THE ABSURD TIMES
Bin Laden was moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan a year or so after the U.S. demanded his return. Bush, Rumsfield, Cheney & Co. knew this and approved it after refusing to accept his surrendering by the Taliban. There is also a Senate report on this, easily available.
There is seriously way too much untangling to do to understand this situation. Certainly, we never had to be there is the first place and only created problems for everybody involved. In addition, Bin Laden considered Saddam Hussein as an "infidel," and was hardly a "friend". All of this was fabricated and dutifully reported to us by our media or, rather, our media fed the opposite to us. The U.S. public swallowed it whole.
In addition, it seems that ISIS is now threatening the Talaban (which never had any ambitions beyond its own borders), never. Now Americans are being warned about dangers involved in getting to the Kabul Airport because of ISIS.
It is likely that most of this is being orchestrated in order to retard Biden's effort to pass social welfare programs here. Here is a transcript of and interview with Spencer Ackerman:
As thousands of Afghans try to flee Afghanistan after the Talaban seized control, we look at the roots of the longest U.S. war in history and spend the hour with Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter Spencer Ackerman. "This is not the alternative to fighting in Afghanistan; this is the result of fighting in Afghanistan," says Ackerman, whose new book, "Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump," is based in part on his reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.
The United Nations is urging countries to keep their borders open with Afghanistan as thousands of Afghans try to flee by land or air, after the Taliban seized control of the country Sunday ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Earlier this week, President Biden defended his decision to pull troops out as part of a deal the Trump administration made with the Taliban.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: How many more generations of America's daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan's civil war, when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives, American lives, is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery? I'm clear on my answer: I will not repeat the mistakes we've made in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at the roots of what's become America's longest war. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan October 7, 2001, less than a month after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Within days of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, the Taliban offered to hand over Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, but the Bush administration rejected any negotiations with the Taliban. This is Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, responding to a question in October 2001.
Would you go so far as to say that no matter what the Taliban might say at this point, it may not make any difference? Are you ignoring whatever they may say?
PRESS SECRETARY ARI FLEISCHER: The president could not have made it any clearer two weeks ago when he said that there will be no discussions and no negotiations. So, what they say is not as important as what they do. And it's time for them to act. It's been time for them to act.
AMY GOODMAN: In December of 2001, just a month or two later, the Taliban offered to surrender control of Kandahar, if its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, would be allowed to, quote, "live in dignity" in opposition custody. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejected the offer.
DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: If you're asking would an arrangement with Omar where he could, quote, "live in dignity" in the Kandahar area or some place in Afghanistan be consistent with what I have said, the answer is, no, it would not be consistent with what I have said.
AMY GOODMAN: That's Donald Rumsfeld speaking December 6, 2001. The U.S. War in Afghanistan would continue for almost 20 more years, through to now. According to the Costs of War Project, the U.S. has spent over $2.2 trillion in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By one count, at least 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians have died in the fighting. Afghanistan is now facing a massive humanitarian crisis, and the Taliban is back in power. While Mullah Mohammed Omar died in 2013, his brother-in-law, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, now appears set to become Afghanistan's next president.
Well, today we're spending the hour with the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Spencer Ackerman, author of the new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. The book is based in part on his reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo.
Spencer, it's great to have you back. Congratulations on your book. So, we're talking to you in the midst of this chaos in Kabul right now as thousands of Afghans, Americans and other nationals are attempting to flee Afghanistan. The Taliban have taken over. But we chose to begin back 20 years ago — I'm not going to say "at the beginning," because it goes far back from there. But talk about this moment as the U.S. began bombing and occupying Afghanistan, when the Taliban basically said they would surrender and also give Osama bin Laden over. The U.S. rejected. President Bush rejected both.
SPENCER ACKERMAN: This was a central aspect of the war on terror at its inception and a foreshadowing of what its implications would be. Once we accept the frame that Bush offered — war on terror — we were then locked into a struggle not just against al-Qaeda, the entity culpable for the 9/11 attacks, but a much broader struggle against an enemy that a president could redefine at will and leave in the popular imagination with something along the lines of a civilizational challenge to America for the future, one in which America itself was in the balance.
Now, let's look, in particular, at that moment in Kandahar. The United States's Northern Alliance allies had routed the Taliban from Kabul. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had fallen, after about five, six years in power, and they recognized, after a last stand they tried to put on in Kandahar didn't go the way they expected, that the end was near for them. And then they offered to Hamid Karzai, the U.S.'s appointed leader for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, that as long as Mullah Omar could live in some kind of house arrest, basically not be killed, not be put up on trial, they were prepared to entertain negotiations for what their role might be in a post-Taliban Afghanistan — basically, a political settlement at that point.
Karzai, for all his flaws that the United States would both contribute to and then criticize him for over the coming years, nevertheless knew Afghan history and recognized that unless there was some kind of political future for the Taliban, the Taliban would opt for a violent future. And they had a proven capacity not just to wage an insurgency, but to triumph in one. And Karzai took the deal.
It was the Bush administration, the United States, that said such a deal was unacceptable — not to the Afghans, but unacceptable to the United States, that now took it on itself, as it has so often throughout its history in so many parts of the world, to tell Afghans the way their country was about to be. And everything that happened since, the 20 years of war since, has contributed on, if not quite a straight line, a kind of nausea-inducing glide path to the abject horror we're seeing at the Kabul airport with people desperate to flee, desperate to — so desperate as to grab onto C-17 cargo planes and fall to their deaths. This is not the alternative to fighting in Afghanistan; this is the result of fighting in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could take it back even farther, to the U.S.-backed mujahideen, to the U.S.-backed Osama bin Laden, and talk about what happened when the U.S. decided to fund the mujahideen in fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and then the mujahideen turning their — setting, literally, their gun sights, their U.S. weapons, on the United States, and how the Taliban came out of that?
SPENCER ACKERMAN: Yeah, it's important, because, like, an objection to this is always going to be that we, you know, portrayed, like, the 1980s Afghan mujahideen as the Taliban. They weren't the Taliban. They were the precursors of the Taliban.
What happened in the 1980s is the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the United States saw an opportunity. It saw an opportunity to inflict upon the Soviet Union, its great geopolitical adversary, a defeat as humiliating and as psychologically devastating as the one the United States suffered in Vietnam for its own imperial hubris. Over the course of the next 10 years, the United States, the Pakistani ISI and the Saudi intelligence services funded and equipped Islamic extremists, rebels who would come in from Pakistan — among them, a figure who would become intimately familiar as a Taliban ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a particularly brutal person. And over the course of the 1980s, they inflicted tremendous damage on the Soviets, made the occupation, which was a brutal occupation by the Soviet Union, ever more violent and ever more protracted, to the point where the Soviets withdrew and, a couple years later, the regime the Soviets installed collapsed, much as like we're seeing the one that the United States installed collapsed.
The ensuing chaos and civil war was devastating for Afghanistan. Out of the ashes emerged the Taliban, an extreme group, a group that, you know, used mechanisms of extreme suffering and repression on the long-suffering Afghan people. And something that the United States never recognized throughout this entire period was that it had destabilized Afghanistan, not simply as a pawn of — not simply as a consequence of fighting the Soviet Union, but that was what the cost of fighting the Soviet Union was, that an entire country, millions of people, suffered tremendously, that they were treated as tools by the United States, that their aspirations, their desires for freedom, their desires for security ultimately didn't matter to the United States, much as they didn't matter to the Soviet Union. And in the chaos that resulted, the Taliban took power. They sheltered Osama bin Laden.
But they weren't the same thing as al-Qaeda. And the United States, after 9/11, decided that there was no relevant distinction between al-Qaeda, between the Taliban and between what it called "terrorist groups of global reach," which ultimately washes out to saying that while the respectable version of the Bush administration's policies were already an extremely expansive conception of who could be targeted, moving from terror groups like al-Qaeda to, ultimately, entire regimes — the deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, spoke in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 about "ending states" — but in the broader political, journalistic and then popular conception, the enemy could be all of Islam, or it could be something just short of all of Islam. And from there, it was an extremely short, rather immediate, transition to fearing American Muslims, fearing your neighbors, thinking your neighbors posed a threat to you — not that this apparatus of war and repression posed a threat to you.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, Spencer, one of the things that hasn't gotten reported very much is that as the Taliban seized control in these last weeks of Afghanistan, a key person that they executed — he was imprisoned, and they executed him — was Abu Omar Khorasani, the former head of the Islamic State in South Asia. The significance of this?
SPENCER ACKERMAN: Yeah, this is an extreme complication that has come up in the last couple years of particularly U.S.-Taliban negotiations, by which I mostly mean back-channel negotiations. I shouldn't say "back-channel." To be a little bit more specific, they weren't authorized before they were authorized. It was somewhat of a freelance effort by a retired U.S. Army colonel named Chris Kolenda and a retired U.S. ambassador to Pakistan named Robin Raphel.
What they discovered in their talks with Taliban figures in Doha was that the Taliban were rather concerned about the rising presence of a so-called Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, what called itself, or the U.S. also called it, ISIS Khorasan, or IS Khorasan. Essentially, the Taliban feared a kind of next generation of extremist entity insurgency using Islamic justification inside Afghanistan — and with somewhat, I think it's fair to say, good reason, given the way that ISIS fought and displaced al-Qaeda, the organization and entity that it emerged out of, as well. And so, you even saw, over the last couple years, there was an excellent reporting that Wesley — oh man — that Wesley Morgan has done, where the Taliban has even been the beneficiary of U.S. airstrikes on ISIS Khorasan, to the point where it seemed like — you know, they never got as far as some kind of modus vivendi where they said, "You know what? We, in fact, have an enemy in common." But it was a dynamic that both the Taliban and the U.S. side, particularly the more pragmatic elements of the U.S. military, were attentive to, that the Taliban viewed ISIS not as the next so-called al-Qaeda entity to sponsor and permit a staging ground to attack either the United States or its allies or its interests, or so on and so forth, but, in fact, an enemy to be confronted, an enemy to be dominated, an enemy to be defeated. And when we hear all of the kind of loose talk about the necessity of returning to war in Afghanistan so it doesn't become a staging ground for further attacks on the United States, it's not quite sunk in yet, or it's not quite penetrated, it's not quite been grappled with, that the Taliban are showing like very early signs of seeing ISIS as a threat.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, they killed him. They executed him, took him out of a prison in Kabul on that final day, Sunday, as they took control of the country. Spencer Ackerman, talk about the role the U.S. war and occupation, the brutality of the U.S. airstrikes, the torture at Bagram, the night raids played in gaining new recruits for the Taliban.
SPENCER ACKERMAN: The United States tends not to attribute its brutality to any of the circumstances that it comes to bemoan when they manifest in the world. And Afghanistan is certainly a tragic example of that. The fact that, after 9/11, the United States, in its political and journalistic and intellectual elites, generally speaking, refused to accept that there was a direct and tragic and awful historic consequence of its destabilization of Afghanistan in the 1980s, to the degree that Taliban facilitation of Osama bin Laden in the country helped the execution of the 9/11 plot — which, it's important to note, did not involve Afghans and was not staged from Afghanistan, nor was it even planned in Afghanistan; it was far more planned in Germany. Nevertheless, that was an early foreboding of what we would see over the next 20 years, not just in Afghanistan, but throughout the war on terror: a disconnection, an unwillingness to face that America's violent and imperial actions breed their own next generation of enemies. That was on display once the United States went back into Afghanistan.
And throughout the Afghanistan War, even during periods where counterinsurgency campaigns, at least on paper, paid lip service to the idea that protecting Afghan lives and property and so forth was going to ultimately be decisive in the war, it never acted that way. It never acted as if what the point of the war was was the protection of Afghan lives. It more often acted in such a way that it did not draw distinctions between Afghan lives and Afghan enemies. And amongst the major reasons for this is not necessarily like a specific decision to target Afghan civilians, but an inability to understand the country, understand its dynamics and understand the rather complicated relationships, in many ways, between people who fight for the Taliban and the Taliban itself, or people who aid the Taliban under threat to their own life or threat to their family, or simply seek to endure the war, as so many people throughout so many wars simply aspire to, simply by not taking action that harmed the Taliban, because they understood the consequences that could — that they could experience. Over time, all of these things strengthened the Taliban, made the Taliban seem like, once again, a viable alternative to the United States.
And then, on a different level, the United States's contribution — and not just the United States alone's contribution — to the misery in Afghanistan came through the corruption that it always blamed on the Afghans but was a significant driver of itself, so-called development experts. Development aid and development money poured into Afghanistan far beyond a consideration of what a devastated Afghan economy could in fact absorb. And some of this money was very deliberately flooded in from the CIA to pay off warlords to ensure that they would ultimately be responsive to American interests, which would often be violent interests, which would often be things like, as the Joint Special Operations Command would perform throughout the Afghanistan War, Army Special Forces, in particular, throughout the Afghanistan War, raids on people's houses suspected of being, aiding or facilitating the Taliban — and again, the Taliban, not even al-Qaeda, not the thing that attacked the United States, certainly not the core of al-Qaeda that plotted, planned and executed 9/11. The United States was now in extended war with a one-time harborer, ally of al-Qaeda rather than the thing itself, responsible for all of Afghanistan, but never acting responsibly toward the Afghan people.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to January 2015. This is the Obama years. Two hostages — one American, one Italian man — were accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Here's then-President Obama later apologizing for the killings.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This morning, I want to express our grief and condolences to the families of two hostages: one American, Dr. Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto, who were tragically killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation. … Since 9/11, our counterterrorism efforts have prevented terrorist attacks and saved innocent lives, both here in America and around the world. And that determination to protect innocent life only makes the loss of these two men especially painful for all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have President Obama apologizing. Spencer, you have spent a good amount of time in Afghanistan. You were embedded there, and then you also reported independently there. Can you talk about the significance of this moment?
SPENCER ACKERMAN: This was a profound moment. This is the only time that the United States, particularly the president of the United States, has not only acknowledged drone strikes that killed civilians, but apologized for it. And the reason why it's such a significant moment in its singularity is — both in the book and for an earlier series that I did for The Guardian in 2016, I interviewed people, Pakistanis and Yemenis principally, who were survivors of drone strikes or whose relatives were killed in drone strikes. And one of the stories I tell in Reign of Terror is from a young Pakistani man named Faheem Qureshi.
Faheem Qureshi was 13 years old when Obama launched his first drone strike. And it blew up Faheem's compound, where he lived with his family. And they were gathering for a celebration of one of his relatives who had just returned from a successful business trip to the United Arab Emirates. Forty days later, Faheem woke from his coma. He had burns over most of his body. He was missing an eye. And he had learned that most of his family's breadwinners had been killed in the strike, so that when he left the hospital, his responsibilities would immediately be providing for his family, however it was that his mangled body would perform.
And I talked to him about the difficulties he experienced throughout the, you know, next, at that point, about seven years. And among the things he discussed was that he had tried, through Pakistani authorities and through the U.S. Embassy, to get some kind of acknowledgment that what had happened to him had in fact happened, and that it didn't just happen as an act of God, it happened as an act by the United States of America. And none of that ever came. What did come was a supply of blood money, essentially, a payoff essentially to say, like, "OK, this is what will count for restitution, and your account is settled, and you're not going to get any public acknowledgment, let alone an apology."
And I kept hearing, when I interviewed people — not just Faheem, but other people whose lives were changed irrevocably by drone strikes — about how Obama had apologized when he had killed white people, and never when he had killed people like them, never when he had killed their loved ones, never when the consequences of his actions had left someone maimed, had left someone in a position where he had to give up his dream of being a chemist and work however he could in the hope that, as he had put it to me, some of his younger cousins and his brothers would be able to live happy and prosperous lives. And I asked him, "What do you think of Barack Obama?" And he said, "If there's a list of tyrants somewhere, Barack Obama's name is on it because of his drone strikes."
AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, we're going to break and then come back. Spencer is author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. He's a national security reporter who publishes the Forever Warsnewsletter on Substack.
When we come back, we're going to look at, well, what he calls the "Reign of Terror." We're going to look also at the rise of right-wing extremism in United States, what all, under Trump and Biden, intelligence agencies call the major domestic terror threat, as Republican congressmembers now say that their deep concern is the threat of foreign terrorists. Stay with us.
As Republicans raise concerns that Biden's withdrawal of U.S. troops will turn Afghanistan "back to a pre-9/11 state — a breeding ground for terrorism," Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter Spencer Ackerman lays out how the U.S. war on terror after the September 2001 attacks actually fueled white, right-wing extremism. Ackerman says U.S. elites consciously chose to ignore "the kind of terrorism that is the oldest, most resilient, most violent and most historically rooted in American history." His new book is "Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman. We're spending the hour with Spencer Ackerman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter, author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.
Spencer, you begin your book, with the prologue, with Timothy McVeigh visiting the far-right paramilitary compound in Elohim City, Oklahoma, before what you call, the prologue's chapter heading, "the worst terrorist attack in American history." Talk about the connection you see between the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States and the so-called war on terror.
SPENCER ACKERMAN: I thought it was extremely important to see the war on terror in its fullness, in its totality, and only then can we understand its implications. And I think the only way to really do that is to look at who were the exceptions to the war on terror, who the war on terror didn't target, despite fundamentally similar actions. And there we can understand not just what the war on terror is, but its relationship to American history, which shapes it so deeply.
And so, I also wanted to kind of start with a journalistic cliché, where the reporter kind of zoologically takes a reader through this unfamiliar and scary world of violence committed by fanatical people who are training with heavy weapons and talk about committing mass atrocity for a sick and supposedly divinely inspired religion. But I wanted those people to be white. I wanted the reader to see how similar these actions were, how similar some of the motivations were, how similar some of the justifications were. But we never treated them like that.
The whole purpose of the phrase "war on terror" was a kind of social compromise amongst respectable elites in order to not say the thing that they were in fact building, which was an expansive war only against some people's kinds of terror, only against nonwhite people's kinds of terror, only against foreigners' kinds of terror, and not against the kind of terrorism that is the oldest, most resilient, most violent and most historically rooted in American history, one that seeks to draw its own heritage out of the general American national heritage, people who call themselves not dissenters, not rebels, but patriots, people who are restoring something about America that they believe a corrupt elite, that is now responsive to nonwhite power at the expense of the extant racial caste, that has been deeply woven inside not just the American political structure, but the American economy, that drives American politics — how that ultimately never gets treated.
This is exactly what Timothy McVeigh was about. This is what Timothy McVeigh had as his motivations for murdering 168 Americans in Oklahoma City, including 19 children. And we looked away from it. We looked away from how deep the rootedness of white supremacist violence was in this country. We listened to what I believe are principled civil libertarian objections against an expensive category of criminalized association. Treating people who might have believed as McVeigh did, odious as I believe that is, but ultimately not committing acts of violence — treating them as, essentially, indistinct from McVeigh was absolutely intolerable, as it always should have been, to the American political elites, but that intolerability did not extend to Muslims.
And there it was easy, after 9/11, to construct an apparatus fueled by things like the PATRIOT Act, that expanded enormous categories of criminal association, known as material support for terrorism, authorized widespread surveillance, that certainly would not be focused simply even on American Muslims, as disgusting as it was that it was focused on them primarily. But, ultimately, all of these things that both parties, that the leaders of the security services and intellectuals created, maintained and justified, so readily, against the threat of a foreign menace, seen as civilizational, seen as an acceptable substitute for a geopolitical enemy that had served as a rallying purpose throughout the 20th century — the war on terror is kind of a zombie anti-communism in a lot of its political cast and association. And never would any of this be visited upon white people. From the start, the war on terror showed you exactly who it was going to leave out from its carceral, from its surveillance and from its violent gaze.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to Donald Trump this week, considering a 2024 challenge to President Biden, said in a statement Biden "surrendered" to the Taliban. Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee demanded a plan from Biden to stop Afghanistan from becoming a, quote, "safe haven" for terror groups after the Taliban takeover. This is Republican Congressman Michael McCaul on CNN.
REP. MICHAEL McCAUL: We are going to go back, Jake, to a pre-9/11 state, a breeding ground for terrorism. And, you know, I hate to say this — I hope we don't have to go back there — but it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the Republicans now talking about a foreign terrorist threat. The Republicans, who have been denying the insurrection of January 6, calling it, you know, no worse than a group of tourists coming to Washington, D.C., and not wanting to investigate that, even though, under Bush, under Trump, the intelligence agencies have said the number one domestic terror threat is right-wing white supremacists.
SPENCER ACKERMAN: We see who the war on terror, then as now, is a mechanism for having terrorism excused, not terrorism dealt with: when that terrorism is white, when it is politically powerful. When, for reasons that they themselves probably ought better to explain, politicians sympathize with it, seek to draw strength from it, that's a real serious red flag for American democracy. We don't have to treat it as if it is a new red flag for American democracy. This is always how American democracy has been eroded. This is always alongside the ways in which capital has been extremely willing to ally with white supremacy. This is what the creation of Jim Crow was. This is how the maintenance of segregation in the North of the country, which we don't often talk about as much in its different permutations — I'm a New Yorker. This city is segregated even still. You see that definitely with the way the school system is constructed.
Ultimately, we are seeing, throughout this past week, the ease with which the Republican Party, supposedly now in the Trump era feeling antipathy to the war on terror, readily snapped to war on terror politics when it comes to the demonization of refugees, the idea that America has a responsibility to take in the refugees that it itself creates, out of this psychotic, racist fear of white replacement, that demographics are ultimately driving the erosion of, you know, in its respectable settings, white political power, not just on the fringes, but at the centers of American governance.
And that is a politics of the war on terror that has been here from the start. Trump makes it vastly less subtle, to the extent that it was subtle, than it was before. And his hold on the party is not an accident. His hold here has everything to do with the way that he was able to recognize the ways in which the war on terror is an excellent sorting mechanism for figuring out who is a real American and who is a conditional American. And then, as we saw him using the tools of the war on terror on the streets of cities like Portland and Washington, D.C., and New York and in the skies over as many as 15 cities last summer, he's willing to use it on Americans that he calls terrorists.
AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, you write repeatedly about Adham Hassoun. Tell us his story.
SPENCER ACKERMAN: Amy, I just want to thank you so much for asking about Adham. I knew you would. You have truly been one of the journalistic heroes of this era.
And Adham Hassoun is a symbol of the ways that the war on terror criminalized people. Adham Hassoun is a Palestinian-born man who survived — he grew up in the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s and immigrated to Florida in the 1990s. And as a refugee himself and an active participant in his community in Miami, in South Florida, in the Islamic community there, he wrote a lot of checks to refugee charities, people that he had thought were helping refugees and helping war victims in places like Bosnia, where the wars became genocidal in the Balkans against Balkan Muslims.
And, ultimately, among the people that he met and tried to help was a convert named José Padilla. José Padilla would, after 9/11, become famous as someone John Ashcroft accused of trying to set off a radiological weapon inside the United States. And very shortly after that happened — Padilla was at first placed in military custody, an American citizen; that was allowed at the time — the feds came for Adham. And even though Adham had committed no violence, Adham had done nothing criminal, the feds and immigration authorities locked him up, and they leaned on him to try and inform on his community, to try and be an informant. And he refused to do that. He considered it an affront to his dignity. He considered it unjust.
And as a result, he spent a tremendous amount of time — he spent years in jails in Florida, while, ultimately, the FBI and the local prosecutor — who eventually would be the Trump Cabinet member Alex Acosta — came up with pretexts to prosecute him. He was originally charged as a co-defendant with José Padilla, who is now placed in federal custody. And even though there was no way that the government could connect him to any act of violence, thanks to the PATRIOT Act and thanks to, frankly, the atmosphere politically in the years after 9/11, that he could be charged with things that simply were not acts of violence or acts of active contribution to specific people committing specific acts of violence that the government could name, and he was convicted. And as he was sentenced, the judge reduced his sentence — the feds were seeking life for Adham — because the judge recognized that the government couldn't point to any act that he — you know, act of violence that he was responsible for. That was in 2007. He served until 2017 in federal prison, a variety of federal prisons.
And then, in 2017, when he had finished his sentence, he had figured that he would be deported, that ultimately he would go back to probably Lebanon. He was kind of done, as you can imagine, with the United States at that point. But he didn't. What happened instead was that he was sent into ICE detention in western New York, outside of Buffalo, at a place called Batavia. And after the PATRIOT Act became law in 2001, there was great civil libertarian fear over one of its provisions, Section 412. Section 412 said that any nondeportable noncitizen, which is to say a stateless person who doesn't have a country that will take that person in, who is deemed a threat to national security by the authorities — ultimately, in this case, the determination is made by the secretary of homeland security — could be imprisoned indefinitely. That never happened throughout the whole war on terror, until it was time to keep Adham Hassoun locked up.
Ultimately, in early 2020, around like late February, early March, Adham gets sick, to the point where he — we don't know for sure, but he thought that he got COVID. By April of that year, Batavia was the ICE detention facility with the highest COVID outbreak inside. So, here was a figure who the United States criminalized, robbed of his freedom, and then ultimately endangered his life by the incompetence and indifference that it showed in allowing COVID to run wild in facilities filled with people that the United States functionally treated as nonpeople.
And it took a very valiant effort by local attorneys and by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge his detention. Ultimately, instead of outright losing the case, as a judge indicated after she ruled Adham had to go free, because the FBI admitted —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Spencer.
SPENCER ACKERMAN: — that it relied on a — sorry. Adham was ultimately successful, once the government dropped its case in order to preserve its power to do this. And he lives in freedom, I'm happy to say, right now in Rwanda.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds. What has surprised you most about what is happening today?
SPENCER ACKERMAN: Very little at this point, I'm sorry to say, surprises me. But the general indifference by the American political and intellectual elites to the relationship between the war on terror and the erosion of democracy is also a very deep thread and very historically rooted, not just in the war on terror, but before, and certainly seeing that those connections have to be made in order to have any form of real democracy in this country and safety and dignity for so many people.
AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter. His new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. I'm Amy Goodman. Thanks so much.
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