What Bush and Ashcroft Meant By “If al-Qaida Is Calling”

Remember when George W. Bush defended his illegal warrantless surveillance program with these lines:

We are at war with an enemy who wants to hurt us again …. If somebody from Al Qaeda is calling you, we’d like to know why,” he said. “We’re at war with a bunch of coldblooded killers.

…when we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so … We’re at war, and as commander in chief, I’ve got to use the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people

That statement was made on January 2, 2006 in direct response to a question Bush got about Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s blockbuster article in the New York Times exposing the illegal program that went to print just two weeks prior.

Since those early days of realizing the United States government was running an illegal and unconstitutional spy surveillance operation on its own citizens, we have learned an awful lot. For too many citizens, it does not even seem to hold interest. Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights reminds us what the Bush Administration was really up to, how patently absurd it was and just how big of a lie George Bush fostered on the American public. Turns out “If al-Qaida is calling” meant random government searches of phone books for Muslim sounding names and taking crank phone calls.

From a CCR press release I just received:

Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) announced that six new plaintiffs have joined a federal, class action lawsuit, Turkmen v. Ashcroft, challenging their detention and mistreatment by prison guards and high level Bush administration officials in the wake of 9/11. In papers filed in Federal Court in Brooklyn, CCR details new allegations linking former Attorney General Ashcroft and other top Bush administration officials to the illegal roundups and abuse of the detainees.

Five of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit won a $1.26 million settlement in November 2009.

The new plaintiffs include two Pakistani men, Ahmer Iqbal Abbasi and Anser Mehmood; two men from Egypt, Ahmed Khalifa and Saeed Hammouda; Benamar Benatta, an Algerian man who has sought and received refugee status in Canada; and Purna Raj Bajracharya, a Nepalese Buddhist whose prolonged detention after 9/11 prompted outrage not only by civil libertarians, but even by the FBI agent who originally investigated him. Despite the fact that the government never charged any of them with a terrorism-related offense, the INS kept the men in detention for up to eight months, long past the resolution of their immigration cases. CCR attorneys say that the government treated these men as terrorists during that time, placing them in ultra-restrictive, super-maximum security confinement and abusing them. The treatment was based not on any actual evidence tying the men to terrorism, but merely because of their race, religion, and national origin.

“I was deprived of my liberty and I was abused at the hands of the U.S. government simply because of my religion and ethnicity. Now, nine years later, I seek to vindicate my rights and hold the people who mistreated me accountable,” said Benamar Benatta. “My hope is that this never happens to anyone again.”

Mr. Benatta succeeded in having a criminal charge for possession of false immigration documents thrown out of court when the federal judge in his case ruled that his immigration detention was a “subterfuge” and “sham” created to hide the reality that, because Benatta was an “Algerian citizen and a member of the Algerian Air Force, [he] was spirited off to the MDC Brooklyn…and held in the [Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit] as ‘high security’ for the purposes of providing an expeditious means of having [him] interrogated by special agents of the FBI.”

“For almost ten years now, former 9/11 detainees have been fighting for acknowledgment that government officials, no matter what exalted position they hold, cannot get away with ordering abuse and racial profiling,” explained Rachel Meeropol, staff attorney at CCR. “This battle is far from over.”

The new suit names as defendants then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, former INS Commissioner James Ziglar and officials at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where the plaintiffs were held. It includes additional detail regarding high-level involvement in racial profiling and abuse, including allegations that former Attorney General Ashcroft ordered the INS and FBI to investigate individuals for ties to terrorism by, among other means, looking for Muslim-sounding names in the phonebook. In the resulting dragnet, hundreds of men were arrested, many based on anonymous and discriminatory tips called in to the FBI.

The complaint also discloses, in some cases for the first time, the discriminatory and nonsensical tips that led to each plaintiff’s arrest and detention. Lead plaintiff Mr. Turkmen, for example, was arrested after his landlady called the FBI to report that she rented an apartment to several Middle Eastern men, and “she would feel awful if her tenants were involved in terrorism and she didn’t call.”

Among other documented abuses in detention, many of the 9/11 detainees had their faces smashed into a wall where guards had pinned a t-shirt with a picture of an American flag and the words, “These colors don’t run.” The men were slammed against the t-shirt upon their entrance to MDC and told “welcome to America.” The t-shirt was smeared with blood, yet it stayed up on the wall at MDC for months.

Michael Winger, CCR cooperating counsel, said, “Last year the Supreme Court tried to derail challenges to the Attorney General’s role in this scheme by announcing tough new pleading standards for claims against high level government officials. We’re going forward to show that despite the new standards, even cabinet officials can be held responsible for abusive treatment.”

The suit further charges that the detainees were kept in solitary confinement with the lights on 24 hours a day; placed under a communications blackout so that they could not seek the assistance of their attorneys, families and friends; subjected to physical and verbal abuse; forced to endure inhumane conditions of confinement; and obstructed in their efforts to practice their religion. One of the new plaintiffs, Saeed Hammouda, was forced to endure eight months of this abuse before he was cleared of any connection to terrorism and deported.

Some of the abuse included beatings, repeated strip searches and sleep deprivation. The allegations of inhumane and degrading treatment have been substantiated by two reports of the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, and several defendants in the case have been convicted on federal charges of cover-ups and beatings of other prisoners around the same time period.

There has been constant, at least in these circles, focus on the due process black hole we have thrown hundreds and hundreds of men into at Gitmo, Bagram and the black sites. But it was not just over there, as the CCR Turkmen v. Ashcroft case above, and the Zeitoun case in post-Katrina New Orleans prove, it is right here at home too.

Turns out “If al-qaida is calling” really meant a tragic game show of “Dialing for Detainees” and taking crank calls from batty old landladies. Based on this atrocious “evidence” human beings were detained without due process, beaten and abused. Right here in the “Homeland”. The new definition of “security”. there is nothing really new in today’s CCR announcement, but it is good to be reminded of where we were not long ago and where, thanks to the cover and complicity of the Obama Administration, we still likely may be.

  1. bobschacht says:

    Thanks, EW.
    I think it’s well past time to open a “Department of flimsy excuses”.
    But I suspect this case will be blocked, as have others, on the grounds of “State Secrets” concerns.

    Bob in AZ

  2. tjbs says:

    So really the terror was here in the homeland?

    And the terrorists are high government officials?

    And holder and obama like it, so no looking back just full steam ahead to assassinating Americans for their own good.

    Great, just great another stick in the eye from the Torture/ Murder/ Treason gang of thugs.

  3. whattheincorporated says:

    But this is for the sake of the Homeland!

    Is it me or do countries go to hell the moment they get all patriotic and talk about the homeland and locking up minorities for the sake of the good pure people in the Homeland?

    The people running our army are dumbass jackbooted nazi’s who should be tried in the Hague after Taylor.

    All Heil the Fatherland! Salute! March! Wear flagpins!

    If anyone wants to know what I look like, look for the guy laughing his ass off when a politician is giving a speech about how we’re the greatest country on earth because of our respect for human rights and the rule of law and how we’d NEVER committ atrocities like other countries have.

    Everyone else will be standing proudly with a tear in their eyes or whatever those dumb freaks feel when politicians crap those platitudes on them, I’ll be the guy who pisses every last one of them off by laughing hysterically.

  4. MadDog says:

    In reading CCR’s latest amended complaint (86 page PDF), I definitely reaffirm my original conclusion that AG Ashcroft was a paranoid, right-wing, bigoted nutjob, and that during the aftermath of 9/11, there couldn’t have been a worse assortment of like-minded batshit crazies running our entire government.

  5. rosalind says:

    completely OT: Neil & Pegi Young have put together a tremendous line-up for this year’s acoustic-y Bridge School Benefit concerts at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View (CA). Tix go on sale this Sunday if interested:

    Saturday, Oct. 23:

    Buffalo Springfield

    Pearl Jam

    Elvis Costello

    Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson

    Lucinda Williams

    Billy Idol

    Jackson Browne and David Lindley

    Modest Mouse

    Grizzly Bear

    Sunday, Oct. 24:

    Buffalo Springfield

    Pearl Jam

    T-Bone Burnett’s Speaking Clock Revue featuring Elton John, Leon

    Russell, Elvis Costello, Ralph Stanley, Neko Case and Jeff Bridges

    Elvis Costello

    Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson

    Modest Mouse

    Grizzly Bear

  6. MadDog says:

    OT – Can anybody make any sense of this bizarre gibberish from Senator Kit Bond’s exit interview:

    Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?

    A: I guess the biggest, most recent fight was on Protect America Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). And the technology changed and it inadvertently pulled in electronic conversations between, for example, terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the way the technology worked.

    So we had to change it. And we knew there was a real problem. Several of us had went on a CODEL and met with General McChrystal at the time. He was in Iraq with an unnamed operation. And we said, “What can we do?” He said, “You have to change FISA. And it is critical. Because if I learned that Osama bin Laden was down the street I could blow up the house. I could have a sniper pick him off when he came outside – but I couldn’t send him an email or call him on his cell phone and say ‘We got you surrounded, come on out and talk to us.’” But he said the implications were far bigger than that because when the constraints in that law kicked in they were shut out from getting the electronic surveillance they needed.

    And it so happened my son, at that time, was leading a sniper platoon for the Marines in Fallujah — so I had a little interest, personal interest in making sure he had that information. But in terms of our battle against al Qaeda and other terrorists, that was huge…

    • dopeyo says:

      EW – no drink for you! come back 1 year! kit bond drank them all.

      (sen. bond is renowned in missouri and d.c. for his ‘hollow leg’)

    • qweryous says:

      Answer: No.

      There is a whole lot more at the link that makes one wonder wtf?

      Q: Who are your favorite senators from the other side of the aisle and why?

      A:…(some names and issues)…
      One of my favorite stories about Teddy Kennedy: on another bill I was offering an amendment – may have been on a FISA bill or something – that he didn’t like. And we had an argument.

      And then he got up and started ranting and raving. And he was making up facts. So I got up and I ranted and raved and I made up facts that answered his made-up facts.

      And after it was over we sat down, had a quorum call, and I went over and clapped him on the back and said, “Teddy, I knew what you were doing. You were making up facts — so I made up [facts.]” And he was roaring laughing.

      The discussion of his vote for

      “the disastrous tax bill that George H.W. Bush was passing. I voted for it.”

      The discussion of the earmark process:

      “We only earmark about 2 percent of the discretionary money going back to the states. When we don’t do it, it’s earmarked by some bureaucrat who has probably never even been west of the Potomac, much less west of the Mississippi.”

      Earmarks for highways and Bridges? I thought he was talking about the Coconut Road earmark and the “Bridge to nowhere” , but I was mistaken.

      Earmarks: constitutionally required financial decisions made in consultation with lobbyists, campaign contributors and other interested parties. Earmarks: The American Way.

      • MadDog says:

        While I’m pleased to see the last of Senator Kit Bond, I’m afraid that his likely replacement in Roy Blunt is even more batshit crazy than Bond was.

        As I’ve said before with regard to the Repugs, when all you have left is crazy, you go with crazy!

  7. skdadl says:

    One person I’ve never had a solid take on is Mueller. In some ways, he has seemed to me a sort-of good guy, or at least a less-bad guy than most. (Please don’t make me go back and get the research.) Did he not at one point order the FBI out of the international intel/interrogation mess because he and so many of his agents were smart enough to recognize what a mess it was? I’m thinking of the DoJ IG’s report on the FBI at GTMO, but there’s more around than that.

    I now sit to be corrected by Mary — and others, but Mary knows how susceptible I am.

    Petro, if you’re still around, we had roast duckling on our part of the north shore tonight.

    • Petrocelli says:

      Are ya sure tweren’t Geese ?

      I was talking just yesterday about Peking Duck, I wonder what they call it now …

      • skdadl says:

        No no, not big enough to be a goose, and not that much fat. (Mind you, I do love a goose, but I’m not feeling quite that wintry yet.)

        I now have six cats bouncing off walls all over the place shouting “Mama cooked a bird! Where is it?” That often discourages me from cooking. I have to hide my food. Sometimes I have to hide when I’m eating. It’s a problem.

  8. MadDog says:

    One more OT before I sign off to count some sheep. And particularly for JimWhite if he should wander by:

    JSOC task force battles Haqqani militants – By Sean Naylor

    Boosted by a shift of forces from Iraq and a flood of new intelligence, the most secretive U.S. special operations task force in Afghanistan is taking aim at that country’s deadliest insurgent network, say several senior military officials…


    …Since the 1980s, the Haqqanis have been based in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But the task force is “not yet” launching cross-border missions to attack the group in its Pakistani bases, said a senior special operations officer with recent Afghanistan experience. “We still haven’t made that decision again,” he said, referring to a September 2008 cross-border raid by JSOC elements that created such a strong Pakistani backlash that plans for any similar missions were scrapped…


    …As a result of JSOC’s shift in emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan, the task force has increased by 50 to 60 percent during the past year, and now has about 5,000 personnel, said the senior special ops officer…

    “…With the increase in assets, we’re able to keep the pressure on in a way that we weren’t able to before,” the senior special ops officer said. In the east, “each element is probably doing three, four, five ops per week,” he said.

    The group is taking a toll on insurgents, according to a senior coalition officer, who said that in June, July and August special operations forces killed or captured 235 insurgent leaders, killed 1,066 insurgents and captured another 1,673…

  9. alinaustex says:

    Has there been a compilation of any or all civil liberty lawsuits related to illegal detentions and would that list also include who has won their suits against the illegal government detention-and whether the settlements have been collected ? And further could any of these civil lawsuits lead to criminal investigations -and if so – why have they not ?

  10. alinaustex says:

    Mad Dog @ 31

    Most all of the Republican Senators are bat shit crazy – some like our one true believer John Cornyn are just better at putting a smiley face civil patina on their respective bat shit craziness.

    And Sen Hutchinson is quietly distancing herself from the bat shit crazy crowd – and thats why she was given the big heave ho when running against Gov Perry in the primary – she is a” moderate” not a bat shit crazy…

    The hope is the Republictards are committing group seppoku by embracing the bat shit crazy come the mid terms . Many moderate Republicans are now supporting the Demmocratic candidate running for governor Bill White

    But yes when all you have is bat shit crazy you run with that –

  11. MadDog says:

    After successfully counting sheep and a few hours of snoozing, more OT that I expect we’ll see EW posting on (via the AP’s Matt Apuzo):

    US eyes terror charges for Yemeni cleric al-Awlaki

    The Obama administration is considering filing the first criminal charges against radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in case the CIA fails to kill him and he’s is captured alive in Yemen…


    …If the Justice Department decides to charge al-Awlaki, it’s likely he would not be indicted. Rather, charges are more likely to take the form of an FBI complaint. That’s because an indicted suspect automatically gets the right to an attorney if he is captured, making it harder for authorities to question him…

    I’d hazard a guess that the Obama Administration politicos picked up on the blogosphere’s heavy criticism (EW, Greenwald, et al.) about the al-Awlaki Kill Order, and decided to try and buy a perception of constitutionality with this criminal complaint.

    And that will work about as well as Rahm Emanuel kissing babies. Nothing we like better than being played as fools.

    • BoxTurtle says:

      Nothing we like better than being played as fools.

      It’s not so much that they’re lying to us, it’s the QUALITY of the lies. Somewhere between “The dog ate my homework” and “My sister put those cigarettes in my backpack”.

      Boxturtle (My parentheticals are sometimes more believable)

  12. Mary says:

    I’d think the “landlady” for the C-Street group would have some similar concerns – feeling *awful* if her tenants were responsible for the delivery of death to tens of thousands and making a few million into refugess.

    @21 – that is truly bizarre. McChrystal, in Afghanistan, was worried that he couldn’t email bin laden at the house down the street? Because of FISA. Uh huh. So the poor guy would have to bomb him instead of texting him with “U srrnded-cum talk wif uz” or linking him to an appropriate LOLCat with its paws in the air. To heck with wooden legs – I think Bond was sampling some of the local exports.

    @30 – I think some of his agents ended up making Mueller look much better than he might have if they hadn’t been who they were. I do think he was concerned about how some things might look if anyone ended up in a legal proceeding instead of a black site, but he pretty much had his agents fight the fight and then “backed” them by pulling them out.

    As Cloonan and I think others have pointed out, FBI doesn’t have the same cabinet and other pull as CIA (as part of DOJ, they look to Ashcroft, Gonzales, Mukasey, Holder to *represent* for them, and you can guess how that went), so there were limits on what he could do, anyway. And with a primarily domestic delegation – he wasn’t having any of the good, sexy info to get Bush’s attention and ear. So he didn’t jump in with both feet on things like illegal wiretaps and torturing people to death and disappearing them, but he also didn’t really do much on the pushback front and he did offer up his FBI guys to “clean team” and let Soufan’s partner stay and play with the CIA on the Zubaydah experimentats.

    Part of what gets lost in the torture discussions, too, is that the FBI had some guys who were really up to speed on guys like KSM, but bc CIA opted for torture, they got guys named Deuce who hadn’t had the years of background with KSM to handle the torturgations. How does that keep anyone safer?

  13. jdmckay0 says:

    completely OT

    Completely… thoroughly…

    Buffalo Springfield

    Kuuuullll!!! One of the best ever, I still listen to ’em. Almost worth considering a trip up to the former mecca of world technological innovation and prosperity for a blast from the past.

    FWIW, there’s a really stupid (but funny) YouTube of these guys playing “For What It’s Worth” on original Smothers Bros. TV show.

    Anyway, thanks for the heads up.

  14. jdmckay0 says:

    OT – Can anybody make any sense of this bizarre gibberish from Senator Kit Bond’s exit interview:


    That statement is utterly, completely representative of the saturating extent to which non-reality, pull something (anything) out of one’s butt, approx. +/- 100% unintelligent initiatives of the entire GOP Fed Gov under the Shrub era… this is as good an example as any.

    That this (and similar) comments also lead to hours of “thoughtful” media “analysis”… not to mention “revue” (are these programs working? do they need tweaking? show “we” do “more” to assist are “intelligence” apparatus? etc. etc.) by the same gov. “officials”…

    Yes, lest there be any doubt, we… the greatest country in the history of the blue planet, have thoroughly earned the well deserved economic, judicial, social (etc. etc.) dysfunction which we currently “enjoy”. A perfect case study in what happens when stupid wins.

    • jdmckay0 says:

      show “we” do “more” to assist are


      should be: should “we” do “more” to assist our

      (hoping I haven’t been infected by the stupid virus… )