Edited by Sam Thielman
THE WAR ON TERROR is not top of mind for the Biden administration. The president recently wrapped a trip to India for the G20 summit and pledged infrastructure development for trade expansion. Then he flew to Vietnam to elevate diplomatic ties with Hanoi in a move that is 100 percent totally not about containing China. But before Biden left, he made time to retain emergency powers George W. Bush granted to himself and his presidential successors 22 years ago. Happy 9/11.
The terrorist threat that led to the declaration on September 14, 2001, of a national emergency continues. For this reason, I have determined that it is necessary to continue in effect after September 14, 2023, the national emergency with respect to the terrorist threat.
In reality, the 2001-era terrorist threat does not exist anymore. But the point of the War on Terror is that that threat is not needed for its enormous expansion in executive authorities to persist. And if the consequences of that expansion include the emergence of new terrorist threats, all the more reason to retain the expanded authorities.
A specific power Biden reauthorized is Executive Order 13224. EO 13224 is hardly the most violent of the many post-9/11 U.S. endeavors, but it grants the president, via the State and especially Treasury departments, power to block the financial assets of designated terrorist organizations and individuals (all of whom are foreign, meaning domestic white-supremacist and far-right networks are untouched). It opens entities that transact business with listed individuals, groups or companies they control to criminal liability. In concert with the PATRIOT Act, this order expanded a pathway to prosecuting people for what's known legally as “material support for terrorism,” something often several steps removed from any identified act of violence. It's accordingly a very useful tool to coerce people into becoming informants.
Beyond EO 13224, the other wellsprings of the post-9/11 security state are entrenched, as are many of their operations, to say nothing of enduring post-9/11 institutions like the Department of Homeland Security. The Afghanistan War is formally over, but the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, which permits the president to order military action anywhere in the world in response to what he decrees as the emanations of 9/11, remains on the books. The 2003-2011 Iraq occupation has ended, as has the 2014-2017 war against ISIS, but the U.S. maintains about 2500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria indefinitely, ostensibly as a backstop against a reemergence of ISIS.
There was likely a drone strike in Somalia last week. A drone killed a family in a house that alleged al-Shabab fighters took refuge in, but U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) says it wasn't a U.S. drone strike, and the strike might have been from one of the Bayraktar-2 drones possessed by the U.S. client government in Mogadishu in its joint campaign against first the Islamic Courts Union and later al-Shabab. Since it's a joint campaign, the distinction AFRICOM seeks to draw isn't tenable. The U.S. war in Somalia – sometimes waged directly by the U.S., often waged indirectly – has persisted without success for something like 16 years. Recall that one of the enduring legacies of the War on Terror is that it brought the U.S. military, via AFRICOM, onto the African continent on an enduring basis. Several of the U.S.' sponsored militaries have conducted coups to install themselves in power. Like the Department of Homeland Security, AFRICOM did not exist on 9/11.
Domestically, U.S. intelligence is demanding Congress reauthorize its constitutional carveout for surveillance at scale known as Section 702, a creation of the War on Terror that represents the National Security Agency reversing its post-Watergate legal restrictions. Last week, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines met with civil liberties groups to pantomime receptivity to their many criticisms of 702. A coalition of 11 groups in attendance replied by saying they "remain deeply distressed that the intelligence community will not commit to any of the meaningful reforms that are critical to protect Americans’ privacy."
If you think the War on Terror is over, you probably don't have four S's printed on your boarding pass, since the widespread watchlisting after 9/11—from which there is no clear way to remove yourself—persists. A brave Air Force veteran who exposed the mechanics of watchlisting remains in prison.
And at Guantanamo, a nightmarish liminal space between the U.S.' foreign and domestic operations, Biden is rejecting a plea deal for the accused 9/11 co-conspirators that would see them spend the rest of their lives at Guantanamo in exchange for not being executed. The deal is necessary for military prosecutors because the commission was doomed by CIA torture that has tainted most evidence against the accused. According to the New York Times, Biden isn't against conducting the deal in theory. What he finds unacceptable is a promise that the accused won't serve their life sentences in solitary confinement, which is torture by another name, and to provide therapy to redress the lingering mental and physical wounds left by U.S. torture. "One official said Mr. Biden did not believe the proposals, as a basis for a plea deal, would be appropriate, and the other cited the egregious nature of the [9/11] attacks," the Times reported.
In this manner any material responsibility for the U.S. legacy of torture—like the legacies of U.S. militarism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and repression here at home—can be declaimed as an affront to the memory of the 9/11 attacks. And there, in a sick way, we locate the rhetorical utility of 9/11 to the Security State and the politicians, journalists and intellectuals who identify with it.
And that, I suggest to you, is a deeper affront to the memories of all those who died, for it keeps the material conditions that led to 9/11 intact instead of dismantled.
I could go on, but it's the 9/11 anniversary and I get sad thinking about this enduring era that I have devoted my life to covering, all emerging from the violent deaths of my fellow New Yorkers that we simultaneously relive endlessly, relegate to the memory hole and exploit for the purposes of continued U.S. primacy. Peruse the archives of this newsletter for more, or read my book, REIGN OF TERROR: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. Hold your loved ones tightly today. Take a moment to read testimonials on behalf of those Americans who died or were left behind and do the same for those whom America killed in vengeance.
Above all, remember that an apparatus of repression ends not when presidents say they have "turn[ed] the page" away from it, but when it is dismantled. Otherwise, like St. Augustine's declarations of chastity, they will say things like this, on anniversaries like this, and it will all continue:
The crisis constituted by the grave acts of terrorism and threats of terrorism committed by foreign terrorists, including the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York and Pennsylvania and against the Pentagon, and the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on United States nationals or the United States that led to the declaration of a national emergency on September 23, 2001, has not been resolved. This crisis continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.
VAN JACKSON'S NEWSLETTER Un-Diplomatic is something readers of FOREVER WARS will find valuable. Van's a retired airman, Pentagon official and Asia analyst whose political trajectory is very much in keeping with the vibe of this newsletter. Van doesn't disconnect the coalescing China Cold War from the repression it will inflict domestically:
The largely unjustified anti-communist obsession that defined reactionary politics during the Cold War was the content of great-power competition against the Soviet Union. They can’t be seen as separate things.
Be sure to read his account today of learning Korean at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey on 9/11:
There was a lot of peer pressure to embrace a patriotism that required performative militarism and masculinity (at least for those of us in uniform). It was our job to protect the nation, and we were just attacked. And our Commander-in-Chief had promised we’d be getting our revenge, in so many words. We were feeding off of each others’ manic energy in a way that mirrored some accounts I’ve read of the mania of the Cultural Revolution in China.
My emphasis. Not a comparison Americans will enjoy, but one we need to read.