The kind of repression that can be expected to increase exponentially as a result of the new indefinite-detention rider to the National Defense Authorization Act was illustrated just a week before Obama signed it on New Year’s Eve. On Dec. 20, a Boston jury convicted the pharmacist Dr. Tarek Mehanna of material support to terrorism based on the fact that he translated and disseminated a document titled “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad,” a document that prosecutors failed to recognize as composed in great measure of lines from the Koran.
Mehanna was first targeted for prosecution when, as a young pharmacy student, he refused the FBI’s request that he act as an informer for them. His first arrest was orchestrated on the basis that he had made a false statement in an interview forced on him by the FBI, a charge that the government could never prove. He was released and later arrested for what the Massachusetts ACLU characterized as a political speech—that is, speech that should have been protected in the United States.
Despite the unjust character of the government case against Mehanna, his family and friends, as well as the broad civil liberties community, will likely know in which prison he may be found and be able to appeal his conviction. However, under the new indefinite-detention provisions codified in the NDAA, the government will be able to disappear someone like Mehanna and hold them indefinitely without trial or any kind of due process.
Combined with already existing government practice that allows the interpretation of political speech in opposition to U.S. foreign policy to be considered “material support to terrorism” and the mandate to “preemptively prosecute” those who express such opposition, the passage of the NDAA indefinite-detention provision marks a dramatic escalation of U.S. repressive policies.
The deliberate and well-documented debate in Congress about whether or not this provision would apply to U.S. citizens, a debate that ended with a majority affirming its applicability to everyone, has given the government tools for a new level of domestic repression.
Both the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have noted that this is the first time that the U.S. has clearly legally enshrined indefinite detention since the Internal Security Act of 1950, a McCarthy-era law mostly overturned in 1971, authorized the imprisonment of Communists or “subversives” without full trials or due process.
One of the most shameful elements of the reaction to the NDAA within the broad antiwar and social justice movements has been the effort by a layer of Obama supporters to downplay the significance of the indefinite-detention provision. Some argue, in a perverse replay of a decade of inattention to the defense of the Muslim American victims of FBI entrapment and confinement in CMUs, that it really does not apply to U.S. citizens. Others have insisted that it only codifies what is already being done under the Bush era 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).
Activists who find this political stance toward the NDAA inexplicable should remember that due to their support for President Roosevelt’s war effort in the 1940s, both the Communist Party USA and the National Lawyer’s Guild ended up supporting FDR’s executive order for Japanese internment. “Lesser evilism” in electoral politics has, in the past, led to a serious weakening of the fight to defend working-class political action.
In response to efforts that obfuscate the real political intent of the NDAA provision, the civil libertarian and commentator Glenn Greenwald wrote, “Three Myths About the NDAA.” He explained that supporters of Obama could claim that U.S. citizens are exempted because there are two sections of the provision, and the language about “citizens” is “purposely muddled.” In Section 1021, there is a disclaimer that states that U.S. citizens or others captured or arrested in the United States rather than abroad cannot be held indefinitely by the U.S. military. The next section, Section 1022, however, only exempts accused U.S. citizens from the mandatory military detention.
“It does not,” Greenwald pointed out, “exempt U.S. citizens from the presidential power of military detention: only from the requirement of military detention.” This distinction was the result of a demand by the White House that the president retain his powers and that they not be handed over completely to the military.
The Obama administration also demanded an explicit expansion of the powers that they claimed they had been granted in the 2001 AUMF. The Bush-era AUMF named those whom the president had determined “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.” The NDAA, on the other hand, adds as a target a person who “substantially supports” such groups “and/or associated forces.”
This language could give the government a license to detain people who carry out solidarity work with groups working in opposition to U.S. foreign-policy aims. Already, a number of antiwar activists in the Midwest have been threatened with having to give testimony to a grand jury convened to investigate “terrorism” because they sent aid to child-care centers in Gaza or publically explained the plight of peasants living in FARC-controlled sections of Colombia.
The NDAA indefinite-detention provisions must be opposed with all the strength the broad movements for social change can muster. The Muslim Peace Coalition, in collaboration with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), and many others, have begun assembling a national coalition that can implement a three-month campaign to build grassroots opposition.
The coalition will soon make available the tools for activists to seek support for a repeal campaign to bar associations, academics, 1000 members of the clergy, unions, and city and town councils around the United States. To become involved in this effort, contact UNAC via www.unacpeace.org.
> The article above was written by Luana Albert, and first appeared in the January 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.