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Spencer Ackerman on How the U.S. War on Terror Fueled and Excused Right-Wing Extremism at Home

StorySeptember 06, 2021
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In an extended conversation with Spencer Ackerman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter, he examines the connection he sees between the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States and the so-called war on terror, which he writes about in his new book, “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.” He begins his book with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh visiting the far-right paramilitary compound in Elohim City, Oklahoma, before what was then called the worst terror attack in U.S. history.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re spending the hour with Spencer Ackerman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter, author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.

Spencer, you begin your book, with the prologue, with Timothy McVeigh visiting the far-right paramilitary compound in Elohim City, Oklahoma, before what you call, the prologue’s chapter heading, “the worst terrorist attack in American history.” Talk about the connection you see between the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States and the so-called war on terror.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: I thought it was extremely important to see the war on terror in its fullness, in its totality, and only then can we understand its implications. And I think the only way to really do that is to look at who were the exceptions to the war on terror, who the war on terror didn’t target, despite fundamentally similar actions. And there we can understand not just what the war on terror is, but its relationship to American history, which shapes it so deeply.

And so, I also wanted to kind of start with a journalistic cliché, where the reporter kind of zoologically takes a reader through this unfamiliar and scary world of violence committed by fanatical people who are training with heavy weapons and talk about committing mass atrocity for a sick and supposedly divinely inspired religion. But I wanted those people to be white. I wanted the reader to see how similar these actions were, how similar some of the motivations were, how similar some of the justifications were. But we never treated them like that.

The whole purpose of the phrase “war on terror” was a kind of social compromise amongst respectable elites in order to not say the thing that they were in fact building, which was an expansive war only against some people’s kinds of terror, only against nonwhite people’s kinds of terror, only against foreigners’ kinds of terror, and not against the kind of terrorism that is the oldest, most resilient, most violent and most historically rooted in American history, one that seeks to draw its own heritage out of the general American national heritage, people who call themselves not dissenters, not rebels, but patriots, people who are restoring something about America that they believe a corrupt elite, that is now responsive to nonwhite power at the expense of the extant racial caste, that has been deeply woven inside not just the American political structure, but the American economy, that drives American politics — how that ultimately never gets treated.

This is exactly what Timothy McVeigh was about. This is what Timothy McVeigh had as his motivations for murdering 168 Americans in Oklahoma City, including 19 children. And we looked away from it. We looked away from how deep the rootedness of white supremacist violence was in this country. We listened to what I believe are principled civil libertarian objections against an expensive category of criminalized association. Treating people who might have believed as McVeigh did, odious as I believe that is, but ultimately not committing acts of violence — treating them as, essentially, indistinct from McVeigh was absolutely intolerable, as it always should have been, to the American political elites, but that intolerability did not extend to Muslims.

And there it was easy, after 9/11, to construct an apparatus fueled by things like the PATRIOT Act, that expanded enormous categories of criminal association, known as material support for terrorism, authorized widespread surveillance, that certainly would not be focused simply even on American Muslims, as disgusting as it was that it was focused on them primarily. But, ultimately, all of these things that both parties, that the leaders of the security services and intellectuals created, maintained and justified, so readily, against the threat of a foreign menace, seen as civilizational, seen as an acceptable substitute for a geopolitical enemy that had served as a rallying purpose throughout the 20th century — the war on terror is kind of a zombie anti-communism in a lot of its political caste and association. And never would any of this be visited upon white people. From the start, the war on terror showed you exactly who it was going to leave out from its carceral, from its surveillance and from its violent gaze.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to Donald Trump this week, considering a 2024 challenge to President Biden, said in a statement Biden “surrendered” to the Taliban. Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee demanded a plan from Biden to stop Afghanistan from becoming a, quote, “safe haven” for terror groups after the Taliban takeover. This is Republican Congressman Michael McCaul on CNN.

REP. MICHAEL McCAUL: We are going to go back, Jake, to a pre-9/11 state, a breeding ground for terrorism. And, you know, I hate to say this — I hope we don’t have to go back there — but it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the Republicans now talking about a foreign terrorist threat. The Republicans, who have been denying the insurrection of January 6, calling it, you know, no worse than a group of tourists coming to Washington, D.C., and not wanting to investigate that, even though, under Bush, under Trump, the intelligence agencies have said the number one domestic terror threat is right-wing white supremacists.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: We see who the war on terror, then as now, is a mechanism for having terrorism excused, not terrorism dealt with: when that terrorism is white, when it is politically powerful. When, for reasons that they themselves probably ought better to explain, politicians sympathize with it, seek to draw strength from it, that’s a real serious red flag for American democracy. We don’t have to treat it as if it is a new red flag for American democracy. This is always how American democracy has been eroded. This is always alongside the ways in which capital has been extremely willing to ally with white supremacy. This is what the creation of Jim Crow was. This is how the maintenance of segregation in the North of the country, which we don’t often talk about as much in its different permutations — I’m a New Yorker. This city is segregated even still. You see that definitely with the way the school system is constructed.

Ultimately, we are seeing, throughout this past week, the ease with which the Republican Party, supposedly now in the Trump era feeling antipathy to the war on terror, readily snapped to war on terror politics when it comes to the demonization of refugees, the idea that America has a responsibility to take in the refugees that it itself creates, out of this psychotic, racist fear of white replacement, that demographics are ultimately driving the erosion of, you know, in its respectable settings, white political power, not just on the fringes, but at the centers of American governance.

And that is a politics of the war on terror that has been here from the start. Trump makes it vastly less subtle, to the extent that it was subtle, than it was before. And his hold on the party is not an accident. His hold here has everything to do with the way that he was able to recognize the ways in which the war on terror is an excellent sorting mechanism for figuring out who is a real American and who is a conditional American. And then, as we saw him using the tools of the war on terror on the streets of cities like Portland and Washington, D.C., and New York and in the skies over as many as 15 cities last summer, he’s willing to use it on Americans that he calls terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, you write repeatedly about Adham Hassoun. Tell us his story.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Amy, I just want to thank you so much for asking about Adham. I knew you would. You have truly been one of the journalistic heroes of this era.

And Adham Hassoun is a symbol of the ways that the war on terror criminalized people. Adham Hassoun is a Palestinian-born man who survived — he grew up in the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s and immigrated to Florida in the 1990s. And as a refugee himself and an active participant in his community in Miami, in South Florida, in the Islamic community there, he wrote a lot of checks to refugee charities, people that he had thought were helping refugees and helping war victims in places like Bosnia, where the wars became genocidal in the Balkans against Balkan Muslims.

And, ultimately, among the people that he met and tried to help was a convert named José Padilla. José Padilla would, after 9/11, become famous as someone John Ashcroft accused of trying to set off a radiological weapon inside the United States. And very shortly after that happened — Padilla was at first placed in military custody, an American citizen; that was allowed at the time — the feds came for Adham. And even though Adham had committed no violence, Adham had done nothing criminal, the feds and immigration authorities locked him up, and they leaned on him to try and inform on his community, to try and be an informant. And he refused to do that. He considered it an affront to his dignity. He considered it unjust.

And as a result, he spent a tremendous amount of time — he spent years in jails in Florida, while, ultimately, the FBI and the local prosecutor — who eventually would be the Trump Cabinet member Alex Acosta — came up with pretexts to prosecute him. He was originally charged as a co-defendant with José Padilla, who is now placed in federal custody. And even though there was no way that the government could connect him to any act of violence, thanks to the PATRIOT Act and thanks to, frankly, the atmosphere politically in the years after 9/11, that he could be charged with things that simply were not acts of violence or acts of active contribution to specific people committing specific acts of violence that the government could name, and he was convicted. And as he was sentenced, the judge reduced his sentence — the feds were seeking life for Adham — because the judge recognized that the government couldn’t point to any act that he — you know, act of violence that he was responsible for. That was in 2007. He served until 2017 in federal prison, a variety of federal prisons.

And then, in 2017, when he had finished his sentence, he had figured that he would be deported, that ultimately he would go back to probably Lebanon. He was kind of done, as you can imagine, with the United States at that point. But he didn’t. What happened instead was that he was sent into ICE detention in western New York, outside of Buffalo, at a place called Batavia. And after the PATRIOT Act became law in 2001, there was great civil libertarian fear over one of its provisions, Section 412. Section 412 said that any nondeportable noncitizen, which is to say a stateless person who doesn’t have a country that will take that person in, who is deemed a threat to national security by the authorities — ultimately, in this case, the determination is made by the secretary of homeland security — could be imprisoned indefinitely. That never happened throughout the whole war on terror, until it was time to keep Adham Hassoun locked up.

Ultimately, in early 2020, around like late February, early March, Adham gets sick, to the point where he — we don’t know for sure, but he thought that he got COVID. By April of that year, Batavia was the ICE detention facility with the highest COVID outbreak inside. So, here was a figure who the United States criminalized, robbed of his freedom, and then ultimately endangered his life by the incompetence and indifference that it showed in allowing COVID to run wild in facilities filled with people that the United States functionally treated as nonpeople.

And it took a very valiant effort by local attorneys and by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge his detention. Ultimately, instead of outright losing the case, as a judge indicated after she ruled Adham had to go free, because the FBI admitted —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Spencer.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: — that it relied on a — sorry. Adham was ultimately successful, once the government dropped its case in order to preserve its power to do this. And he lives in freedom, I’m happy to say, right now in Rwanda.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds. What has surprised you most about what is happening today?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Very little at this point, I’m sorry to say, surprises me. But the general indifference by the American political and intellectual elites to the relationship between the war on terror and the erosion of democracy is also a very deep thread and very historically rooted, not just in the war on terror, but before, and certainly seeing that those connections have to be made in order to have any form of real democracy in this country and safety and dignity for so many people.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter. His new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much.

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