that it remove it from its shelves, indicating it would continue selling the game online and in selected stores where it felt there was demand.

"The product has been selling in those stores," according to spokeswoman Tara Raddohl. "The decision on what merchandise we offer in our stores is based on what we think our customers want the opportunity to buy."

Nearly 25,000 members of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, one of the groups critical of the video game, have submitted letters to Wal-Mart, asking the store to stop selling religious violence for Christmas.

Aimed at conservative Christians, the game's story line begins in a time after the "rapture", when fundamentalist dogma contends that Christians will go to heaven. The remaining population on earth must then choose between surrendering to or resisting "the Antichrist", which the game describes as the "Global Community Peacekeepers" whose objective is the imposition of "one-world government".

"Part of the object is to kill or convert the opposing forces," Simpson said. This is "antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said, adding that he was dismayed by the concept in "Eternal Forces" of using prayer to restore a player's "spirit points" after killing the enemy.

In the game, combatants on one side pause for prayer, intoning, "Praise the Lord". A player can lose points for "unnecessary killing" but regain them through prayer.

But Simpson counters, "The idea that you could pray, and the deleterious effects of one's foul deeds would simply be wiped away, is a horrible thing to be teaching Christian young people here at Christmas time."

Troy Lyndon, CEO of Left Behind Games Inc., which is promoting the new video, has defended the game as "inspirational entertainment" and said its critics were exaggerating. The game is based on the popular "Left Behind" novels, a Bible-based end-of-the-world-saga that has sold more than 63 million copies.

Lyndon told the New York Times the game has received a T (for teen) rating, meaning it offers more violence than an E-rated children's game, but less graphically than games rated M (for mature). M games have often been criticised by conservative Christian groups.

The "Left Behind" game is based on the popular series of novels series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation.

Left Behind Games says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.

"You are fighting a defensive battle in the game. You are a sort of a freedom fighter," the company says on its web site. "Our game includes violence, but excludes blood, decapitation, killing of police officers."

Simpson, whose group was formed last year to counter the influence of the religious right, told IPS that he and a number of his colleagues would be initiating a conference call to the game's promoter Thursday, to try to persuade the company to withdraw the game from the market.

Another participant in the critics' news conference, author Frederick Clarkson, argued that "Eternal Forces" was less violent than many other video games, but was more troubling in some ways.

"It becomes a tool of religious instruction," he said. "The message is... there will be religious warfare, and you will target your fellow Americans, people from other faiths, people who you consider to be sinners."

Clarkson criticised the Rev. James Dobson's powerful Colorado-based Christian ministry, Focus on the Family (FOF), for publishing a positive review of "Eternal Forces" on one of its web sites. Dobson's group is close to the White House and is considered highly influential in shaping the George W. Bush administration's conservative agenda.

"Eternal Forces is the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior and use to raise some interesting questions along the way," wrote the FOF reviewer, Bob Hoose.

Simpson's group has joined with other progressive Christian organisations to protest the video game. These include the CrossWalk America, the Beatitudes Society, the Centre for Progressive Christianity, and the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon)


By William Fisher

The past few years have seen the excoriation of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush Administration has been accused of “outsourcing” vital missions for reconstruction and delivery of vital services. Contractors have been accused of finagling no-bid contracts, failing to deliver on these contracts, over-charging our taxpayers, and generally engaging in a free-for-all binge of waste, fraud and mismanagement.

Much of this criticism is painfully true. Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, and Custer Battles, a private security firm, for example, have – justifiably, in my view – become poster children for everything that has gone wrong with our $20 billion-plus reconstruction programs.

Yet all contractors are not Halliburton or Custer Battles. And in indicting contractors generically, critics do a profound disservice to other kinds of contractors who have struggled to be effective under the most perilous conditions.

I refer here to the many international development contractors – both private,
for- profit companies, and non-governmental organizations – working in these war zones for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID. Their work is about improving health systems, education, agriculture, industrial production, good governance, and much more.

My viewpoint is not academic nor is it the result of a Google search. It is informed by my own twenty years of serving as such a contractor in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Rewind to Egypt, circa 1999-2002, when I lived in Egypt as a USAID contractor. My job was to lead an all-Egyptian team charged with monitoring, evaluating and improving the performance of more than dozen programs dedicated to improving the country’s capacity to take advantage of globalization.

Almost all these programs were managed by U.S.-based international development contractors. There were no no-bid contracts; all had been won on the basis of competitive bidding. Contracting officers were infuriatingly meticulous about dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’.

The programs were both diverse and related. For example, one worked with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture to reduce policy and practice constraints to increased agricultural production and exports. Another, run by Egyptians, was dedicated to matchmaking between Egyptian businesses and their international counterparts and improving potential small exporters’ access to credit by a banking system that traditionally made loans only to the super-wealthy elites of the country. Another was conceived to foster access to new technologies and encourage technological innovation among smaller entrepreneurs. All were dedicated to pursuing anti-corruption measures because official and private corruption at the time was adding something like 30 percent to every item lucky enough to enter or leave the country – making Egyptian products and services uncompetitive with many other countries around the world.

Much has been written about the pitiful lack of oversight of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the truth of this has been well documented. In my experience in Egypt, the very existence of the unit I led constituted a rigorous form of oversight.

But that might have been seen as the fox guarding the henhouse. So there was more. Each of these programs had an experienced USAID officer assigned to monitor its progress on a daily basis, produce strategic objectives, detailed workplans with benchmarks and dates, and make frequent reports and presentations detailing their progress and problems. Most of these officers were Egyptians familiar with their country’s customs, constraints and opportunities.

This is not unusual; in fact, it is pretty universally standard operating procedure for USAID projects everywhere in the world. If there were roadblocks, they were more often than not erected by the Egyptian government itself – mostly related to pushing Egyptians to do too much too quickly, or protecting sacred cows from anti-corruption efforts.

There are many such development contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, unlike my experience in Egypt, they obviously have huge security concerns, and the larger contractors have had to assemble small private armies to protect them – at considerable expense. These concerns have increased with the ever-heightening levels of violence and criminality.

But many of them have told me that, in Iraq, the principal problems they faced initially stemmed largely from the arrogance and lack of development experience of the ideologically-driven political appointees assembled by Viceroy L. Paul Bremer’s original Coalition Provisional Authority – the CPA – widely known among contractors as the “Can’t Provide Anything” authority. Today, many are hamstrung by the lack of experienced officials in the various ministries with which these contractors must interact.

Decisions are delayed for months. When decisions are made, they are often still grandiose and impractical, as in the earlier days of the occupation. Funding does not flow. And development teams, which must travel outside the Green Zone to do their work, cannot get military assistance to protect them.

One project manager in Iraq wrote me: “In my three years in Iraq, I witnessed a U.S. Government unprepared for the challenges present in post-Saddam Iraq and, at times, appeared to deliberately conduct business on the basis of ideology rather than the practical realities of Iraq. Iraqis, who were genuinely happy that Saddam was toppled, deserved better. As the Green Zoners met with each other and made momentous decisions -- or as more often happened, they met with each other and made no decisions -- we were on the outside working with Iraqis figuring out how in the midst of a terrible war we could give hope to the rural population. My greatest hope is that our project will not be judged as an arm of the American government in Iraq. Rather, I hope that we will be looked upon as a group, most of who were against the war, that put ideology and politics aside to work humbly for a better Iraq.”

The U.S. Government has neither the skills nor the experience to take on massive reconstruction and development projects with government employees only. It needs contractors. It needs a competitive bidding process. And the Government has a responsibility to provide personnel equipped to provide informed oversight.

But if these development contractors don’t sound like Halliburton or Custer Battles, it’s because they’re not. They are an entirely different breed. Compared to the now well-known companies who took on big-ticket construction or infrastructure rehabilitation or military services contracts, their cost is infinitesimal. The challenges they face are daunting. Their work is dangerous. But their dedication to development is very real.

To bracket them with those companies that viewed Iraq and Afghanistan as no more than an unpoliced pot of gold does them a huge injustice.

Monday, December 11, 2006


By William Fisher

While the Washington press corps chased the nine wise men (and one wise woman) of the Iraq Study Group as they scampered from the White House to Capital Hill to press conferences to a multitude of talk show appearances in their efforts to pull Dubya’s chestnuts from the Iraq fire, some journalists seem to have missed some of its most important findings.

One of the more alarming was that of the 1,000 employees of the massive new U.S. Embassy inside the Green Zone bubble in Baghdad, there are – wait for it – SIX who are fluent in Arabic.

In a very real sense, that pitiful number could be a metaphor for one of the most serious flaws in the entire Iraq adventure. We invaded a country about which the invaders knew virtually nothing. Not only didn’t we know the Arabic language; we knew nothing about Iraq’s religious sects, tribes, culture, sensitivities, customs, traditions, mores, or the Byzantine inter-relationships among all these attributes.

And that predicament is not limited to the State Department, which runs the new embassy. It is also true of the armed services, the CIA, and all the many other parts of our national security apparatus.

This critical deficiency raises serious questions about the practicality of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that a greatly increased number of U.S. military trainers be embedded into the Iraqi Security Forces, down to the company level. Is anybody wondering how you go about training a soldier you can’t speak to? Or how you understand quickly enough when one of your Iraqi comrades decides he cares more about his tribe than about his country and makes you ‘the enemy’?

The shortage of Arabic speakers was one of the red flags the State Department sent to Donald Rumsfeld before the invasion. But the outgoing SecDef wasn’t about to listen to any advice from State – or most anyone else. And even if incoming DOD chief Bob Gates is prepared to heed that kind of counsel, it may be too late for it to make any difference. Producing Arabic speakers takes years, and the U.S. doesn’t have years. Like most of the challenges the U.S. now faces is Iraq, there is no quick fix for this one either.

There is only so much translation we can expect from Arabic-speaker Gen. John Abizaid!

Given the importance of the Middle East to U.S. national security interests long before the Iraq invasion, how is it that one of the world’s most multicultural countries is unable to deliver men and women fluent in Arabic?

Some of the reasons are easily explained, others are much more complicated.

Among the simple ones: American education has long neglected foreign language study and American students have for years shown little appetite for learning them; Arabic is a particularly difficult language to learn; some applicants simply don’t want to serve in Iraq; and there are strong indications of the unwillingness of many Arab and Muslim-Americans to apply to agencies they see as having contributed to the ‘Islamophobic’ environment that pervades our country today.

Moreover, while the number of college-level Arabic language students has increased substantially since the attacks of 9/11, many drop out and even those who complete their courses will not come anywhere near qualifying as fluent.

President Bush appears to have understood the importance of the issue; in 2005 he ordered then-CIA Director Porter Goss to increase the number of Arabic-speakers by 50 per cent. The CIA – and the FBI, the DOD, and the Department of Homeland Security – all failed to meet that goal. What they did achieve was an exponential increase in job applications from Arabic speakers.

That was largely the result of a recruiting binge by the national security agencies. For example, they offered generous sign-on bonuses of up to $25,000 for new hires fluent in Arabic and other crucial languages. They participated in college job fairs. The CIA placed ads in local newspapers in communities where there is a heavy concentration of Arab-Americans. One featured a photo of the Statue of Liberty with the words: "For over 100 years, Arab Americans have served the nation. Today we need you more than ever."

Last year’s intelligence reorganization law also authorized the Agency to study so-called ‘heritage communities’ such as metropolitan Detroit’s Arab populations with foreign language abilities. It also earmarked money for a pilot program to recruit foreign-language speakers into a civilian linguist reserve corps.

All these activities resulted in U.S. national security agencies reporting substantial increases in employment applications. But the ratio of applications to job offers remains low.

One result, according to the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, is that analysts at the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, are “awash in untranslated gleanings of intelligence” in Arabic. The Foundation also said there are not enough interpreters to handle detainees in Iraq.

The FBI says that since Sept. 11, the agency has processed 30,000 applicants for jobs as linguists in Arabic, Farsi, and other tongues. But it points out that "out of 20 applicants, we'd be lucky to get one or two."

So what has happened to these applicants? Many have been rejected after – or before – their first interview. Many more have been waiting years for their security clearances. Among these job-seekers, it should be no surprise that by the time those clearances arrive, the applicants have already found other jobs.

But the key constraint appears to be that Arab and Muslim-Americans are frequently rejected for security clearances on the preposterous basis that they have contacts in the Middle East – like friends and families. Recruiters are particularly hesitant to approve people in this group of applicants; none wants to be the guy who approves the next “sleeping Osama.”

The shortage is no less acute at the State Department. A bipartisan State Department advisory panel on public diplomacy, headed by Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria, found that only 54 of 279 Arabic speakers employed by State were fluent. Of those, only six were fluent enough to appear on Arabic television programs.

The Baker-Hamilton group made some 79 recommendations to the president about how to craft a new strategy for our involvement in Iraq. These have been treated with both praise and scorn. But the issue may in fact be moot.

Like the group’s exhortation to increase the number of Arabic speakers in our Baghdad embassy, its recommendations are unlikely to produce a “victory” in Iraq. We needed the ISG three years ago – when there still might have been a few good options. Now there are none.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


By William Fisher

The New York Times Sunday ran a series of articles by prominent historians who endeavored to answer the question, “Is Bush Our Worst President?” In the interest of balance, there was a “yes” piece, a “no” piece, and a “we don’t know yet” piece.

Fair enough.

But what struck me about these articles is how little attention they devoted to Bush’s second biggest mistake.

His first big mistake, as we all now know, was turning his attention and our resources away from Afghanistan, the country that harbored those who attacked us on 9/11. We’ll be paying a high price for that mistake for decades to come.

His second biggest mistake was the place to which he then turned his attention and our resources -- Iraq, a country that posed no imminent threat to our national security or that of its neighbors. And he did so on the basis of false, exaggerated, and hyped “intelligence.”

That was his second biggest mistake not simply because the Iraq adventure has turned out to be, as Tom Ricks would say, a fiasco.

Another significant reason is that it totally ignored what is indisputably the most serious and intractable problem in the Middle East: The Israeli-Palestinian issue – the 900-pound gorilla in the room.

For the past six years, this administration has been A.W.O.L on this hair-trigger issue. It is one whose solution cannot be advanced by occasional visits to the White House by Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, or Abu Mazen. It cannot be advanced by sporadic visits to the area by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. It cannot be advanced by pronouncements from the White House about the wisdom of a two-state solution. It cannot be advanced by hailing Mr. Sharon’ s Gaza initiative, which has effectively turned that strip of land into a prison. It cannot be advanced by the President’s endorsement of yet more West Bank settlements and redrawing the UN boundaries because of “changing reality on the ground.”

Nor can it be advanced by refusing to talk to Hamas because that bunch won the support of many Palestinian voters in the kind of fair election the President keeps pressing nations to hold. The President needs to ask why the Palestinian people voted for Hamas.

Whatever their reasons, the sorry result of U.S. post-election policy is to legitimize yet more suffering for the people who live in the Palestinian territories, thus turning up the volume of the anti-Americanism that already permeates the region.

So dire is this 50-year-old problem that it cried out for a long-term, sustained, on-the-ground diplomatic effort on the part of the Bush Administration. It required the presence, and the skills and patience, of a Dennis Ross or a Richard Holbrooke.

Now, alas, it may be too late. Our virtually total neglect of the problem, our lopsided support of Israel’s protracted incursion into Lebanon, and our unconscionable delay in pushing the UN for a cease-fire, may have robbed us of whatever credibility we once had as an “honest broker.”

Still, President Bush keeps referring to “the road map,” as if he and his people had expended any energy whatever in trying to lay the predicate for its implementation. There is no roadmap. It’s dead.

No one ever thought it would be easy – maybe not even possible – to persuade Hamas to abandon its refusal to recognize Israel’s existence or to give up on driving its people into the sea. And no one ever thought it would be easy to persuade the Israelis to make real concessions.

But lots of people said similar things when Jimmy Carter set out to establish a peace treaty between Israel and its archenemy, Egypt. That treaty is still in force, as is the one between Israel and Jordan.

Every president over the past thirty years has tried to find ways to resolve the myriad of issues that make up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every president, that is, except George W. Bush. His predecessors weren’t famously successful, but at least they tried.

They tried because they understood that the road to Baghdad ran through Jerusalem, not vice-versa.

There is no single issue that energizes the nations and people of the Middle East in the way that the Israel-Palestine cancer does. It is true that many Arab nations in the neighborhood don’t really care if this issue is ever settled, because the longer it festers the easier it is for them to do nothing save using it as a pretext for their anti-American propaganda. Israel always makes a handy agenda item for meetings of the Arab League. But we should by now be used to The Arab League shooting itself in the foot.

Just as the President, now out of all good options, will likely find himself reluctantly having to negotiate with Iran and Syria over Iraq, he will similarly find himself forced to talk with Hamas. That will require tough, sustained, carrot-and-stick diplomacy of a kind that has been sadly absent during the past six years. We can enlist a few credible allies, including the EU and the UN, but the principal responsibility can’t be outsourced. The U.S. still has more leverage over Israel than any other country.

Talking to Hamas won’t be easy or pleasant. But Mr. Bush wasn’t elected to take on the easy or pleasant.

And there is nothing that would offer more promise for a peaceful Middle East than for President Bush to at least be seen to be trying in a really serious way to do something meaningful in his last two years in office.

He may be a lame duck, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a paraplegic.


By William Fisher

Amidst the anger, dismay and depression felt by millions of Americans who see their country’s civil liberties being unnecessarily surrendered in the name of “The Global War on Terror”, there are occasional signs that our justice system is still alive and well.

Recent weeks have brought four such signs.

Sign One: Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, stood up in a U.S. Federal courtroom to challenge the Bush administration's use of "extraordinary rendition," abduction, detention and interrogation in secret overseas prisons. He told the court, "I have come to America seeking three things. An acknowledgement that the United States government is responsible for kidnapping, abusing and detaining me; an explanation as to why I was singled out for this treatment; and an apology because I am an innocent man who has never been charged with any crime."

In a legal maneuver now familiar, the government tried to use the “state secrets privilege” to keep the case from being heard and thus avoid accountability for its actions. But last week, El-Masri’s lawyers argued that the government's official
recognition of the program and information already available about this case show that the lawsuit does not jeopardize national security and must be allowed to continue.

The last time El-Masri tried to come to the U.S. -- to hear his own court
case -- he was denied entry because he did not have a visa, even though German citizens don't actually need visas to enter the U.S.

Sign Two: A group of human rights advocacy organizations filed a ‘Friend of the Court” brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals demanding justice for Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari student, who was arrested in Peoria, Illinois, in 2001, detained in New York City for 18 months as an alleged material witness in the 9/11 attacks, and then, in 2003, just weeks before al-Marri's planned trial in federal court, President Bush declared him an "enemy combatant" in the "war on terror" and ordered him transferred to military custody where he was held incommunicado at a Naval Brig for 17 months while being interrogated under allegedly coercive and abusive conditions.

Al-Marri’s lawyers are arguing in court filings that it is unconstitutional for the government to detain as an "enemy combatant" a person who is not captured on the battlefield and who is not a member of the armed forces of an enemy State. The brief was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

His lawyers argue that the general constitutional rule governing detention, per the Supreme Court decision of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, limits the definition of "enemy combatant" to persons who are captured on a battlefield or are members of the armed forces of an enemy state. This definition is consistent with the traditions laws of war and constitutional precedent prohibiting military trial and the detention without trial or charge of civilians. Without such protections, United States citizens and immigrants can be arrested, deemed "enemy combatants," and detained indefinitely without due process.

The government’s reply briefs are due in January 2007. Oral arguments are expected to take place at the end of January or beginning of February 2007. In the meantime, al-Marri continues to be held in military custody, without charge or trial.

Sign Three: Five years after Muslim immigrants were abused in a federal jail, the guards who beat them and the Washington policymakers who decided to hold them for months without charges are being called to account. In what could turn out to be a landmark case, a panel of three Federal judges turned down a request by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and former Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft to dismiss the lawsuit brought against two Brooklyn detainees, and signaled they believed the case should go forward.

In the months immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some 1,200 Middle Eastern men were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Many were held in Brooklyn's notorious nine-story Metropolitan Detention Center. In a special unit on the top floor, detainees were smashed into walls, repeatedly stripped and searched, and often denied basic legal rights and religious privileges, according to federal investigations.

Now the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the jail, has revealed for the first time that 13 staff members have been disciplined, two of them fired. The warden has retired and moved to the Midwest.

Two of these detainees sued former Attorney General Ashcroft, FBI Director Mueller, and top federal prison officials and individual guards as defendants, seeking an unspecified amount of money from the government.

The suit hopes to hold federal law enforcement authorities responsible for their open-ended, "hold-until-cleared" policy for detainees. If the lawsuit prevails, it will create precedents that will probably bar authorities from carrying out such sweeping roundups in the future.

The government has already settled with one of the plaintiffs – a rare and surprising move -- former Manhattan deli operator Ehab Elmaghraby, who accepted a federal government payout of $300,000.

Elmaghraby, who has returned to Egypt, said he could not forgive the guards who jammed a flashlight up his rectum. "They destroyed me. They destroyed my family," he said in a recent telephone interview. "So I want the officers to stay one week inside those cells. They would kill themselves before the week was finished."

So the case is proceeding with just one of the detainees who sued.

Sign Four: In a significant development on the right of charitable giving, a federal judge ruled that the Bush administration violated the U.S. Constitution when it froze the assets of more than two dozen alleged terrorist groups after the 9/11 attacks. The ruling held that an executive order President Bush issued on Sept. 24, 2001, designating 27 groups and individuals as "specially designated global terrorists", was "unconstitutionally vague" and flawed because it failed to explain the criteria used to make the designations and included no process to challenge the decision.

The challenge brought to the federal courts was based on the premise that domestic political groups in the U.S. can support humanitarian causes in troubled regions without supporting terrorism. Specifically, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled against freezing the assets of two political organizations with purported ties to terrorist groups based in Sri Lanka and Kurdistan.

Over the past five years, the Bush Administration has named a number of U.S. charities as "specially designated terrorist groups" under Executive Order 13224. As a result, several have had their operations suspended and their assets frozen by the government without any checks or balances from Congress or the Judiciary. To date, such efforts have not yielded a single conviction of anyone involved with the designated charities for terrorist financing or support.

These are all stories the government doesn’t want us to know about. But thanks to our judicial system – no doubt the neocons will accuse the lawyers of supporting terrorists and the jurists of being “activist judges” – we may find out anyway.

David Cole, the Georgetown law professor and renowned civil libertarian, believes there has always a pendulum effect in American civil liberties. We pass Alien and Sedition Acts, suspend habeas corpus, conduct “Red Raids” to root out anarchists and Bolsheviks, intern Japanese-Americans, and create blacklists and use Congress as a circus stage to find Communists in our midst.

For each of these actions, eventually there has been a reaction. Civil liberties get restored. The pendulum swings back.

But that was history before 9/11. And before George W. Bush. We can’t know yet whether the pendulum is still working. But we should be encouraged by small signs such as these.


By William Fisher

As the new Democratic Party majority in Congress considers whether to re-visit the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA), the administration of President George W. Bush is proposing still more restrictions on detainees in American custody.

The government has proposed limiting contact between defense lawyers and detainees at Guantanamo Bay because detainees' communications, such as news of world events, could incite the prisoners to violence.

The U.S. proposal to limit lawyers’ contacts with their Guantanamo was contained in a filing to a federal appeals court in Washington. The case deals with an Afghani detainee but the government wants them to apply to other prisoners at Guantanamo. The prison camp currently holds some 430 detainees.

Among the more controversial provisions of the MCA, which President Bush signed into law in October, is one that strips U.S. courts of jurisdiction to consider writs of habeas corpus filed by detainees classified as enemy combatants. The Administration contends that the president may classify any person, even a U.S. citizen, as an enemy combatant.

But Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, has already introduced legislation that would restore habeas corpus rights to military detainees and make other amendments to the MCA. Dodd's bill, the Effective Terrorists Prosecution Act, would restore those protections. The amendments would also narrow the class of detainees identified as unlawful enemy combatants who are affected by the MCA's habeas restriction.

The Democratic Party won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate when they defeated Republicans in mid-term elections last month.

Since its passage, the MCA has come under fire not only from Democrats but also from the judiciary, human rights groups, some Republicans, and foreign countries.

Last month, lawyers representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to declare the suspension of habeas rights unconstitutional. In an amicus – friend of the court -- brief in the case, seven retired federal judges urged the appeals court to rule that parts of the MCA violate the Constitution.

The principle of habeas corpus, originally contained in the Magna Carta, has been one of the cornerstones of U.S. law since the nation’s founding. It gives a detainee the right to go to court to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continue to hold him or her.

Dodd's bill would also provide for expedited review of the MCA to ensure its constitutionality.

An alternative strategy is being proposed by Prof. Peter Shane of Ohio State Law School and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies. He told us, “The Constitution limits the suspension of habeas to occasions ‘when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.’ Because our public safety is not now at risk from either rebellion or invasion, the MCA is unconstitutional in suspending habeas. I'd be happy for Congress to amend the MCA, but they may fear a veto. An alternative strategy would be a concurrent resolution proclaiming ‘the sense of Congress that public safety is not now at risk from either rebellion or invasion.’ This could be a powerful aid to anyone bringing litigation to challenge the MCA.”

The proposed new rules for detainee-lawyer contacts would apply to detainees pursuing court challenges to their designations as "enemy combatants," and would tighten censorship of mail from attorneys and give the military more control over what lawyers can discuss with their clients, according to the filing.

The number of face-to-face meetings between defense attorneys and detainees would be limited to four total. There are now no restrictions on the number of times they can meet, although lawyers' access to the base is already hampered because it is so remote.

The government says current rules have allowed detainees to receive books or articles about terrorist attacks in Iraq, London and Israel, as well as details of the prisoner abuse investigation at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

In the court filing, a military lawyer said security at Guantanamo Bay has been threatened by the introduction of a book on Abu Ghraib, a speech given at an Amnesty International conference about the war on terror, and other materials.

"Such materials could incite detainees to violence, leading to a destabilization of the camp," wrote Navy Cmdr. Patrick M. McCarthy.

The government petition was filed this summer but only recently discovered by The Boston Globe newspaper, relates to the case of Haji Bismullah, an Afghan who is among several Guantanamo detainees represented by the New York-based advocacy group, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

Currently, mail from lawyers is examined only for physical contraband. The proposed rules call for all of a detainee's mail to be examined for forbidden information.

A CCR attorney said he suspects the proposal is aimed at controlling the information coming out of Guantanamo. Accounts from defense lawyers who have visited Guantanamo have cast doubt on government assertions that most detainees are hardened terrorists.

"What's happening is the government wants to hide this indisputable fact," he said "They're not happy we've been able to bring a lot of these developments to light."

Many other human rights organizations have weighed in on this issue. For example, Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA told us, “With passage of the Military Commissions Act, human rights violations perpetrated by the Bush administration in the ‘war on terror’ have in effect been given the congressional stamp of approval. This raises serious questions about the U.S. government's commitment to due process and the rule of law.”

She added, “The ‘war on terror’ must not be used as an excuse to deny the basic human rights of any person. Amnesty International will continue to campaign for U.S. ‘war on terror’ detention policies and practices to be brought into full compliance with international law, and for repeal of any law that fails to meet this test.”

In 2004, the Supreme Court said detainees can contest the legality of their detentions. But, while the MCA bars detainees from protesting their detentions in court, they still have a right to challenge their designations as "enemy combatants." The new rules would restrict legal representation for those challenges.

Meanwhile, lawyers for dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainees have asked a federal appeals court to declare a key part of President Bush's new military trials law unconstitutional.

The detainees' lawyers challenged the military's authority to arrest people overseas and detain them indefinitely without allowing them to use the U.S. courts to contest their detention.

In written arguments, attorneys for more than 100 detainees who would be locked out of the regular judicial system asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to let the detainees keep their legal challenges going in civilian courts.

President Bush says he would like to close Guantanamo, but shows no signs of so doing. In fact, a new facility for holding trials there is now nearing completion.

In five years, not a single detainee has been charged or tried. And it is extremely unlikely that the fourteen high-value suspects recently transferred to Guantanamo from secret prisons elsewhere will ever come to trial because the evidence against them was probably obtained through coercion.

One can only wonder if President Bush is really being informed by those who advise him of what Guantanamo represents to most of the rest of the world. In simply symbolic terms, it destroys his rhetoric about democracy and the rule of law, and turns against America the very people whose hearts and minds the President says he’s trying to win.