My Review of The Looming Tower

On September 11, 2001 I was a high schooler living safe and sound in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Fate would determine that my second period would be with the American Studies teacher who was also the school's A/V supervisor. So a group of us juniors watched slack-jawed as the second plane struck and as both towers fell. All the while our teacher bellowed at us about how these events would change everything, and the world we thought we knew would be different now.

For the nearly ten years between that day and his death, Osama bin Laden to me was just the thin, silent figure on grainy VHS tapes, shooting range targets, and occasional photographs. The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road To 9/11, Lawrence Wright's riveting history of bin Laden, his al-Qaeda organization, and Islamic extremism seeks to flesh out that vague image.

The winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, The Looming Tower traces back the origins of the militant, and virulent strain of Islamism that would eventually visit such devestation on the world. Wright shows us that much of the Crusades-like rhetoric and anti-western sentiments espoused by bin Laden can be traced back to a frustrated college student, scandalized by the immorality of 1950s America. From there these seeds fueled unrest in Egypt and dissent in Saudi Arabia before becoming a sort of extremist pilgramige of "Arab Afghans" intent on joining up with the mujahideen of Afghanistan and fighting the secularist Soviet Union.

As the Soviets withdrew and collapsed, bin Laden and his followers began to believe in the myth they were selling. Then despite the following years of wavering in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and eventually returning to Afghanistan in poorly funded disarray, bin Laden's true believers began to organize and to plot a war against an enemy they saw as weak.

Simultaneously, Wright leads us through the infinitely more frustrating tale of the FBI and CIA officials who were fighting Islamic terrorism throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The book gives us countless examples of Cassandras, near misses, and other disappointments, but it hits hardest on the unfathomable obstinance of the Central Intelligence Agency with regards to sharing information with the FBI. It is nearly impossible to come away from this book without believing with near certainty that the CIA is almost entirely responsible for the nation's failure to prevent the September 11th attacks.

The various officials profiled provide a remarkable look at the idiosyncratic nature of law enforcement and intelligence officials, and the stories of these players is at least as compelling as that of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The book is not entirely without its flaws, however. Wright's attempt to use a novelistic approach, weaving the stories of the American intelligence officials with the stories of their quarries, occasionally makes the exact series of events described difficult to follow. Wright will occasionally tell us several years' worth of one party's tale and then backtrack to tell the other party's side, resulting in confusion over when exactly we are. Wright also tends to play fast and loose with basic sentence structure. His penchant for treating stray clauses as sentences will drive those more fastidious about grammar to drink.

The Looming Tower is action packed, filled with intrigue and espionage and mystery, and would give any similarly themed fictional novel a run for its money. I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the complex, but not unknowable "why" behind al-Qaeda. Wright does a masterful job of bringing the reader into the training camps, and knowing how the story ends in May of 2011 does nothing to lessen the tension.


My Review of Going Clear

I guess I should begin with what you already think you know about Scientology...

It's true. When a church member is deemed worthy of attaining the level of "Operating Thetan III" he, or she, is led into a room and presented with a document informing them that billions of years ago the evil Galactic Emperor Xenu brought millions of innocent souls (thetans) to Earth on spaceships resembling DC-8s, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. That story is, however, neither the most interesting nor the most controversial part of Scientology, nor of Lawrence Wright's exploration of it in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.

The controversy is in the details of the history of the Church. An organization birthed of human trafficking, slave labor, abuse, neglect, murder(!?), litigation and intimidation. The church seems to have achieved tax exempt status, and therefore the ability to act in all things with near impunity,  through a concerted effort to coerce and intimidate the Internal Revenue Service into granting it that status. The litany of charges brought forth in the book, indeed the "prison of belief" of the title, is the alarming fact that this organization can commit such crimes without recourse and mostly without its victims even being cognizant of the fact that they are being wronged.

Yet the surprisingly compelling through line for the first third of Going Clear is its biography of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. And while Hubbard almost certainly is not the mythical hero Scientologists would have you believe he is, he's not the flim-flam man that outsiders assume he is either. The truth of LRH lies somewhere in between, and that fact makes him a surprisingly compelling anti-hero for much of the book. Hubbard is our Walter White: he acts in detestable ways and yet we cannot help but look to see what he does next.

In this, if not in the description of Scientology's actual cosmology, Going Clear succeeds somewhat in bringing the reader into the mind of the religion's adherents. The characters at its center--Hubbard, as well as current leader David Miscavige and of course Tom Cruise--are so utterly compelling that you find yourself just a little more interested in this thing than you thought you could. Though even as Wright seeks to understand Scientology and pass that understanding to his readers, the teachings of the church remain alien enough to never risk taking root. This book will sell no one on Scientology as a religion.

The aforementioned anti-heroes take up the bulk of the book, but if there is a likable protagonist in all this, it is Paul Haggis. Haggis' previously documented story of leaving Scientology shows the reader how the church wields much of its power over its adherents, and how that power can fall away. The way that Scientology seems to succeed in winning the minds of its followers beyond OT III is much like the cook who slowly turns the water temperature up. Before converts realize how crazy things have gotten, it's too late. They've spent fortunes and surrounded themselves entirely with like-minded adherents who have been conditioned to shun non-believers, even family. Indeed, that policy of "disconnection" plays a key role in Haggis' awakening.

Going Clear is a fascinating read, and it was one I kept wanting to talk to those around me about (though friends mostly though I was crazy).  I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves rubbernecking at the scary cult headlines and the unending articles of defectors and escapees. Wright's story of the Church of Scientology is arguably as compelling as the Church's story of Scientology.


A Vote

Probably the most rousing moment in President Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address was the moment when he stated that the families affected by gun violence "deserve a simple vote." The moment was loaded with meaning, and not simply because gun regulation is one of the hot button topics of the moment.

In a democratic system of government, the sentiment seems obvious to the point of absurdity. Of course Congress will vote on these policies, why would it not?  In actuality, there are a couple of reasons why there might not be a vote on these issues. Some are political and some are practical, but the President turned the crosshairs of his masterful oratory on all of them.

The most important reason that members of Congress may not want there to be a vote on these issues is accountability. If these policies come to a vote, then your Congressional delegation will have to vote on these issues. That means putting their opinions on these issues in the record.  You know, the record. That place where political advertising does its research. As long as a Congressman doesn't have to vote on things, he can't be seen as on the record for the "wrong" stance on things.

The story of how a congressman gets on the wrong side of issues with majority public support is a familiar one, and its antagonist is one you've maybe heard of: "special interest groups." You see, the President's gun policies all receive majority approval among Americans, many of them enjoy large majorities, and a couple have nearly universal support.  Unfortunately, average Americans elect Congress, but don't pay for much of their campaigns. That money comes from special interest groups like the NRA.  And if the NRA isn't supporting you, they just might be supporting your opponent. (And Congress, slow on the uptake as ever, hasn't noticed that the NRA is a shadow of its former self.)

So if these policies come to a vote, your friendly neighborhood Congressional representatives will have to show themselves to be out of step with their constituencies, and beholden to the bogeyman of special interest money. And then their opponents and SuperPACs might take that information and run ads against them.

The other, perhaps more existential problem is not one of politics but is one of actual Congressional process. Will John Boehner even allow these things to come to a vote in the House of Representatives? Will Mitch McConnell or another Senate Republican filibuster these proposals before a vote can happen?

I honestly don't think that John Boehner will keep these policies off the floor. It would be tremendously unpopular and, well, I just don't think he's quite that craven...

...as for Senate Republicans? Yeah, I can totally see one of them filibustering these proposals.  But that's a death sentence, right? If a member of the GOP stands up on the Senate floor and filibusters the bill

he'd get run out of town, right?

For the last time, no. Because this is 2013 and that is not how filibusters work anymore. Any Senator can, from the privacy of his own office or home, phone in a "filibuster" and then it will require a vote for cloture attaining 60 votes in favor to end the filibuster and bring the matter to the floor. This is not the "simple" vote the President asked for. It's not the "up-or-down vote" he was alluding to. It's a way for the minority party to hold control of a body that was designed, like all democratic bodies, to function with "majority rule." (Seriously, it was. Why do you think the Vice President's only governing duty is to break Senate TIES? If the Senate was designed solely to allow the minority party to obstruct governance, the Veep's job would be to help get cloture).

So, what was President Obama really asking for? A simple vote. Not a vote for cloture. A vote where all members of Congress look the C-SPAN cameras and the Congressional Record in the eye (so to speak) and declare whether they stand with the gun lobby or with the majority of Americans.  And it's this, that makes the President's plea so effective and so simultaneously depressing. He literally had to ask Congress not to use cheap protocol tricks to duck their responsibility to vote on things.

Now if only we could get this President to show this kind of emotion about other people's kids, then we'd be getting somewhere.


Drones for Dummies

An issue that has come up often in the press this week (and in fact, throughout the Obama Presidency) is the so-called "drone war" being waged against terrorists by the Obama Administration. This post is my attempt to cut through some of the confusion and offer an easy-to-digest overview of why I find it so problematic and more to the point, why you should care.


What is happening?
The US Military but, problematically, to a much larger extent the Central Intelligence Agency is conducting a program of targeted assassinations aimed at terrorist operators overseas. These assassinations are being conducted largely through the use of unmanned Predator and Reaper drones (cruise missiles, helicopters, and other methods are being used as well, but for simplicity's sake we will be calling all such attacks "drone attacks" from here on in).

Where is this happening?
These attacks have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States has military presence, but are more notably also happening in places where the United States has not formally declared "war." Countries in which drone attacks are reported to have occurred include Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, and Somalia.

How are we attacking countries we aren't at war with?
An argument could be made that we're attacking individuals within those countries, and not those countries more broadly, so it's unlikely that Pakistan or Yemen will formally declare war on the United States. But the justification for these attacks is essentially that these targets are combatants in the "Global War On Terror."  The GWOT is a war with no borders, and so by being terrorists on the planet Earth, these targeted individuals were "on the battlefield." The purported legal justification for this borderless program is the Authorization for the Usage of Military Force (AUMF) enacted by Congress in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This act, giving the executive the power to use "necessary and appropriate force" against terrorists, essentially codified the GWOT.

So the military is doing this?
Not exactly. Many of these attacks, perhaps most of them, are actually being carried out by the CIA. No longer the cloak-and-dagger espionage force of 70's thrillers, the CIA has increasingly become a para-military organization. The architect, spokesperson, and face of the Drone War is John O. Brennan.

Who is John Brennan?
John Brennan is President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor (technically he is Deputy National Security Advisor). A better name for his position lately, though, is Obama's Assassination Czar.  John Brennan is a veteran of the CIA who was in a position to know about the torture policies in place during the Bush Administration. This fact was enough scuttle any chance of President Obama appointing him as his first Director of the CIA (though it has been oddly ineffective in ruining his chances this second time around). The position he ended up getting in Obama's first term, though, is possibly more powerful anyway. He's essentially in charge of the disposition matrix.

Wait, what is the disposition matrix? And why does it sound like something Jack Bauer would be yelling about?
It is an awfully highfalutin name, isn't it? The disposition matrix is essentially the Obama Administration's list of high valued targets. It's their most wanted list, or more concisely, it's their kill list.

So what are the memos I keep hearing about this week?
At the Executive's disposal is an office of the Department of Justice called the Office of Legal Counsel. It's been described as the President's private supreme court in that they decide if administration actions (or potential actions) are lawful and then advise the President as to their opinions.  Basically, they are lawyers that the President calls when he wants to do something, and has a question as to its legality.  The OLC will draft memorandums that provide the legal justification for a given executive action.

So, the memos you've been hearing about this week are OLC memos that were written to provide a legal justification for the killing of an American citizen who was an active member of al-Qaeda. Specifically, New Mexico born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki  The troubling thing is that, much like the OLC-penned Bush Torture Memos, cause and effect are unclear. It's unclear whether the administration developed the legal justification first and killed al-Awlaki second, or vice-versa.


The big problem is that Obama is a hypocrite, right?
Yes and no. Obama is certainly a hypocrite. He cheered transparency during the 2008 campaign and upon taking office he released the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos used to justify American use of torture. He then turned around and refused repeated media and congressional requests for his memos on the drone program (refusing for years to even acknowledge the existence of the drone program, as though the AP, the Times, and others couldn't send reporters to Pakistan and Yemen).
However, and I cannot stress this enough, the hypocrisy is probably the least troubling aspect of the program. If "politics as usual" is your takeaway from all this, you're not paying attention.

But what you've just described essentially boils down to killing bad guys, right? What's the problem?
There are a bunch of problems actually. First and foremost is the issue of collateral damage, which is a sanitized way of saying that first and foremost is the issue of civilian casualties. The issue of civilian casualties goes hand-in-hand with the issue of blowback. And while blowback for the strikes themselves would bad enough, American media just reported (but didn't just learn) that many of these drone missions have been launched from a secret base in Saudi Arabia.  Lastly, there's the legality of essentially the entire program, and what it means for us as a society if we're either okay with them happening despite being illegal, or worse, okay with them happening if it can be argued that they are legal.


Doesn't the Obama Administration claim there haven't been that many civilian casualties?
Well, they would say that wouldn't they?

Okay, answer my question again without sounding so paranoid.
Sure. In June 2011 John Brennan claimed that there had been ZERO civilian casualties associated with drone strikes. Given that we're talking about missiles launched from aircraft (for the most part) such a claim simply defies logic.  It's also been widely reported that the administration considered all males over age sixteen or so "combatants." While it's difficult to say for sure that they've only killed combatants, this policy makes it easy for them to say that they've only killed people they consider combatants.
There are countless reports of women and children killed by these strikes though. From high enough altitudes, weddings and parties look an awful lot like more nefarious gatherings. Estimates of casualties from drone strikes range from the high hundreds to over four thousand, and there are countless first-hand reports of women, children, and non-combatant males killed in attacks. These attacks have been increasing in frequency: there are several every month and there were two in just the weekend of the President's second inauguration. There's also Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

Who is Abdulrahman al-Awlaki?
He was the 16-year-old son of the previously mentioned al-Qaeda-affiliated American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Abdulrahman was killed by a drone strike in Yemen while having dinner with his cousins. His only known connection to terrorism was his lineage.

So we're killing people who are friends with terrorists, isn't that what you get for harboring them?
Well, that depends on whether or not you would consider yourself to be harboring your next-door neighbor. For what it's worth, there are also reports of situations where completely random dudes have happened to be where terrorists were allegedly expected to be, and so were killed. Also, we've been called out for doing double-taps as well, which is all bad.

Wait, what's a double-tap? Is that like the Zombieland thing?
Unfortunately, it isn't.  A double-tap is when a target is bombed, and then after a short period of time it is bombed again. The second hit usually has the effect of destroying things like first-responders. These kinds of strikes are actually a WAR CRIME. But the US is accused of having committed several. So just add this to the list of ways in which we're dealing significant damage to entire communities.

Entire communities? You mean like, we're blowing up whole towns?
No. What we're doing is frequently attacking geographic areas where there are terrorists. This means that everyone who lives in these areas are subject to constantly seeing and hearing drones flying around above them. Never knowing when more death is going to rain down from the sky. Always worrying about where their kids are. Always worrying about the guy who lives in the next house, and am I safe if he is a target? Depression, PTSD-like symptoms, fear, and paranoia are rampant. This is pretty inhumane treatment of entire populations.  We're also making people pretty angry. And that's likely to produce blowback.


What is blowback?
Blowback is essentially the idea that we're radicalizing the populations in the areas where we're conducting drone strikes.

But aren't they already radicals?
Well, presumably some of them are, that's why we're attacking. But certainly not all of them are.  However, if some government on the other side of the world was constantly raining death upon your village using sky robots, wouldn't you be pretty angry about it?

Yeah, I guess I'd be pretty angry about that.
And when your wife was blown into unrecognizable meat by an American cluster bomb, don't you think you'd be likely to sign up with whoever said they were going to make it their mission to fight back?

I guess I probably would.
That's blowback. It's American foreign policy in a nutshell. We make our own demons.  Retired General Stanley McChrystal has said that drone strikes are "hated on a visceral level" by the populations that are subject to them. There are already reports that the likes of al Qaeda are using them as a recruiting tool to great success. And that's not even mentioning Saudi Arabia.


You mentioned that earlier, what's the deal with Saudi Arabia?
Well, let's rewind. The Saudi government is an ally of the United States (possibly because we buy a lot of oil from them). Starting in the fifties, the United States has had a military presence in Saudi Arabia, but the size of this force ramped way up during and after the first Gulf War.

Okay, so what? We've got bases all over the world. What's so special about Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is the home of two of the most holy sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. For a certain set of Muslims, the idea of an American military presence so close to these sites (especially one routinely engaged in killing Muslims) was deeply offensive. One Saudi national took such offense at this notion, that he raised up a well-funded and well-organized international network whose mission was to destroy America. You might have heard of him, his name was Osama bin Laden.

Oh, shit. But what does that have to do with drones?
Well, in 2005 George W. Bush closed the last base in Saudi Arabia and we left the country entirely. This wasn't necessarily capitulating to bin Laden (we had plenty of bases in the region in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time), but it was probably a step in the right direction if our desire is to not inflame more tempers, or offend more people to the point of radicalization.

And then sometime after 2009 the United States built a new, secret base in Saudi Arabia for our drone program. It was from this base that the 2011 missions to kill Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awklaki were launched.

So why am I just hearing about it now?
Because since they found out about it 18ish months ago, The New York Times and the Washington Post have been colluding with the American Government to keep the base on the down-low because it'll be such an unbelievably unpopular and inconvenient story.

That's a little harsh, weren't they probably doing it to protect lives and mission integrity?
No. They weren't. And we know that because the existence of the base had been reported in some foreign news outlets, as well as on (get this) FoxNews.com. NYT and WaPo also pretty arbitrarily decided to lift this embargo to coincide with Brennan's confirmation hearings for the CIA job.

Yeah. So shall we talk about the OTHER problems with the drone war?


So you made a pretty big deal of Anwar al-Awlaki. Why?
Awlaki is an American Citizen. He was born in New Mexico. And while it's pretty uncontroversial to say that he was a bad guy, he was still an American and our country has laws about what our government can do to us.

But he was a pretty bad guy, though...
That's true. It's also sort of beside the point. A WWII analogy makes this easier to follow: Let's say American soldiers come across an American citizen in a Nazi uniform. He's shoulder to shoulder with his German counterparts and he's shooting at them. American or not, he's an enemy combatant and they're fully justified in shooting back at him.

Why are you talking like you don't really think that argument applies here?
Because the GWOT isn't like World War II. We didn't shoot Awlaki because he was shooting at us, we shot him because we believed he was a threat and he was plotting against us. We snuffed him out from the sky after secretly deciding to do so, providing him no opportunity to surrender and no opportunity for due process. And even that American-born Nazi, if he saw the Americans coming and surrendered, would be allowed due process.

So we killed ONE American who was also, clearly a terrorist. Big deal.
Well, no, we killed three Americans and one of them definitely did NOT seem to be a terrorist, but it IS a big deal because it establishes a precedent. And Obama's reticence in handing over his perceived legal justification (the OLC memos) is troubling. Especially considering that the Senate hasn't even been able to get straight answers to questions like "Do you believe you have the right to commit such an assassination within the borders of the United States?"

Okay, that's a little scary.
Yeah, especially when the official, codified definition of "terror" keeps broadening like it does. But we won't go too far down that rabbit hole, it starts to get pretty paranoid sounding pretty quick.

Scarier still, but okay...
It's also important to point out that under the Carter and Reagan administrations, the United States was supposed to have definitively outlawed assassinations. What we're doing, murder on the order of the President of the United States (or his deputy, in Brennan) is supposed to be illegal. For that matter, the idea that the President can just order somebody dead is a pretty huge slap in the face to our Constitution, and is just the kind of monarchical executive overreach that this country was founded to escape. And it seems that the OLC has taken a decidedly Nixonian approach: if the President says it's not illegal, then it's not illegal.

Yeah, I saw Frost/Nixon too. So is that everything, then?
Pretty much. Can I have a concluding paragraph?


I think Americans should be concerned about the continued reliance by the government on the AUMF. Essentially it authorizes a state of perpetual war. Such things, as Orwell sought to show in his novel 1984, have hugely detrimental effects on a society. It's also silly to assume that we must be "at war" to fight/prevent terrorism. Counterterrorism can be conducted as something more akin to a police action than that of a broad, undefined and borderless war.  It can also be performed in a much more transparent way than this, offering Congress and the American people significant more oversight than is currently the case.

The trouble with politics, and with people, is that they do not exist as you would like them to in any one person, officeholder, or party. Essentially, this foreign policy is so offensive to me that I struggle to even "like" the President anymore. Given the clown that was the other option, I'd have voted for him knowing all of these things. I did vote for him knowing some of them, and I feel it's more likely I can petition him to stop this madness than I could probably have petitioned Mitt Romney for same.

That said, going forward I'm going to extract all the liberal political victories out of this guy that I can, but I find it essentially impossible to cheerlead for a politician who would have these policies be his foreign policy legacy. I agree with Obama on some things but I certainly don't agree with him on these things.

Why should you care about all this? Because cheerleading for any party or any candidate without a reality-based understanding of their stances on all the issues is foolhardy or dangerous.

At best, the foreign policy of Barack Obama has been a human rights violating, secretive flouting of laws. At worst, he has ordered the commissions of war crimes and has enacted policies that will ensure the perpetuation of the very Islamic extremism he aims to fight.

Yeah. That's most of it.

Here are a handful of sources: