Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Last Taboo - Letting Loose the Truth About Israel, Gaza, and the Next World War

Breaking the Last Taboo - Gaza and the Threat of World War

by John Pilger

"There is a taboo," said the visionary Edward Said, "on telling the truth about Palestine and the great destructive force behind Israel. Only when this truth is out can any of us be free."

For many people, the truth is out now. At last, they know. Those once intimidated into silence can't look away now. Staring at them from their TV, laptop, phone, is proof of the barbarism of the Israeli state and the great destructive force of its mentor and provider, the United States, the cowardice of European governments, and the collusion of others, such as Canada and Australia, in this epic crime.

The attack on Gaza was an attack on all of us. The siege of Gaza is a siege of all of us. The denial of justice to Palestinians is a symptom of much of humanity under siege and a warning that the threat of a new world war is growing by the day.

When Nelson Mandela called the struggle of Palestine "the greatest moral issue of our time", he spoke on behalf of true civilisation, not that which empires invent. In Latin America, the governments of Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia, El Salvador, Peru and Ecuador have made their stand on Gaza. Each of these countries has known its own dark silence when immunity for mass murder was sponsored by the same godfather in Washington that answered the cries of children in Gaza with more ammunition to kill them.

Unlike Netanyahu and his killers, Washington's pet fascists in Latin America didn't concern themselves with moral window dressing. They simply murdered, and left the bodies on rubbish dumps. For Zionism, the goal is the same: to dispossess and ultimately destroy an entire human society: a truth that 225 Holocaust survivors and their descendants have compared with the genesis of genocide.

Nothing has changed since the Zionists' infamous "Plan D" in 1948 that ethnically cleansed an entire people. Recently, on the website of the Times of Israel were the words: "Genocide is Permissible". A deputy speaker of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Moshe Feiglin, demands a policy of mass expulsion into concentration camps. An MP, Ayelet Shaked, whose party is a member of the governing coalition, calls for the extermination of Palestinian mothers to prevent them giving birth to what she calls "little snakes".

For years, reporters have watched Israeli soldiers bait Palestinian children by abusing them through loud-speakers. Then they shoot them dead. For years, reporters have known about Palestinian women about to give birth and refused passage through a roadblock to a hospital; and the baby has died, and sometimes the mother.

For years, reporters have known about Palestinian doctors and ambulance crews given permission by Israeli commanders to attend the wounded or remove the dead, only to be shot through the head.

For years, reporters have known about stricken people prevented from getting life-saving treatment, or shot dead when they've tried to reach a clinic for chemotherapy treatment. One elderly lady with a walking stick was murdered in this way - a bullet in her back.

When I put the facts of this crime to Dori Gold, a senior adviser to the Israeli prime minister, he said, "Unfortunately in every kind of warfare there are cases of civilians who are accidentally killed. But the case you cite was not terrorism. Terrorism means putting the cross-hairs of the sniper's rifle on a civilian deliberately."

I replied, "That's exactly what happened."

"No," he said, "it did not happen."

Such a lie or delusion is repeated unerringly by Israel's apologists. As the former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges points out, the reporting of such an atrocity invariably ends up as "caught in the cross-fire". For as long as I have covered the Middle East, much if not most of the western media has colluded in this way.

In one of my films, a Palestinian cameraman, Imad Ghanem, lies helpless while soldiers from the "most moral army in the world" blew both his legs off. This atrocity was given two lines on the BBC website. Thirteen journalists were killed by Israel in its latest bloodfest in Gaza. All were Palestinian. Who knows their names?

Something is different now. There is a huge revulsion across the world; and the voices of sensible liberalism are worried. Their hand wringing and specious choir of "equal blame" and "Israel's right to defend itself" will not wash any more; neither will the smear of anti-Semitism. Neither will their selective cry that "something must be done" about Islamic fanatics but nothing must be done about Zionist fanatics.

One sensible liberal voice, the novelist Ian McEwan, was being celebrated as a sage by the Guardian while the children of Gaza were blown to bits. This is the same Ian McEwan who ignored the pleading of Palestinians not to accept the Jerusalem Prize for literature. "If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed," said McEwan.

If they could speak, the dead of Gaza might say: Stay in bed, great novelist, for your very presence smoothes the bed of racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing and murder - no matter the weasel words you uttered as you claimed your prize.

Understanding the sophistry and power of liberal propaganda is key to understanding why Israel's outrages endure; why the world looks on; why sanctions are never applied to Israel; and why nothing less than a total boycott of everything Israeli is now a measure of basic human decency.

The most incessant propaganda says Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel. Khaled Hroub, the Cambridge University scholar considered a world leading authority on Hamas, says this phrase is "never used or adopted by Hamas, even in its most radical statements". The oft-quoted "anti-Jewish" 1988 Charter was the work of "one individual and made public without appropriate Hamas consensus... The author was one of the 'old guard' "; the document is regarded as an embarrassment and never cited.

Hamas has repeatedly offered a 10-year truce with Israel and has long settled for a two-state solution. When Medea Benjamin, the fearless Jewish American activist, was in Gaza, she carried a letter from Hamas leaders to President Obama that made clear the government of Gaza wanted peace with Israel. It was ignored. I personally know of many such letters carried in good faith, ignored or dismissed.

The unforgivable crime of Hamas is a distinction almost never reported: it is the only Arab government to have been freely and democratically elected by its people. Worse, it has now formed a government of unity with the Palestinian Authority. A single, resolute Palestinian voice - in the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court - is the most feared threat.

Since 2002, a pioneering media unit at Glasgow University has produced remarkable studies of reporting and propaganda in Israel/Palestine. Professor Greg Philo and his colleagues were shocked to find a public ignorance compounded by TV news reporting. The more people watched, the less they knew.

Greg Philo says the problem is not "bias" as such. Reporters and producers are as moved as anyone by the suffering of Palestinians; but so imposing is the power structure of the media as an extension of the state and its vested interests - that critical facts and historical context are routinely suppressed.

Incredibly, less than nine per cent of young viewers interviewed by Professor Philo's team were aware that Israel was the occupying power, and that the illegal settlers were Jewish; many believed them to be Palestinian. The term "Occupied Territories" was seldom explained. Words such as "murder", "atrocity", "cold-blooded killing" were used only to describe the deaths of Israelis.

Recently, a BBC reporter, David Loyn, was critical of another British journalist, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News. Snow was so moved by what he had seen in Gaza he went on YouTube to make a humanitarian appeal. What concerned the BBC man was that Snow had breached protocol and been emotional in his YouTube piece.

"Emotion," wrote Loyn, "is the stuff of propaganda and news is against propaganda". Did he write this with a straight face? In fact, Snow's delivery was calm. His crime was to have strayed outside the boundaries of fake impartiality. Unforgivably, he didn't censor himself.

In 1937, with Adolf Hitler in power, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times in London, wrote the following in his diary: "I spend my nights in taking out anything which will hurt [German] susceptibilities and in dropping in little things which are intended to soothe them."

On 30 July, the BBC offered viewers a masterclass in the Dawson Principle. The diplomatic correspondent of the programme Newsnight, Mark Urban, gave five reasons why the Middle East was in turmoil. None included the historic or contemporary role of the British government. The Cameron government's dispatch of £8 billion worth of arms and military equipment to Israel was airbrushed. Britain's massive arms shipment to Saudi Arabia was airbrushed. Britain's role in the destruction of Libya was airbrushed. Britain's support for the tyranny in Egypt was airbrushed.

As for the British invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, they didn't happen, either.

The only expert witness on this BBC programme was an academic called Toby Dodge from the London School of Economics. What viewers needed to know was that Dodge had been a special adviser to David Petraeus, the American general largely responsible for the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this, too, was airbrushed.

In matters of war and peace, BBC-style illusions of impartiality and credibility do more to limit and control public discussion than tabloid distortion. As Greg Philo pointed out, Jon Snow's moving commentary on YouTube was limited to whether the Israeli assault on Gaza was proportionate or reasonable. What was missing - and is almost always missing - was the essential truth of the longest military occupation in modern times: a criminal enterprise backed by western governments from Washington to London to Canberra.

As for the myth that "vulnerable" and "isolated" Israel is surrounded by enemies, Israel is actually surrounded by strategic allies. The Palestinian Authority, bankrolled, armed and directed by the US, has long colluded with Tel Aviv. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Netanyahu are the tyrannies in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar - if the World Cup ever gets to Qatar, count on Mossad to run the security.

Resistance is humanity at its bravest and most noble. The resistance in Gaza is rightly compared with the 1943 Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto - which also dug tunnels and deployed tactics of subterfuge and surprise against an overpowering military machine. The last surviving leader of the Warsaw uprising, Marek Edelman, wrote a letter of solidarity to the Palestinian resistance, comparing it with the ZOB, his ghetto fighters. The letter began: "Commanders of the Palestine military, paramilitary and partisan operations - and to all soldiers [of Palestine]."

Dr. Mads Gilbert is a Norwegian doctor renowned for his heroic work in Gaza. On 8 August, Dr. Gilbert returned to his hometown, Tromso in Norway which, as he pointed out, the Nazis had occupied for seven years. He said, "Imagine being back in 1945 and we in Norway did not win the liberation struggle, did not throw out the occupier. Imagine the occupier remaining in our country, taking it piece by piece, for decades upon decades, and banishing us to the leanest areas, and taking the fish in the sea and the water beneath us, then bombing our hospitals, our ambulance workers, our schools, our homes.

"Would we have given up and waved the white flag? No, we would not! And this is the situation in Gaza. This is not a battle between terrorism and democracy. Hamas is not the enemy Israel is fighting. Israel is waging a war against the Palestinian people's will to resist. It is the Palestinian people's dignity that they will not accept this.

"In 1938, the Nazis called the Jews Untermenschen - subhuman. Today, Palestinians are treated as a subhuman people who can be slaughtered without any in power reacting.
"So I have returned to Norway, a free country, and this country is free because we had a resistance movement, because occupied nations have the right to resist, even with weapons - it's stated in international law. And the Palestinian people's resistance in Gaza is admirable: a struggle for us all."

There are dangers in telling this truth, in breaching what Edward Said called "the last taboo". My documentary, Palestine Is Still the Issue, was nominated for a Bafta, a British academy award, and praised by the Independent Television Commission for its "journalistic integrity" and the "care and thoroughness with which it was researched." Yet, within minutes of the film's broadcast on Britain's ITV Network, a shock wave struck - a deluge of emails described me as a "demonic psychopath", "a purveyor of hate and evil", "an anti-Semite of the most dangerous kind". Much of this was orchestrated by Zionists in the US who could not possibly have seen the film. Death threats arrived at a rate of one a day.

Something similar happened to the Australian commentator Mike Carlton last month. In his regular column in the Sydney Morning Herald, Carlton produced a rare piece of journalism about Israel and the Palestinians; he identified the oppressors and their victims. He was careful to limit his attack to "a new and brutal Israel dominated by the hard-line, right-wing Likud party of Netanyahu". Those who had previously run the Zionist state, he implied, belonged to "a proud liberal tradition".

On cue, the deluge struck. He was called "a bag of Nazi slime, a Jew-hating racist." He was threatened repeatedly, and he emailed his attackers to "get fucked". The Herald demanded he apologise. When he refused, he was suspended, then he resigned. According to the Herald's publisher, Sean Aylmer, the company "expects much higher standards from its columnists."

The "problem" of Carlton's acerbic, often solitary liberal voice in a country in which Rupert Murdoch controls 70 per cent of the capital city press - Australia is the world's first murdocracy - would be solved twice over. The Australian Human Rights Commission is to investigate complaints against Carlton under the Racial Discrimination Act, which outlaws any public act or utterance that is "reasonably likely... to offend, insult, humiliate another person or a group of people" on the basic of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

In contrast to safe, silent Australia - where the Carltons are made extinct - real journalism is alive in Gaza. I often speak on the phone with Mohammed Omer, an extraordinary young Palestinian journalist, to whom I presented, in 2008, the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Whenever I called him during the assault on Gaza, I could hear the whine of drones, the explosion of missiles. He interrupted one call to attend to children huddled outside waiting for transport amidst the explosions. When I spoke to him on 30 July, a single Israeli F-19 fighter had just slaughtered 19 children. On 20 August, he described how Israeli drones had effectively "rounded up" a village so that they could savagely gunned down.

Every day, at sunrise, Mohammed looks for families who have been bombed. He records their stories, standing in the rubble of their homes; he takes their pictures. He goes to the hospital. He goes to the morgue. He goes to the cemetery. He queues for hours for bread for his own family. And he watches the sky. He sends two, three, four dispatches a day. This is real journalism.

"They are trying to annihilate us," he told me. "But the more they bomb us, the stronger we are. They will never win."

The great crime committed in Gaza is a reminder of something wider and menacing to us all.

Since 2001, the United States and its allies have been on a rampage. In Iraq, at least 700,000 men, woman and children are dead as a result. The rise of jihadists - in a country where there was none - is the result. Known as al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State, modern jihadism was invented by US and Britain, assisted by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The original aim was to use and develop an Islamic fundamentalism that had barely existed in much of the Arab world in order to undermine pan-Arab movements and secular governments. By the 1980s, this had become a weapon to destroy the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The CIA called it Operation Cyclone; and a cyclone it turned out to be, with its unleashed fury blowing back in the faces of its creators. The attacks of 9/11 and in London in July, 2005 were the result of this blowback, as were the recent, gruesome murders of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. For more than a year, the Obama administration armed the killers of these two young men - then known as ISIS in Syria - in order to destroy the secular government in Damascus.

The West's principal "ally" in this imperial mayhem is the medieval state where beheadings are routinely and judicially carried out - Saudi Arabia. Whenever a member of the British Royal Family is sent to this barbaric place, you can bet your bottom petrodollar that the British government wants to sell the sheiks more fighter planes, missiles, manacles. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, which bankrolls jihadists from Syria to Iraq.

Why must we live in this state of perpetual war?

The immediate answer lies in the United States, where a secret and unreported coup has taken place. A group known as the Project for a New American Century, the inspiration of Dick Cheney and others, came to power with the administration of George W Bush. Once known in Washington as the "crazies", this extreme sect believes in what the US Space Command calls "full spectrum dominance".

Under both Bush and Obama, a 19th-century imperial mentality has infused all departments of state. Raw militarism is ascendant; diplomacy is redundant. Nations and governments are judged as useful or expendable: to be bribed or threatened or "sanctioned".

On 31 July, the National Defense Panel in Washington published a remarkable document that called for the United States to prepare to fight six major wars simultaneously. At the top of the list were Russia and China - nuclear powers.

In one sense, a war against Russia has already begun. While the world watched horrified as Israel assaulted Gaza, similar atrocities in eastern Ukraine were barely news. At the time of writing, two Ukrainian cities of Russian-speaking people - Donetsk and Luhansk - are under siege: their people and hospitals and schools blitzed by a regime in Kiev that came to power in a putsch led by neo-Nazis backed and paid for by the United States. The coup was the climax of what the Russian political observer Sergei Glaziev describes as a 20-year "grooming of Ukrainian Nazis aimed at Russia". Actual fascism has risen again in Europe and not one European leader has spoken against it, perhaps because the rise of fascism across Europe is now a truth that dares not speak its name.

With its fascist past, and present, Ukraine is now a CIA theme park, a colony of Nato and the International Monetary Fund. The fascist coup in Kiev in February was the boast of US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, whose "coup budget" ran to $5 billion. But there was a setback. Moscow prevented the seizure of its legitimate Black Sea naval base in Russian-speaking Crimea. A referendum and annexation quickly followed. Represented in the West as the Kremlin's "aggression", this serves to turn truth on its head and cover Washington's goals: to drive a wedge between a "pariah" Russia and its principal trading partners in Europe and eventually to break up the Russian Federation. American missiles already surround Russia; Nato's military build-up in the former Soviet republics and eastern Europe is the biggest since the second world war.

During the cold war, this would have risked a nuclear holocaust. The risk has returned as anti-Russian misinformation reaches crescendos of hysteria in the US and Europe. A textbook case is the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in July. Without a single piece of evidence, the US and its Nato allies and their media machines blamed ethnic Russian "separatists" in Ukraine and implied that Moscow was ultimately responsible. An editorial in The Economist accused Vladimir Putin of mass murder. The cover of Der Spiegel used faces of the victims and bold red type, "Stoppt Putin Jetzt!" (Stop Putin Now!) In the New York Times, Timothy Garton Ash substantiated his case for "Putin's deadly doctrine" with personal abuse of "a short, thickset man with a rather ratlike face".

The Guardian's role has been important. Renowned for its investigations, the newspaper has made no serious attempt to examine who shot the aeroplane down and why, even though a wealth of material from credible sources shows that Moscow was as shocked as the rest of the world, and the airliner may well have been brought down by the Ukrainian regime.

With the White House offering no verifiable evidence - even though US satellites would have observed the shooting-down - the Guardian's Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker stepped into the breach. "My audience with the Demon of Donetsk," was the front-page headline over Walker's breathless interview with one Igor Bezler. "With a walrus moustache, a fiery temper and a reputation for brutality," he wrote, "Igor Bezler is the most feared of all the rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine... nicknamed The Demon... If the Ukrainian security services, the SBU, are to be believed, the Demon and a group of his men were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17... as well as allegedly bringing down MH17, the rebels have shot down 10 Ukrainian aircraft." Demon Journalism requires no further evidence.

Demon Journalism makes over a fascist-contaminated junta that seized power in Kiev as a respectable "interim government". Neo-Nazis become mere "nationalists". "News" sourced to the Kiev junta ensures the suppression of a US-run coup and the junta's systematic ethnic cleaning of the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine. That this should happen in the borderland through which the original Nazis invaded Russia, extinguishing some 22 million Russian lives, is of no interest. What matters is a Russian "invasion" of Ukraine that seems difficult to prove beyond familiar satellite images that evoke Colin Powell's fictional presentation to the United Nations "proving" that Saddam Hussein had WMD.

"You need to know that accusations of a major Russian 'invasion' of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence," wrote a group of former senior US intelligence officials and analysts, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Rather, the 'intelligence' seems to be of the same dubious, politically 'fixed' kind used 12 years ago to 'justify' the U.S.-led attack on Iraq."

The jargon is "controlling the narrative". In his seminal Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said was more explicit: the western media machine was now capable of penetrating deep into the consciousness of much of humanity with a "wiring" as influential as that of the imperial navies of the 19th century. Gunboat journalism, in other words. Or war by media.

Yet, a critical public intelligence and resistance to propaganda does exist; and a second superpower is emerging - the power of public opinion, fuelled by the internet and social media.

The false reality created by false news delivered by media gatekeepers may prevent some of us knowing that this new superpower is stirring in country after country: from the Americas to Europe, Asia to Africa. It is a moral insurrection, exemplified by the whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. The question begs: will we break our silence while there is time?

When I was last in Gaza, driving back to the Israeli checkpoint, I caught sight of two Palestinian flags through the razor wire. Children had made flagpoles out of sticks tied together and they'd climbed on a wall and held the flag between them.

The children do this, I was told, whenever there are foreigners around, because they want to show the world they are there - alive, and brave, and undefeated.

This article is adapted from John Pilger's Edward Said Memorial Lecture, delivered in Adelaide, Australia, on 11 September 2014.

Follow John Pilger on Twitter @johnpilger and on Facebook -

Into the Streets for London's Climate March in Pictures

Photos: The People’s Climate March, London, September 21, 2014

by Andy Worthington 


On September 21, 2014, all around the world, hundreds of thousands of people in 166 countries took part in over 2,800 events calling for urgent, coordinated action on climate change.

The website for the New York City event — attended by an estimated 300,000 people — described it accurately as the “largest climate march in history.”

See my photos of the People’s Climate March on Flickr here.

The trigger for the coordinated events around the world was the Climate Summit taking place at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Tuesday, where over 120 world leaders “will try to rally the political will for a new world-wide climate treaty by the end of 2015,” as the Wall Street Journal described it.

I attended the event in London, which involved around 40,000 people, a largely sunny day and a very friendly atmosphere, and took the photos available on Flickr. It was a powerful demonstration of widespread concern about the climate that is an important antidote to the cynical and well-funded climate change denial lobby, and the general indifference of politicians, who sometimes make positive noises about the environment, but are more generally in bed with the polluters — and, in addition, find themselves unable to tell the truth to their electorates: that we urgently need to make the environment a priority, and that doing so has to involve curbing our own destructive appetites.

The London march was organised by The Campaign against Climate Change with the support of Airport Watch, Avaaz, BP or Not BP, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Climate Coalition, Compass, Fire Brigades Union, Fuel Poverty Action, Grandparents for a Safe Earth, Greenpeace UK, One Million Climate Jobs, Operation Noah, Oxfam, People’s Assembly Against Austerity, Tearfund, Transport Salaried Staffs Association, WWF-UK and

Note: See the Guardian‘s report on events around the world here, and see here for an interview in the New Yorker with the journalist and environmental activist Bill McKibben, one of the main organisers of the march. Also see the Guardian review of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, and an interview with Klein here.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

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Teach Your Children Well (And Make Them Pay Forever)

Education With a Debt Sentence: For-Profit Colleges as American Dream Crushers and Factories of Debt

by Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel  - TomDispatch

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream -- gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. 
And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. 
Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

Tomgram: Taylor and Appel, The Subprime Education Scandal

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: My thanks to all of you who responded to my recent offer and donated $100 for a signed, personalized, hot-off-the-presses copy of my new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World, soon to be on bookstore shelves everywhere. Each donation of this sort is a way to keep this site alive and kicking. And you can still be the first on your block to have a copy, so click on our donation page and check out the offer! In the meantime, here’s what Rebecca Solnit, who introduces today’s post and whose new Dispatch Book, Men Explain Things to Me, has become an indie bestseller (just going into its fourth printing!), has to say about Shadow Government:
“This is a book about secrets and surveillance, but I’m here to tell you one secret its contents won’t. For more than a dozen years, Tom Engelhardt and his website or blog or post-newspaper wire service have been one of the great forces on the side of clarity, democracy, openness, and really good writing. Tom himself, a legendary book editor, is also one of the country’s most eloquent and tenacious political writers, electronically publishing three essays a week for all these years and writing many of them himself. This collection, focused on the new Orwellianism, is some of the finest writing and finest public service gathered together in book form for your portable pleasure and outrage.” Tom]
Taylor and Appel, The Subprime Education Scandal
 We used to hear more often about those malignant institutions serving, or rather plaguing, the poor: the loan sharks who charged 100% or more per year in interest, the furniture or radios that ended up costing several times their value on the installment plan. Two or three decades ago, however, we didn’t think of an education as being part of the landscape of predation upon the poor. Now, as Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel explain, when it comes to a new crew of “for-profit” colleges, higher education has gone hyena and is tearing at the financial flesh of the poor.
Even mainstream institutions can be sketchy these days, if you look closely enough. Most liberal arts college programs give their students a vague, if exhilarating, sense that the best possible outcome of their vocation is practically an inevitability, and yet there are far from enough tenure-track jobs, top galleries, or niches on bestseller lists for all the people being educated.

Though people make it in all these fields, they are a tiny minority. So many others pay their dues and get little for it, except whatever is inherently meaningful in their education, which won’t, of course, lighten their loan burden at all.

Once upon a time, it was different. The radicalism of the 1960s, for instance, should be chalked up in part to the great freedom of youth at a time when the fat of the land seemed inexhaustible and the safety net unbreakable. The two radicals I know who became wanted fugitives in the 1970s and then tenured faculty members (now retired with pensions) operated in a more forgiving era -- and a more affluent one.

My parents believed that any kind of bachelor’s degree pretty much guaranteed your white-collar future, and that was a truth of their era. Thirty years ago, when I came along, it was already less of a reality; today, so much less than that. Still, the hangover from that conviction lingers. I went to California’s public universities as their golden age of nearly free and superb education was ending and got through college scrambling to the sound of doors shutting behind me. It was all part of the end of an egalitarian dream birthed and nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, the creation of social security in the 1940s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It’s now popular to say that, as president, Richard Nixon was to the left of Barack Obama, but what that means is that our society was then closer to a social democracy (and that since we’re really bad at talking about it, we’d rather focus our attention on figureheads).

Maybe communism was good for us after all, at least -- as David Graeber argues -- in scaring the powers that be into offering their own limited versions of equality and opportunity. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, was the beginning of the end of that dream, arising as it did from the now-entrenched belief that what we have separately beats whatever we have together anytime. Taxes were portrayed as the nails that stuck every breadwinning Jesus to his own personal cross, rather than the way to keep roads and bridges and schools in shape, have safe drinking water and, like, a postal system and libraries (and also a giant military eating up more than half of the federal government's discretionary spending). As the retreat into the private sphere began in earnest, people started forgetting how good, how secure life had been, while Republicans launched the mantra that future tax cuts would be a magical ointment capable of curing anything.

Part of the great work of Occupy Wall Street was to make some of the brutality of the current economy visible. People whose lives were being ravaged by housing, medical, and educational debt came out of the shame and the shadows to testify, while activists and homeowners took action against foreclosures and banks. From the beginning Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, was part of that movement and moment. Her work there led to her involvement with Strike Debt and the fledgling Debt Collective. Now, she and Hannah Appel focus on the conditions that produced the perfect educational storm in the form of the private for-profit university/corporation. Rebecca Solnit

Education With a Debt Sentence: For-Profit Colleges as American Dream Crushers and Factories of Debt

by Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel

As Cornell professor Noliwe Rooks and journalist Kai Wright have reported, black college enrollment has increased at nearly twice the rate of white enrollment in recent years, but a disproportionate number of those African-American students end up at for-profit schools. In 2011, two of those institutions, the University of Phoenix (with physical campuses in 39 states and massive online programs) and the online-only Ashford University, produced more black graduates than any other institutes of higher education in the country. Unfortunately, a recent survey by economist Rajeev Darolia shows that for-profit graduates fare little better on the job market than job seekers with high school degrees; their diplomas, that is, are a net loss, offering essentially the same grim job prospects as if they had never gone to college, plus a lifetime debt sentence.

Many students who enroll in such colleges don’t realize that there is a difference between for-profit, public, and private non-profit institutions of higher learning. All three are concerned with generating revenue, but only the for-profit model exists primarily to enrich its owners. The largest of these institutions are often publicly traded, nationally franchised corporations legally beholden to maximize profit for their shareholders before maximizing education for their students. While commercial vocational programs have existed since the nineteenth century, for-profit colleges in their current form are a relatively new phenomenon that began to boom with a series of initial public offerings in the 1990s, followed quickly by deregulation of the sector as the millennium approached. Bush administration legislation then weakened government oversight of such schools, while expanding their access to federal financial aid, making the industry irresistible to Wall Street investors.

While the for-profit business model has generally served investors well, it has failed students. Retention rates are abysmal and tuitions sky-high. For-profit colleges can be up to twice as expensive as Ivy League universities, and routinely cost five or six times the price of a community college education. The Medical Assistant program at for-profit Heald College in Fresno, California, costs $22,275. A comparable program at Fresno City College costs $1,650. An associate degree in paralegal studies at Everest College in Ontario, California, costs $41,149, compared to $2,392 for the same degree at Santa Ana College, a mere 30-minute drive away.

Exorbitant tuition means students, who tend to come from poor backgrounds, have to borrow from both the government and private sources, including Sallie Mae (the country's largest originator, servicer, and collector of student loans) and banks like Chase and Wells Fargo. A whopping 96% of students who manage to graduate from for-profits leave owing money, and they typically carry twice the debt load of students from more traditional schools.

Public funds in the form of federal student loans has been called the “lifeblood” of the for-profit system, providing on average 86% of revenues. Such schools now enroll around 10% of America’s college students, but take in more than a quarter of all federal financial aid -- as much as $33 billion in a single year. By some estimates it would cost less than half that amount to directly fund free higher education at all currently existing two- and four-year public colleges. In other words, for-profit schools represent not a “market solution” to increasing demand for the college experience, but the equivalent of a taxpayer-subsidized subprime education.

Pushing the Hot Button, Poking the Pain

The mantra is everywhere: a college education is the only way to climb out of poverty and create a better life. For-profit schools allow Wall Street investors and corporate executives to cash in on this faith.

Publicly traded schools have been shown to have profit margins, on average, of nearly 20%. A significant portion of these taxpayer-sourced proceeds are spent on Washington lobbyists to keep regulations weak and federal money pouring in. Meanwhile, these debt factories pay their chief executive officers $7.3 million in average yearly compensation. John Sperling, architect of the for-profit model and founder of the University of Phoenix, which serves more students than the entire University of California system or all the Ivy Leagues combined, died a billionaire in August.

Graduates of for-profit schools generally do not fare well. Indeed, they rarely find themselves in the kind of work they were promised when they enrolled, the kind of work that might enable them to repay their debts, let alone purchase the commodity-cornerstones of the American dream like a car or a home.

In the documentary "College Inc.," produced by PBS’s investigative series Frontline, three young women recount how they enrolled in a nursing program at Everest College on the promise of $25-$35 an hour jobs on graduation. Course work, however, turned out to consist of visits to the Museum of Scientology to study “psychiatrics” and visits to a daycare center for their “pediatrics rotation.” They each paid nearly $30,000 for a 12-month program, only to find themselves unemployable because they had been taught nearly nothing about their chosen field.

In 2010, an undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office tested 15 for-profit colleges and found that every one of them “made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” to undercover applicants. These recruiting practices are now under increasing scrutiny from 20 state attorneys general, Senate investigators, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), amid allegations that many of these schools manipulate the job placement statistics of their graduates in the most cynical of ways.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization that offers support in health, education, employment, and community-building to new veterans, put it this way in August 2013: "Using high-pressure sales tactics and false promises, these institutions lure veterans into enrolling into expensive programs, drain their post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits, and sign up for tens of thousands of dollars in loans. The for-profits take in the money but leave the students with a substandard education, heavy student loan debt, non-transferable credits, worthless degrees, or no degrees at all.”

Even President Obama has spoken out against instances where for-profit colleges preyed upon troops with brain damage: “These Marines had injuries so severe some of them couldn’t recall what courses the recruiter had signed them up for.”

As it happens, recruiters for such schools are manipulating more than statistics. They are mining the intersections of class, race, gender, inequality, insecurity, and shame to hook students. "Create a sense of urgency. Push their hot button. Don't let the student off the phone. Dial, dial, dial," a director of admissions at Argosy University, which operates in 23 states and online, told his enrollment counselors in an internal email.

A training manual for recruiters at ITT Tech, another multi-state and virtual behemoth, instructed its employees to "poke the pain a bit and remind them who else is depending on them and their commitment to a better future.” It even included a "pain funnel" -- that is, a visual guide to help recruiters exploit prospective students’ vulnerabilities. Pain was similarly a theme at Ashford University, where enrollment advisors were told by their superiors to “dig deep” into students’ suffering to “convince them that a college degree is going to solve all their problems.”

An internal document from Corinthian Colleges, Inc. (owner of Everest, Heald, and Wyotech colleges) specified that its target demographic is “isolated,” “impatient” individuals with “low self-esteem.” They should have “few people in their lives who care about them and be stuck in their lives, unable to imagine a future or plan well.”

These recruiting strategies are as well funded as they are abhorrent. When an institution of higher learning is driven primarily by the needs of its shareholders, not its students, the drive to get “asses in classes” guarantees that marketing budgets will dwarf whatever is spent on faculty and instruction. According to David Halperin, author of Stealing America’s Future: How For-Profit Colleges Scam Taxpayers and Ruin Student’s Lives, “The University of Phoenix has spent as much as $600 million a year on advertising; it has regularly been Google’s largest advertiser, spending $200,000 a day.”

At some schools, the money put into the actual education of a single student has been as low as $700 per year. The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee revealed that 30 of the for-profit industry’s biggest players spent $4.2 billion -- or 22.7% of their revenue -- on recruiting and marketing in 2010.

Subprime Schools, Swindled Students

In profit paradise, there are nonetheless signs of trouble. Corinthian College Inc., for instance, is under investigation by several state and federal agencies for falsifying job-placement rates and lying to students in marketing materials. In June, the Department of Education discovered that the company was on the verge of collapse and began supervising a search for buyers for its more than 100 campuses and online operations. In this “unwinding process,” some Corinthian campuses have already shut down. To make matters worse, this month the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a $500 million lawsuit accusing Corinthian of running a “predatory lending scheme.”

As the failure of Corinthian unfolds, those who understood it to be a school -- namely, its students -- have been left in the lurch. Are their hard-earned degrees and credits worthless? Should those who are enrolled stay put and hope for the storm to pass or jump ship to another institution? Social media reverberate with anxious questions.

Nathan Hornes started the Facebook group “Everest Avengers,” a forum where students who feel confused and betrayed can share information and organize. A 2014 graduate of Everest College’s Ontario, California, branch, Nathan graduated with a 3.9 GPA, a degree in Business Management, and $65,000 in debt. Unable to find the gainful employment Everest promised him, he currently works two fast-food restaurant jobs. Nathan’s dreams of starting a record label and a music camp for inner city kids will be deferred even further into some distant future when his debts come due: a six-month grace period expires in October and Nathan will owe $380 each month on Federal loans alone. “Do I want to pay bills or my loans?” he asks. Corinthian has already threatened to sue him if he fails to make payments.

Asked to explain Corinthian’s financial troubles, Trace Urdan, a market analyst for Wells Fargo Bank, Corinthian’s biggest equity investor, argued that the school attracts “subprime students” who “can be expected -- as a group -- to repay at levels far lower than most student loans.” And yet, as Corinthian’s financial woes mounted, the corporation stopped paying rent at its Los Angeles campuses and couldn’t pay its own substantial debts to lenders, including Bank of America, from whom it sought a debt waiver.

That Corinthian can request debt waivers from its lenders should give us pause. Who, one might ask, is the proper beneficiary of a debt waiver in this case? No such favors will be done for Nathan Hornes or other former Corinthian students, though they have effectively been led into a debt trap with an expert package of misrepresentations, emotional manipulation, and possibly fraud.

From Bad Apples to a Better System, or Everest Avenged

As is always the case with corporate scandals, Corinthian is now being described as a “bad apple” among for-profits, not evidence of a rotten orchard. The fact is that for-profits like Corinthian exemplify all the contradictions of the free-market model that reformers present as the only solution to the current crisis in higher education: not only are these schools 90% dependent on taxpayer money, but tenure doesn’t exist, there are no faculty unions, most courses are offered online with low overhead costs, and students are treated as “customers.”

It’s also worth remembering that at “public” universities, it is now nearly impossible for working class or even middle class students to graduate without debt. This sad state of affairs -- so the common version of the story goes -- is the consequence of economic hard-times, which require belt tightening and budget cuts. And so it has come to pass that strapped community colleges are now turning away would-be enrollees who wind up in the embrace of for-profits that proceed to squeeze every penny they can from them and the public purse as well. (All the while, of course, this same tale provides for-profits with a cover: they are offering a public service to a marginalized and needy population no one else will touch.)

The standard narrative that, in the face of shrinking tax revenues, public universities must relentlessly raise tuition rates turns out, however, to be full of holes. As political theorist Robert Meister points out, this version of the story ignores the complicity of university leaders in the process. Many of them were never passive victims of privatization; instead, they saw tuition, not taxpayer funding, as the superior and preferred form of revenue growth.

Beginning in the 1990s, universities, public and private, began working ever more closely with Wall Street, which meant using tuition payments not just as direct revenue but also as collateral for debt-financing. Consider the venerable but beleaguered University of California system: a 2012 report out of its Berkeley branch, “Swapping Our Futures,” shows that the whole system was losing $750,000 each month on interest-rate swaps -- a financial product that promised lower borrowing costs, but ended up draining the U.C. system of already-scarce resources.

In the last decade, its swap agreements have cost it over $55 million and could, in the end, add up to a loss of $200 million. Financiers, as the university’s creditors, are promised ever-increasing tuition as the collateral on loans, forcing public schools to aggressively recruit ever more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuitions, and to raise the in-state tuition relentlessly as well, simply to meet debt burdens and keep credit ratings high.

Instead of being the social and economic leveler many believe it to be, American higher education in the twenty-first century too often compounds the problem of inequality through debt-servitude. Referring to student debt, which has by now reached $1.2 trillion, Meister suggests, “Add up the lifetime debt service that former students will pay on $1 trillion, over and above the principal they borrow, and you could run a very good public university system for what we are paying capital markets to fund an ever-worsening one."

You Are Not a Loan

The big problem of how we finance education won’t be solved overnight. But one group is attempting to provide both immediate aid to students like Nathan Hornes and a vision for rethinking debt as a systemic issue. On September 17th, the Rolling Jubilee, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, announced the abolition of a portfolio of debt worth nearly $4 million originating from for-profit Everest College. This granted nearly 3,000 former students no-strings-attached debt relief.

The authors of this article have both been part of this effort. To date, the Rolling Jubilee has abolished nearly $20 million dollars of medical and educational debt by taking advantage of a little-known trade secret: debt is often sold to debt collectors for mere pennies on the dollar. A medical bill that was originally $1,000 might sell to a debt collector for 4% of its sticker price, or $40. This allowed the Rolling Jubilee project to make a multi-million dollar impact with a budget of approximately $700,000 raised in large part through small individual donations.

The point of the Rolling Jubilee is simple enough: we believe people shouldn’t have to go into debt for basic needs. For the last four decades, easy access to credit has masked stagnating wages and crumbling social services, forcing many Americans to debt-finance necessities like college, health care, and housing, while the creditor class has reaped enormous rewards. But while we mean the Jubilee’s acts to be significant, we know it is not a sustainable solution to the problem at hand. There is no way to buy and abolish all the odious debt sloshing around our economy, nor would we want to. Given the way our economy is structured, people would start slipping into the red again the minute their debts were wiped out.

The Rolling Jubilee instead raises a question: If a ragtag group of activists can find a way to provide immediate relief to even a few thousand defrauded students, why can’t the government?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s lawsuit against Corinthian Colleges, Inc. is a good first step, but it only applies to specific private loans originating after 2011, and it will likely take years to play out. Until it's resolved, students are still technically on the hook and many will be harassed by unscrupulous debt collectors attempting to extract money from them while they still can. In the meantime, the Department of Education (DOE) -- which has far greater purview than the CFPB -- is effectively acting as a debt collector for a predatory lender, instead of using its discretionary power to help students. Why didn’t the DOE simply let Corinthian go bankrupt, as often happens to private institutions, and so let the students’ debts become dischargeable?

Such debt discharge is well within the DOE’s statutory powers. When a school under its jurisdiction has broken state laws or committed fraud it is, in fact, mandated to offer debt discharge to students. Yet in Corinthian’s opaque, unaccountable unwinding process, the Department of Education appears to be focused on keeping as many of these predatory “schools” open as possible.

No less troubling, the DOE actually stands to profit off Corinthian’s debt payments, as it does from all federally secured educational loans, regardless of the school they are associated with. Senator Elizabeth Warren has already sounded the alarm about the department’s conflict of interest when it comes to student debt, citing an estimate that the government stands to rake in up to $51 billion dollars in a single year on student loans. As Warren points out, it’s “obscene” for the government to treat education as a profit center.

Can there be any doubt that funds reaped from the repayment of federally backed loans by Corinthian students are especially ill-gotten gains? Nathan Hornes and his fellow students should be the beneficiaries of debt relief, not further dispossession.

Unless people agitate, no reprieve will be offered. Instead there may be slaps on the wrist for a few for-profit “bad apples,” with policymakers presenting possible small reductions in interest rates or income-based payments for student borrowers as major breakthroughs.

We need to think bigger. There is an old banking adage: if you owe the bank $1,000, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 million, you own the bank. Individually, student debt is an incapacitating burden. But as Nathan and others are discovering, as a premise for collective action, it can offer a new kind of leverage. Debt collectives, effectively debtors’ unions, may be the next stage of anti-austerity organizing. Collective action offers many possibilities for building power against creditors through collective bargaining, including the power to threaten a debt strike. Where for-profits prey on people’s vulnerability, isolation, and shame, debt collectives would nurture feelings of strength, solidarity, and outrage.

Those who profit from education fear such a transformation, and understandably so. “We ask students to make payments while in school to help them develop the discipline and practice of repaying their federal and other loan obligations,” a Corinthian Colleges spokesman said in response to the news of CFPB’s lawsuit.

It’s absurd: a single mother working two jobs and attending online classes to better her life is discipline personified, even if she can’t always pay her loans on time. The executives and investors living large off her financial aid are the ones who need to be taught a lesson. Perhaps we should collectively demand that as part of their punishment these predators take a course in self-discipline taught by their former students.

Hannah Appel is a mother, activist, and assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA. Her work looks at the everyday life of capitalism and the economic imagination. She has been active with Occupy Wall Street since 2011.
Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! and Examined Life), and activist. Her book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), was published in April. She helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Hannah Appel and Astra Taylor

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Good Doctor's Trial: Fairness and Justice?

Dhafir Trial: Fairness and Justice?

by Katherine Hughes - Truthout

My passion for the protection of civil liberties was sparked at the age of 14 when I saw a documentary on the Allies’ liberation of Bergen-Belsen. For the past 40 years, in an effort to understand how something like that could happen, I’ve been reading first-hand accounts of 1930s and 1940s Europe and the former Soviet Union. Over the last 25 years I began noticing similar circumstances in both Europe and the United States: wars creating millions of refugees, financial crises, erosions of workers’ rights and sharpening income inequality, along with national and individual poverty and debt, a xenophobic and racist climate, and attacks on civil liberties, including freedom of speech.

My alarm grew as I witnessed the post-9/11 demonization of Muslims. I have always known that if anything like this happened in my lifetime, not only did I not want any part of it; I did not want to be a bystander. It was for this reason that I decided to attend the trial of Rafil Dhafir, a respected oncologist from upstate New York. I knew virtually nothing about Dhafir before attending almost all of the 17-week trial in 2004. I took copious notes during the proceedings. Because of the injustice I witnessed, I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to let others know about the case: I started a website and have published articles and given interviews. I’m currently working on a documentary.

After publishing my last article, “Anatomy of a ‘Terrorism’ Prosecution: Dr. Rafil Dhafirand the Help the Needy Muslim CharityCase,” in January 2012, I thought I had finally written everything I needed to about this case. A recent incident, however, has made stunningly clear the pattern of US government tactics that have made it impossible, for 12 long years, for Dhafir to mount an effective defense.

The latest incident occurred on June 18, 2014, when, for no given reason, Dhafir was taken out of the general population in the prison where he is serving his sentence and placed in the special housing unit (SHU). This happened in the midst of his last chance at a legal remedy, a 2255 habeas corpus motion. Since Dhafir has no money for an attorney, he has been working on the motion by himself, and conditions within the SHU (at one point he was denied writing material) have made such efforts extremely difficult. The deadline for the 2255 is November 4, 2014. It cannot be extended.

Preparing the 2255 includes reviewing six of the requested 37 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) discs that he finally received after a two-year delay. (He recently received an additional two discs, but has had no chance to review them.) The six discs that he has reviewed have a total of 2,056 pages delivered (95 percent redacted) and 4,029 deleted pages. Even with so many pages missing and so much redacted, these pages clearly show the government’s aim in this case: to connect Dhafir – no matter how tenuously – with Islamic terror and use his conviction as an example of the government’s zeal in protecting the public.

Seven government agencies investigated Dhafir and his charity, Help the Needy (HTN), for many years. They intercepted his mail, email, faxes and telephone calls, bugged his office and hotel rooms, went through his trash and conducted physical surveillance. The FOIA request has revealed that there were many full-time agents working on the case, often doing overtime and working holidays. Many agencies across the country and around the world, in places as widespread as Detroit, St. Louis, Tampa, San Francisco, Chicago, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Canberra, Amman, Cairo and London, were involved. Though government failed to come up with anything that would stand up as such in a court of law, it clearly viewed his case as a terrorism trial.

From the day of the arrest, the government insinuated that Dhafir was a money launderer for terrorists. Long before he went on trial, he was pilloried in the court of public opinion.

A motion granted by Judge Mordue before the trial began meant that the defense could address the government’s actual charges only and could not challenge its insinuations of support of terrorism. Although prosecutors could hint at more serious charges throughout the trial, the defense team couldn’t respond to these inflammatory innuendos head-on. This strategy had devastating consequences not only for Dhafir’s defense at trial, but also for his appeals, which were limited to the district court record.

One of the most exciting things about the 2255 is that, unlike appeals, it gives the defendant a chance to present new evidence to the court, for example, evidence gleaned from the FOIA request, which clearly shows the government’s true intent in this case and that, as late as 2010, it was still fishing for a connection to terrorism.

A letter writing campaign and call-in day was organized to find out the reason Dhafir had been placed in the SHU and to request that he be released back into the general population. The offices of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) also contacted the prison for information about why Dhafir was placed in the SHU. Dhafir, a deeply religious Muslim, spent the whole of Ramadan in the SHU, including Eid al-Fitr (comparable to a combined Easter and Christmas in the Christian tradition). After 73 days in the SHU, he was released without charge on August 29. We are still none the wiser as to why he was put there in the first place.

Background to the Case

Born in Iraq in 1948, Dhafir completed medical school before immigrating to the United States in 1972; he has been a US citizen for almost 40 years. He was a founding member of the Islamic Society of Central New York (ISCNY) and served as its spiritual leader for about seven years. He was an oncologist in an underserved area of Rome, New York, until his arrest, well-known for both his medical skill and his way of giving hope and courage to his patients. Both he and his African-American wife, Priscilla, were very active in Syracuse civic affairs. At trial, Priscilla Dhafir testified that she sat on the board of the YWCA, was a charter member of the Women’s Fund, past director of the CNY Business and Professional Women’s Club, and current treasurer of Syracuse Links, a group of professional women who reached out to youth in the area. Dhafir often spoke at events and on local TV and radio about health and cancer care.

On August 1, 1990, Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, invaded Kuwait and on August 2, US and UK-sponsored UN sanctions (also known as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA here in the United States) against Iraq were put in place. On January 17, 1991, the first bombs of the Gulf War were dropped on Baghdad. Before this war, Iraq, a wealthy country, had a First World standard of living. Although organized as a brutal dictatorship, the government provided universal health care and education – including college – for all its citizens. There was virtually no illiteracy and the education system and health system were the best in the region. Women enjoyed equal rights and religious minorities were respected.

The result of the war was total devastation: More bombs were dropped on Iraq in a six-week period than were dropped by all parties together in the whole of World War II. Many types of bombs were used including ones containing depleted uranium (DU), the waste matter from nuclear plants. DU dust has entered the food chain through the soil and the water, and as a result many formerly unknown diseases became prevalent in Iraq. Cancer and birth defects increased dramatically.

According to the United Nations’ own statistics, every month throughout the 1990s, 6,000 children under the age of five in Iraq were dying from malnutrition and lack of access to simple medicines. Three senior UN officials resigned in protest, including Denis Halliday, the UN assistant secretary general. At the time, Halliday was serving as the humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad. In his words, he “had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.”

As a direct response to this catastrophe, Dhafir founded his charity, HTN, and openly sent humanitarian aid to Iraqi civilians during the long embargo. As an oncologist, Dhafir was particularly concerned about the effects of depleted uranium. Between 1990 and 2003, heworked tirelessly to shed light on the plight of the Iraqi people and raise funds to help them. According to the government, Dhafir donated $1.4 million of his own money. Throughout these years, Dhafir asked US officials if this humanitarian aid was legal and was assured it was – that is, until the morning of his arrest.

At trial, Susan Hutner of the Department of the Treasury in the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) testified that she was involved in the drafting and implementation of the sanctions, and worked on them for 12 years. She said that OFAC did seek to notify targeted populations, but this did not include Iraqis living in this country, mosques or Muslim charities. The target populations were mainly banks, oil companies and other big businesses: Hutner gave presentations to some of these groups.

On February 26, 2003, just weeks before the US invasion of Iraq, Dhafir and other HTN associates were subjected to high-profile arrests. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called them “funders of terrorism.” No charges of funding terrorism, nor charges of any other aspect of terrorism, were ever brought against Dhafir.

Since the events of 9/11, Muslim charities have been among the biggest targets of the US government in its “war on terror,” and the government has implemented some powerful new tools for prosecution of these cases. Among the list of statutes being used is the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), also known as “United States economic sanctions.” IEEPA provides the president of the United States with authority to deal with any “unusual and extraordinary threat” that has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States; this includes a threat to “national security, foreign policy, and the economy.”

Prosecutors armed with the statutes are further empowered by using them in conjunction with the “material support of terrorism” laws, Executive Order 13224, and civil asset forfeiture laws, particularly those under IEEPA, which were amended by the Patriot Act. Under the IEEPA civil asset forfeiture provisions, the government can close down an organization and seize its assets while an investigation is ongoing, without probable cause of criminal activity and without any charges ever being brought against anyone.

EO 13224 was issued on September 23, 2001, and introduced a blacklist of organizations and individuals suspected of terrorism, materially aiding terrorism or associating with terrorists. IEEPA and international law permit humanitarian assistance for these suspects, including food, clothing and medicine, but this humanitarian aid is outlawed under the EO 13224. The penalty, for an IEEPA violation, for organizations that knowingly engage in terrorist financing already carries a sentence of 20 years to life in prison. What this new provision does is “drastically increase the penalties for knowing violations of non-terrorism-related IEEPA offenses.” People with a concern for civil liberties are troubled by the fact that the government provides no legal definition of what they consider a “specially designated terrorist” and by the broad manner in which the government is interpreting the new rules.

Muslim charities and individuals connected with these charities are bearing the brunt of theeffects of this new law. Since September 11, 2001, six major US Muslim charities and many smaller Muslim charities have been shut down. Sadly, the government’s zeal for prosecuting Muslim charities has not abated with time. Just last year, Iranian-American doctor Hossein Lahiji and his wife, Najmeh Vahid, were prosecuted using many of the same legal tools used in Dhafir’s case, including threat of Medicare fraud prosecution.

Before attending this trial, I felt secure that my civil liberties would always be respected; I no longer believe that to be true. I still believe in fairness and justice despite my experience at the trail, and each new injustice that Dhafir suffers only strengthens my commitment to them. It is for this reason that I wish to share some unfair tactics that I witnessed throughout this case. Those who would like more detailed documentation of the government’s role in this case can read my most recent article.

Pretrial: Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

Dhafir was subject to a high-profile arrest February 26, 2003: News agencies with helicopters hovered over his house as 85 agents spent the day going through the house and carrying out boxes of evidence, while Ashcroft announced the arrest of “funders of terrorism.” But Dhafir was never allowed to defend himself of this charge in a court of law. This duplicitous government approach continually hampered the defense, not only at trial, but also on appeals.

Dhafir was never released after his arrest and was denied bail six times before his case came to trial 19 months later. This placed many impedimentsin the way of preparing his defense. (Barry Gewanter of the CNYCLU addressed some of the difficulties Dhafir faced on a WCNY Channel 24 program that aired on the eve of his sentencing.)

On March 11, 2003, less than two weeks after Dhafir’s arrest, Steve Emerson of “The Investigative Project On Terrorism” (IPT) testified before the House Committee on Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. Listed on p. 25, HTN is just one of many Muslim charities included in the testimony. None of these charities’ principals had been anywhere near a court of law, and many had not even been indicted.

In July 2003, Jeffrey Breinholt, then-coordinator of the Department of Justice Terrorist Financing Task Force published a “Terrorist Financing” paper. His paper lists the same cases covered in Emerson’s testimony and sets out the game plan for prosecutions of these cases. In the introduction, he says: “Persons cannot be convicted of the federal crime of terrorism because there is no such crime. Instead, terrorism crimes have developed in the same manner as other crimes, policymakers determine what evil (or ‘mischief’) should be prevented and then craft criminal laws that take into account how such mischief is generally achieved.

On occasion, acts that are criminalized are not ones that should necessarily be discouraged, if committed by persons not otherwise involved in the targeted conduct. In such cases, laws are crafted to criminalize such conduct only in particular circumstances” (p. 3). Breinholt, a team member at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC), published a 2008 article on its site, “Islam in American Courts: 2007 Year in Review.” In it he says, “Next time someone claims that American prosecutors never win terrorism cases, or that Muslims are not more likely to be terrorists than other ethnic enclaves, recommend that they visit a law library, where they will find several published 2007 opinions in the case books where Muslims were successfully prosecuted for conduct related to religiously-inspired violence.” He appears as one of the experts in Emerson’s most recent film, Jihad in America: The Grand Deception.

Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) Michael Olmsted, head of the prosecution team, told Dhafir’s three trial lawyers (a black Baptist and two secular Jews) that Dhafir was anti-Semitic. It was patently false, so why did he tell them that?

Dhafir was initially held at the Justice Center in downtown Syracuse where he could meet with his trial lawyers fact-to-face, but after some demonstrations in support of him, he was moved to the Onondaga County Jamesville Correctional Facility. At Jamesville, prisoners were strip searched before they could meet with anyone from the outside and, as a devout Muslim, Dhafir refused to do this. (One of his lawyers, Joel Cohen, offered to be strip searched so that he could meet face to face with Dhafir, but this request was denied.) As a consequence, he now had to meet with his three lawyers through glass; only two could be in the visiting cubicle at any one time, and only one lawyer at a time could talk with him on the phone that connected them with Dhafir. The lawyers had to hold up bits of evidence to the window and ask Dhafir questions.

Because Dhafir couldn’t leave Jamesville prison without a strip search, he had a friend go to the federal building to look through the hundreds of boxes of evidence that had been taken from his house. Mohamed Khater spent 12 days going through the boxes looking for things that Dhafir needed for his defense.
While state and national government officials tarred Dhafir with the “terrorism” brush, District Attorney Glenn Suddaby and the three local prosecutors insisted Dhafir was nothing more than a common white-collar criminal. Yet just before Dhafir’s trial began in October 2004, then-New York Governor Pataki described the case as a “money laundering case to help terrorist organizations … conduct horrible acts,” and described Dhafir and HTN supporters as “terrorists living here in New York State among us . . . who are supporting and aiding and abetting those who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and neighbors.” It was an announcement perfectly timed to reach potential jurors.


The first indictment against Dhafir contained 14 charges related only to the Iraq sanctions. When he refused to accept a plea agreement, the government piled on more charges and he finally faced a 60-count indictment. This made for a very complicated and expensive 17-week trial. The amount of information was overwhelming.

The motion that Judge Mordue had granted to the government to keep the government’s true motive for pursuing Dhafir out of the courtroom turned into a brick wall for the defense and made the trial surreal at times: Throughout the trial the government could hint at more serious charges pending, but the defense was never allowed to follow this line of questioning. An example of this dynamic can be seen in the testimony of Colleen Williams, a tax preparer Dhafir had hired to help HTN sort out its tax returns and give advice on a 501(c)(3) application for the charity. The government wanted Williams to inform on HTN and she described how FBI Agent Jim Kolbe, IRS Agent Mark Sweeney and US Attorney Brenda Sannes had spent three days, first individually and then together, asking her to wear a recorder in her meetings with HTN defendant Ayman Jarwan. She described them as “waving the flag” and telling her that, “9/11 may not have happened if people were involved.” She felt the HTN people “were being pursued” and got rid of them as a client after only three meetings. She never agreed to wear a wire and refused to refer the case to a government attorney.

For white-collar crime?

Although the government had taken all Dhafir’s money (including HTN money and personal money in Amman, Jordan), the court still granted the prosecution’s request to deny Dhafir transcripts at the expense of the court (50 cents a page). This meant that one of Dhafir’s lawyers typed the proceedings on his laptop, and the defense purchased only those transcripts that it felt it couldn’t do without.

Because Dhafir would not submit to a strip search, five federal marshals ferried him to and from the prison. Two were always in the courtroom: one sat behind Dhafir and another sat adjacent to the jury. They traded off approximately every 40 minutes in full view of the jury. This changing of the guard was on top of federal building and courtroom security and took place at least 250 times during the proceedings. It was a powerful nonverbal message to the jury.

At trial, Osama bin Laden was mentioned with no relevance, and the jury was made aware that Dhafir followed the same Islamic religious tradition, Salafi, as Bin Laden. (Salafi merely means a Muslim who is a strict adherent of the Koran and looks to the ancestors for guidance. It is comparable to someone in the Christian faith who looks to the Scriptures, church fathers and traditions of the early church for guidance.)
Three government agents sat directly behind the three prosecutors, and adjacent to the jury, throughout the trial: FBI Agent Jim Kolbe testified for 16 days, eight of them as the sole witness and eight of them as one of only two witnesses; it was his testimony that, essentially, convicted Dhafir; Social Security agent Michael McCole testified for about 20 minutes; the Defense Department agent, a young blonde woman, did not testify. Why were all three of these agents paid to sit there for the whole of a 17-week white-collar criminal trial?

The government called more than 50 witnesses to testify, but neglected to call two key people: Kelly Tubbs, Dhafir’s office manager of 10 years who was proud of the fact that Dhafir’s office had never failed an audit, and Maher Zagha, a co-defendant who was the HTN representative in Jordan. Zagha organized the land and sea delivery of food, clothing and medicine to Iraq. The defense called witness for 15 minutes. Why didn’t the government call Tubbs and Zagha? (Sadly the defense didn’t call them either, and I imagine that was at least partly due to finance. Also, two of Dhafir’s lawyers were solo practitioner lawyers from New York City, and had taken the job believing it would be a six-week trial. In fact, because the final indictment had 60 counts including 25 of Medicare fraud, it ran for 17 weeks.)


After the guilty verdicts came down, District Attorney Glenn Suddaby (now a federal judge) told reporters at a news conference that he didn’t want anyone saying anything about terrorism and that, regardless of 9/11, this prosecution would have gone ahead. But six months later, on submitting a sentencing memo that asked for a sentence of not less than 24 years, he announced that Dhafir had links to terrorism. The connection? On several occasions during the 1980s, Dhafir was in Pakistan as a volunteer doctor in mujahedeen refugee camps. On one of these trips, he briefly met and interviewed Abdallah Azzam, who was later known as a teacher and mentor of Osama bin Laden; and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, future Taliban prime minister of Afghanistan. At the time Dhafir met these two, they were friends of the United States, and the government even noted this in a footnote of its memo. Yet Dhafir and other HTN defendants are now listed on the government’s list of successful terrorism prosecutions.


Within weeks of Dhafir’s sentencing, Breinholt, author of the July 2003 “Terrorist Financing” paper mentioned above, and a research and practice associate at the Syracuse University (SU) Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT), presented a lecture to a group of third-year law students at SU. Entitled, “A Law Enforcement Approach to Terrorist Financing,” it contained the essence of his paper and highlighted the Dhafir and HTN case. Greg West, one of the three HTN prosecutors, helped present the lecture, while the other two prosecutors, Michael Olmsted and Steve Green, were in attendance to answer questions. Breinholt told the students that Dhafir’s case had been under-prosecuted and in the context of the lecture’s title the implication was clear. He explained that because the “American public won’t tolerate anything less than the rule of law,” creative ways had to be figured out to draft laws that can be used to prosecute what they are trying to prevent. He told students that a major tool that emerged to gain convictions in terrorist financing cases is the use of International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) violations, and that in order to convict under IEEPA all that was necessary was to build a chain of inferences from available circumstantial evidence. Why was Dhafir never allowed to address the real reason for the government’s prosecution in a court of law?

In December 2006, Dhafir was moved to a special new communication management unit (CMU), in Terre Haute, Indiana. It is completely self-contained and houses, almost exclusively, Arab and/or Muslim prisoners. Prisoners are video monitored 24/7, and there are severe restrictions on communication. Contact with family and friends is limited; outgoing and incoming mail is monitored and copied, with a one- to two- week delivery delay; and no contact visits are allowed. Instead of 300 minutes of phone time a month, prisoners may receive only one 15-minute call a week, which the warden has the power to reduce to just three minutes a month. Unlike the usual weekly or biweekly all-day contact visits, visits in the CMU were for two hours, just twice a month, and restricted to non-contact only. Calls and visits had to be conducted in English unless prior arrangement was made. (Since 2006, there have been some slight changes to these regulations, but nothing substantial.)


It took 18 months to raise the money for two new appeal lawyers. As soon as the appeal team was hired, Olmsted, again, falsely told Dhafir’s lawyers (both secular Jews) that Dhafir was anti-Semitic. What purpose did this serve? (In Dhafir’s statement before sentencing he says: “When my home was ransacked, one of the government’s main targets was my library. They nearly emptied it. What did they take? They took my Islamic books; they came looking for books of certain authors and took all these authors’ books. They took Quran recitation tapes even though these books and tapes are available at any bookstore. They didn’t touch my Encyclopedia Britannica, my Encyclopedia of the American History, none of the books of Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger, nor Norman Schwarzkopf, the memoirs of President Bush Sr., James Baker or Colin Powell. Not the history books about the Jewish people, the famous books of Abba Eban, the Israeli foreign minister, certainly not the book about the life of Golda Meir. None of the different versions of the Bible including the Arabic Bible were touched nor the books of the Jewish Laws. None of the books confiscated from my library have been returned. What do these books have to do with Medicare, HTN and taxes? I think the court should know this.”)

Initially, the appeal court granted Dhafir transcripts at the expense of the court (they are essential for an appeal). But the government challenged this ruling with completely unverifiable insinuations of personal wealth and persuaded the court to place some $15,000 in additional costs on the defense. Challenging this could have been very costly and there was no guarantee of success, so additional funds had to be raised before the appeal could move ahead.

A decision handed down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in August 2009 upheld Dhafir’s conviction, but suggested the district court look again at the sentencing guidelines. The sentencing guidelines range on which his sentence was based was erroneously increased as if he were a third-party (professional) money launderer rather than the reality, which showed that he transmitted funds derived from the very same offenses which he had been convicted for personally committing (“mail fraud” and “tax fraud”). Seventy-five letters were written to Judge Mordue on Dhafir’s behalf telling, in large part, of extreme conditions in the CMU that were taxing on Dhafir’s health, and asking for clemency. People who wrote to Mordue on Dhafir’s behalf include Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck, both of whom resigned from the UN because they were unwilling to implement a genocidal policy of sanctions against Iraq, Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, and many including members of Dhafir’s family, families of his former patients, people from his faith community and people across the world who greatly appreciate his humanitarian outreach. Resentencing was scheduled for January 5, 2012, and just 12 days before it, Dhafir was suddenly moved out of the CMU into the general population at Terre Haute, and then to the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts. At the resentencing on February 3, 2012, Mordue upheld the 22-year sentence.

Although Dhafir was moved out of the CMU to a medium security prison, the security is still strict because of the large number of sex offenders held there. There is a camp at this prison, but Dhafir is ineligible for the camp because of an early security designation by the Bureau of Prisons on Dhafir’s status. In a 2010 challenge to this designation, Dhafir’s appeal attorney Peter Goldberger wrote, “It is submitted that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) improperly found that Petitioner [Dhafir] ‘required monitoring of all communications’ based only on the fact that an AUSA [Assistant United States Attorney] had said he was ‘regarded as a shiek (sic) and Salafi.’ As discussed below, this amounts to classifying Mr. Dhafir as ineligible for a minimum security facility (camp) based only on his religious beliefs.”

“Sheikh” is an honorific term referring to either an elder or leader, or to an Islamic scholar and, as mentioned above, “Salafi” merely means someone who looks to the early Muslims for guidance (as Christian’s look to the original disciples). Dhafir is again challenging this designation in the hope he will become eligible for a camp.

2255 Motion 


Formerly a wealthy and generous man, Dhafir was left penniless as a result of this prosecution. He has no money for a lawyer to work on his 2255 motion and he has been unable to find a pro bono lawyer. In the best of circumstance, working on this by himself would be no easy task. Being put in the SHU for 73 days placed an added and unnecessary burden on him.


How can this have been due process when Dhafir was clearly never held “innocent until proven guilty?”

After more than a decade of investigating Dhafir with, at times, many full-time agents and 24/7 surveillance of both Dhafir and his associates, the government is still unable to find anything that would stand up in a court of law linking Dhafir to terrorists. How much longer will it continue to look?

How much has this whole prosecution cost taxpayers? Is it value for money?

Is keeping Dhafir in prison for another 10 years on top of the 12 he has already served a good use of taxpayer dollars? Does his imprisonment keep us safe from terrorist attacks?

Dhafir is in his 60s and has a number of health issues that affect his ability to endure the circumstances in which he is serving his sentence. He developed a heart condition after his arrest and has not always had the medication his condition requires. He has also had two extremely painful episodes of gout that could easily have been prevented if he had been given medication. And he had to wait a long time to have a painful hernia treated, and suffered a recurrence of the hernia which required further surgery. After his August 29 release from the SHU, he was deprived of his medication, including his heart meds, for over a week. If he does not get relief soon, he will almost certainly die in prison.

Is this fairness? Is this justice?