Lost in a Bermuda Triangle of Injustice

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The Facts on the Ground
Mini-Gulags, Hired Guns, Lobbyists, and a Reality Built on Fear
By Tom Engelhardt

This August, a site of shame, shared by Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush, was emptied. Abu Ghraib prison is the place where Saddam’s functionaries tortured (and sometimes killed) many enemies of his regime, and where Bush’s functionaries, as a series of notorious digital photos revealed, committed what the U.S. press still likes to refer to as “prisoner abuse.” Now, there are no prisoners to abuse and the prison itself is to be turned over to the Iraqi government, perhaps to become a museum, perhaps to remain a jail for another regime whose handling of prisoners is grim indeed. The emptying was clearly meant as a redemptive moment or, as Nancy A. Youssef of the McClatchy Newspapers put it, “a milestone” for the huge structure. After all the bad media and the hit American “prestige” took around the world, Abu Ghraib was finally over.

Of course, its prisoners who remained generally uncharged and without access to Iraqi courts, weren’t just released to the winds. Quite the opposite, over 3,000 of them were redistributed to two other U.S. prisons, Camp Bucca in Iraq’s south and Camp Cropper at the huge U.S. base adjoining Baghdad International Airport, once dedicated to the holding of “high-value” detainees like Saddam Hussein and top officials of his regime.

Camp Cropper itself turns out to be an interesting story, but one with a problem: While the emptying of Abu Ghraib made the news everywhere, the filling of Camp Cropper made no news at all. And yet it turns out that Camp Cropper, which started out as a bunch of tents, has now become a $60 million “state-of-the-art” prison. The upgrade, on the drawing boards since 2004, was just completed and hardly a word has been written about it. We really have no idea what it consists of or what it looks like, even though it’s in one of the few places in Iraq that an American reporter could safely visit, being on a vast American military base constructed, like the prison, with taxpayer dollars.

Had anyone paid the slightest attention — other than the Pentagon, the Bush administration, and whatever company or companies had the contract to construct the facility — it would still have been taken for granted that Camp Cropper wasn’t the business of ordinary Americans (or even their representatives in Congress). Despite the fact that the $60 million dollars, which made the camp “state of the art,” was surely ours, no one in the United States debated or discussed the upgrade and there was no serious consideration of it in Congress before the money was anted up — any more than Congress or the American people are in any way involved in the constant upgrading of our military bases in Iraq.

While Iraq and future Iraq policy are constantly in the news, almost all the American facts-on-the-ground in that country — of which Camp Bucca is one — have come into being without consultation with the American people or, in any serious way, Congress (or testing in the courts).

Camp Bucca is a story you can’t read anywhere — and yet it may, in a sense, be the most important American story in Iraq right now. While arguments spin endlessly here at home about the nature of withdrawal “timetables,” and who’s cutting and running from what, and how many troops we will or won’t have in-country in 2007, 2008, or 2009, on the ground a process continues that makes mockery of the debate in Washington and in the country. While the “reconstruction” of Iraq has come to look ever more like the deconstruction of Iraq, the construction of an ever more permanent-looking American landscape in that country has proceeded apace and with reasonable efficiency.

First, we had those huge military bases that officials were careful never to label “permanent.” (For a while, they were given the charming name of “enduring camps” by the Pentagon.) Just about no one in the mainstream bothered to write about them for a couple of years as quite literally billions of dollars were poured into them and they morphed into the size of American towns with their own bus routes, sports facilities, Pizza Huts, Subways, Burger Kings, and mini-golf courses. Huge as they now are, elaborate as they now are, they are still continually being upgraded. Now, it seems that on one of them we have $60 million worth of the first “permanent U.S. prison” in Iraq. Meanwhile, in the heart of Baghdad, the Bush administration is building what’s probably the largest, best fortified “embassy” in the solar system with its own elaborate apartment complexes and entertainment facilities, meant for a staff of 3,500.

If, for a moment, you stop listening to the arguments about, or even the news about, Iraq here at home and just concentrate on the ignored reality of those facts-on-the-ground, you’re likely to assess our world somewhat differently. After all, those facts being made on the ground — essentially policy-put-into-action without the trappings of debate, democracy, media coverage, or checks and balances of any sort — are unlikely to be altered or halted in any foreseeable future by debate or opinion polls in our country. All that is likely to alter them is other facts on the ground — a growing insurgency, the deaths of Americans and Iraqis in ever greater numbers, a region increasingly thrown into turmoil, and maybe, one of these days, a full-scale, in-the-streets reaction by the Shiites of Iraq to the occupation of their country by a foreign power intent on going nowhere anytime soon.

A Bermuda Triangle of Injustice

Recently, speaking of the Bush administration’s urge to publicly redefine and so abrogate the Geneva Conventions, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “If you just look at how we are perceived in the world and the kind of criticism we have taken over Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and renditions, whether we believe it or not, people are now starting to question whether we’re following our own high standards.”

It’s a comment not atypical of the present debate in Washington and possibly of feelings in the country. The media plays up the courageous stands of Republican Senators McCain, Graham, and Warner in bringing us back to those “high standards.” In the process, the details of how much of what we can use in questioning whomever and what modest protections prisoners might or might not receive in our offshore prison system are hashed out. But no matter what is decided on any of these matters, in the real, on-the-ground world our “high standards” are quite beside the point — the point being the globally outsourced penal system being created.

For example, the President recently announced that the United States was emptying other prisons as well — previously officially unacknowledged “secret prisons” around the globe — of 14 “high value” al-Qaeda detainees. “There are now no terrorists in the CIA program,” he said, though that is unlikely to be the actual case.

Looked at another way, however, that secret CIA detention system, which seems to consist of makeshift or shared or borrowed facilities around the world, sits in place, ever ready for use. It’s not going anywhere and in the most basic sense it probably cannot be shut down. Nor it seems are the almost 14,000 prisoners we hold in Iraq, the 500 (or more) in Afghanistan, and the nearly 500 in Guantanamo going anywhere. Even with Abu Ghraib empty and the secret prison system officially emptied, nearly 15,000 prisoners are being held by the U.S. essentially incommunicado, most beyond the eyes of any system of justice, beyond the reach of any judges or juries. In many cases, as in the case of Bilal Hussein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Iraqi photojournalist, who has been held, probably at Camp Cropper, without charge or trial “on suspicion of collaborating with insurgents” for the last five months, even that most basic right — to know exactly why you are being held, what the charges are against you — is lacking.

Whatever arguments may be going on in Washington over which “tools” or “interrogation techniques” the CIA is to be allowed to use or over exactly how the 14 al-Qaeda detainees just transferred to Guantanamo will be tried, this set of facts-on-the-ground adds up to our own global Bermuda Triangle of Injustice into which untold numbers of human beings can simply disappear. The “crown jewel” of our mini-gulag is, of course, Guantanamo. And again, whatever the fierce arguments here may be about Guantanamo “methods” or what kinds of commissions or tribunals (if any) may finally be chosen for the run-of-the-mill prisoners there, one fact-on-the-ground points us toward the actual lay of the land. A little publicized $30-million maximum-security wing at Guantanamo is now being completed by the U.S. Navy, just as at the American prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, there has been an upgrade.

In all-too-real worlds beyond our reach, everything tends toward permanency. Whatever the discussion may be, whatever issues may seem to be gripping Washington or the nation, whatever you’re watching on TV or reading in the papers, elsewhere the continual constructing, enlarging, expanding, entrenching of a new global system of imprisonment, which bears no relation to any system of imprisonment Americans have previously imagined, continues non-stop, unchecked and unbalanced by Congress or the courts, unaffected by the Republic, but very distinctly under the flag “for which it stands.”

Contractors and Mercenaries

And don’t imagine that this is an anomaly, applicable only to imprisonment abroad. Almost anywhere you look, the facts on the ground tell a story at odds with what’s important, what’s real as we Americans imagine it. Let’s take, for instance, what’s now referred to as the Intelligence Community or IC, a collection of at least 16 agencies, ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency and the NSA to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Consider then just one recent piece about the IC by Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, headlined Spy Agencies Outsourcing to Fill Key Jobs.

As Miller points out, the overall intelligence budget has gone up about $10 billion a year in recent years and for that we’ve got an upgrading (or at least upsizing) of almost every one of those 16 agencies plus a whole new, sprawling layer of intelligence bureaucracy headed by John Negroponte, our intelligence tsar, who runs the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence (not even included in the count above). Miller reports another interesting fact-on-the-ground as well: Enormous numbers of private contractors are flooding into the IC.

“At the National Counterterrorism Center — the agency created two years ago to prevent another attack like Sept. 11 — more than half of the employees are not U.S. government analysts or terrorism experts. Instead, they are outside contractors. At CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., senior officials say it is routine for career officers to look around the table during meetings on secret operations and be surrounded by so-called green-badgers — nonagency employees who carry special-colored IDs.”

At some clandestine CIA overseas posts like Islamabad and Baghdad, Miller reports, private contractors can make up as many as three-quarters of the employees, while at home private contractors at the CIA, now also outnumber its estimated 17,500 employees. He concludes:

“Senior U.S. intelligence officials said that the reliance on contractors was so deep that agencies couldn’t function without them. ‘If you took away the contractor support, they’d have to put yellow tape around the building and close it down,’ said a former senior CIA official who was responsible for overseeing contracts before leaving the agency earlier this year.”

The same could, of course, be said of the military which is quite literally incapable of existing today without its private contractors like Halliburton’s KBR, nor could its wars be carried on without the proliferation of hired guns — mercenaries — that are now a given in any such situation. This transformation of the military into first an all-volunteer, then an increasingly privatized as well as outsourced, and now an increasingly mercenary institution is another fact-on-the-ground, another building block to our future.

A Reality Built on Fear

Around all such “facts,” of course, ever more entrenched and ever more expansive sets of interests arise: companies to organize the private contractees, or to deal with the outsourcing, or to handle contracts and construction work, not to speak of whole worlds of consultants, specialists, and lobbyists. This is a reality which no future administration, nor any better empowered Congress, would be likely to reverse, no less erase any time soon. No matter how the details of the argument about NSA spying turn out, for example, it’s essentially a given that the National Security Agency will continue to grow and make itself ever more available in ever more ingenious ways, trolling ever more extensively in communications of every sort. These are the facts being established on the ground, while in Washington they argue over the (sometimes significant) details and the media focuses its main attention on all of this as the essence of the news of the day.

Take for example the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), yet another sprawling, ill-organized, inefficient bureaucracy established after 9/11 and not likely to do anything but grow in our lifetimes. Around it has sprung into existence an anti-terrorism homeland-security industry (thank you, Osama bin Laden!) of staggering proportions. “Seven years ago,” writes Paul Harris of the British Guardian, “there were nine companies with federal homeland security contracts. By 2003 it was 3,512. Now there are 33,890.”

Think about that. They are there to divide a terrorism/security pie that has, since 2000, resulted in about $130 billion in contracts and now, according to USA Today, is a $59 billion a year business globally — one based on that surefire bestseller, fear, whose single major customer is, of course, the DHS.

Not surprisingly, around those 33,000 companies, has sprung up a whole network of Washington-based lobbyists (including the lobbying firm of our previous attorney general, the Ashcroft Group), a plethora of security conferences and trade magazines; in short, the full panoply of a thriving business world. Already at least 90 officials have left the Homeland Security Department to become lobbyists or consultants in the business that surrounds it, including Tom Ridge, the first head of the department. After only five years, the homeland-security business, according to USA Today, has already eclipsed “mature enterprises like movie-making and the music industry in annual revenue.”

These are truly facts on the ground and no discussion in Washington of homeland security is likely to shake them much. An industry tracker, Homeland Security Research, points the way to one possible future on which Americans are never likely to vote. “A major attack in the United States, Europe or Japan could increase the global market in 2015 to $730 billion, more than a twelvefold increase.”

Or consider the Pentagon’s Northcom — United States Northern Command, now responsible for “the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico and the surrounding water out to approximately 500 nautical miles,” including the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. Before October 1, 2002, there was no Northern Command. Less than four short years later, it’s not only up and running but has multiple missions. It’s preparing for the next hurricane (since we already know FEMA can’t do the job), deploying forces to battle wildfires in the west, and getting ready for an avian flu pandemic. And don’t think for a moment that where an institution springs up (especially one with a budget like the Pentagon’s behind it), a world of on-the-ground realities doesn’t arise as well. Just as it will when, in the near future, the Pentagon redivides its imperial domains by creating a new Africacom or United States Africa Command, supposedly to “anchor US forces on the African continent” — a decision that will be sold around town based on “terrorism security threats,” but will essentially be about energy flows and oil. Each new structure like this, each decision, will result in new facts on the ground, new flows of money, and new sets of private contractors.

These are increasingly the crucial realities of our world — and it’s not the world of a republic. It’s not a world of checks and balances. It’s not a world where even a change of ownership in one or both houses of Congress in November would prove a determining factor. It’s not a world where people out there are just “starting to question whether we’re following our own high standards.” It’s distinctly not the world as we Americans like to imagine it, but it is the world we are, regrettably enough, lost in. It’s the world created not just by a commander-in-chief presidency, but by a Pentagon-in-chief-dominated government, and by a corporation-in-chief style of imperial rule.

It is a world striving for permanence, which doesn’t faintly mean that it’s permanent — not in Iraq and not here. But it might be helpful if we began to register more fully not just the latest flurry of whatever passes for news, but the facts-on-the-ground that are, every minute, every hour, every day, transforming our lives and our planet.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The Last Days of Publishing, a novel, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt