Guantanamo defense lawyer Todd Pierce was an army computer technician when he witnessed the U.S. implant itself in Saudi Arabia in 1990, and an Army lawyer when he saw the hysteria following 9/11. He says Americans have no idea why Arabs and Muslims hate us, and meantime we are losing our historic legitimacy by conducting drone warfare on civilians and sacrificing our tradition of civil rights.
Philip Weiss on
I met Guantanamo defense lawyer Todd Pierce last year in New York, and over lunch he offered a fully-formed critique of American foreign policy since 9/11:
“Everything that we have done since 9/11 is wrong. We are embarking on a totalitarian foreign policy that is a hallmark of how Hannah Arendt defines fascism… The false claims about radical Islam show how little we understand about ourselves or the Middle East.”
The marvel was that the critique came not from a leftwing urban blogger, but a retired Army major who had grown up in rural Minnesota and worked for years in farming and construction before becoming a computer technician for the army and later a military lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, ultimately serving as a defense lawyer for two Guanatanamo detainees. Pierce is a truly independent intellectual, and next month he will fulfill a lifelong dream when he enters the New School as a graduate student in political science at age 65; but his views of American foreign policy are as thought-through as anybody’s and have gained him the respect of internationalists such as Daniel Ellsberg, Roger Waters, the late Michael Ratner, and Peter Weiss.
Last fall, I told Pierce that we needed to do an in-depth interview because his ideas are ones American leaders must engage if we are ever to act with fairness in the Middle East.
Pierce and I met at his home in Roseville, Minnesota, over two days in late July. This is part 1 of our conversation. It follows his life story from his childhood in central Minnesota through several awakenings: service in the Gulf War in 1990 that ended his neoconservatism and work as a law clerk in Minnesota and later military lawyer in Cuba that brought him to the understanding that the American people have no idea of why so many Arabs and Muslims hate us. I will post part 2 in a few days’ time.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in Princeton, Minnesota, in 1951. My mother had grown up on a farm and her family background was Swedish immigrant and Scottish immigrant. My father was from Iowa. One uncle of his had been the minister to China during the Boxer rebellion, Edwin Conger. His wife kept all her correspondence, and it became a source book for the Boxer rebellion.
Something that shaped my thinking was my father was in the Bataan death march. He got released in 1945, by U.S. Army Rangers and Filipino guerrillas. They were rescued from the Japanese in a heroic raid. I knew of this through his mother my grandmother. He didn’t talk about it. So after 3 years he got released from that prisoner of war camp under conditions every bit as hard as a concentration camp, and five years later he had come to Princeton and he married my mother. And he became certified as a highway engineer for the state of Minnesota.
How did the Bataan death march affect him?
He had been through these atrocities. He did have PTSD as we call it now after the war. As one of his letters points out, he had been in the place where 30,000 Filipinos had been killed and 15,000 Americans. Then in the next letter to my aunt, he said, please forgive me for mentioning that, I was in a down mood that day. He never mentioned those kinds of things again. He’d seen the worst you could see, and 3 years later he was living a normal life.
He married my mother. Then my Mother came down with rheumatic fever three years later. She was in deteriorating condition thereafter till she died in 1958. My brother, my sister and I lived with my two different grandmothers for a couple of years, and then my father remarried, and we lived in St Paul all five of us. But I had been living with my grandparents on the farm. I preferred to go back to Princeton and the farm. One reason, I was given much more freedom there, which wasn’t to my benefit. And I had a very unremarkable education career.
My grandfather was a very independent guy, he stood up for things. He was your typical Scots-Irish guy, and I got a lot of things good from him in that way. But that side of the family didn’t place any emphasis on education. So remarkably I was able to get through high school without doing any work and missing a lot of school, and graduated.
Your teachers must have told you you were smart.
It was registered. I’m not saying that to flatter myself. They would remind me, you could do more, you could go to college. Growing up on that side of the family, it wasn’t that I didn’t have ambition, but I thought what could I do without going to college—perhaps be an electrician. That was the extent of my ambition at that time. If it had seemed a realistic choice when I was in high school, I would have wanted to get a PhD in political science. That was always my interest. But by that time, it was already, Yeah, there are No jobs for this.
I got out of high school, came down and got a job in a factory in Minneapolis. Lamar, it was a hairspray factory, and worked there for about 6 months. So I had a pretty unimpressive career. First in that hairspray factory, then working for General Tire, putting tires on cars in Minneapolis
When did you go into the military?
I had enlisted in the Marines in high school in 1969 with the intent of going into the infantry. I look back and shudder at my poor judgment. But I failed my physical because I hurt my back that winter before going in. So I put that aside. But it was like I had unfinished business, I wanted to get into the Marines, to finish what I had started. The Vietnam war was going on, and I had turned against it at that time. But my uncle and my dad had been in World War 2 and been willing to step forward to defend the country, and I had that imbedded in me coming from where I was. I ended up going to the Marine reserve, then going to work as a plasterer when I came back. I didn’t like working in factories.
So I went to Marine Corps boot camp, but I quickly tired of going to drill once a month and getting my hair short. I thought of going active duty but the Marine first division officially came back from Vietnam and so there were a lot of excess people on the base at Camp Pendleton, painting rocks.
I ended up going into the National Guard reserves and going back to Princeton, and for ten years I did farming and construction. I did plastering and cement work. And I was pretty good at reading blueprints. Not everyone in construction can do that. And from that time till I was 30, I was always involved in farming.
Do you know how to milk a cow.
Yes. I milked cows. I was a milkhauler, I picked up livestock to take to the stockyards. Did fieldwork, plowing, discing, combining, haybaling. And I’d say that farming does imprint a view of the world. It’s not a forgiving lifestyle. It’s black and white, a life of absolutes. If you don’t do something, something bad will generally follow. If you don’t get out and milk your cows, your cows will get sick.
Did the 70s affect you?
The counterculture was always there. My friends were hippies. And beginning in the late 60s, I was a reader of Ramparts magazine and Hunter Thompson. I was part of the counterculture. My friends who were hippies– we always were interested but were relatively uneducated and just searching. But later I was working in New Mexico and I hung out with grad students—reading books and philosophy, and discussing things. That was my first real experience amongst a more intellectual atmosphere.
Did you have any awareness of Israel?
Virtually none. Though let me say my stepsister who I wasn’t close to had married an Iraqi student from the Colorado school of mines. She lived in Denver. He was studying petroleum engineering. And honestly our family was entirely Israeli oriented. Because when the 1967 war broke out, he was buying a car, and the salesman said something anti Arab, and he got mad about it. And our family was—you know, he was an Arab, but our sympathies were with Israel.
Did you have sympathy for him?
Sympathy for him, yes. But not putting ourselves in his place and thinking about it. We were very typical Americans. We had Israeli-centric eyes.
But you were against the Vietnam War?
In ‘67, I was 16 years old, and I was pro Vietnam war yet at that point. I was reading a lot of books like The Green Berets . I was looking at it from an American perspective, this is part of counter insurgency. And with the 67 war, I thought that Israel is our ally and the Arabs are aligned with the Soviet Union. And that was a deciding factor in how I looked at things.
I always was anti-totalitarian from the youngest age. That goes to my dad’s experience. And that interest in World War 2 also extended to Germany, and one of the first books I read when I started reading more history was Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich– the kid’s version of the Third Reich. And it was the time of the Cold war, so I came across things like the Hungarian Revolution and East Germany and the Berlin wall. So I was anti totalitarian from the youngest age.
And though I turned against the Vietnam war, unlike some of my friends, who were having the prevailing attitude that if we’re wrong, the other side must be right, I never defended the Vietnamese either. I was anticommunist. But for a variety of reasons, I turned against the war from an American perspective. Why are we there?
What about education?
I started taking night classes at junior college. And construction was always up and down, and during one of the low periods– Control Data had started a farm project in Princeton called Rural Ventures. I was able to get an internship because of my construction experience. So that was where I got interested in computers.
And I decided to go in the army reserve and become a computer programmer. Now when I left the National Guard a few years earlier, I said, never again. I will be honest with you, I didn’t care for regimentation. But this was the only way someone would pay me to go to school.
And Stewart Brand who was part of the counterculture said, the Vietnam war is over, people should consider going in the military and getting training in computers. I thought Yeah. So countercultural ideas, the good ones, have always had some influence.
Later I came to know Ken Babbs who along with his partner Ken Kesey you could say were the originators of the hippie movement, and I told Ken Babbs, Blame it on Stewart Brand, or give him credit for me going in the military, however you want to look at it.
Is Babbs still around?
Yes, he’s in Eugene, Oregon. How I got acquainted with him– in Electric Kool Aid Acid Test Tom Wolfe asks this guy who’s a Vietnam Vet, what was it like, and Babbs pointed to a pile of papers in the corner. There it is, read all about it. It was a manuscript for a book on Vietnam. That manuscript got lost, not surprisingly perhaps, and years later, in 2010, 2011, the story goes, a friend of Babbs sent him a copy of the manuscript that he didn’t realize was out there. And Babbs and his wife produced a book called Who Shot the Water Buffalo. That was when I was a defense counsel with military commissions. And trying to bring in a better understanding of how we fought our wars. So I contacted Babbs, and being a Guantanamo defense attorney, that was my introduction, and we started corresponding, and he later invited me out to a visit.
Was that a good book?
Here’s a point– let me fill this out. Babbs was one of the first American military service members in Vietnam. He was sent there as a Marine helicopter pilot before the war heated up, and then when he was there the war started heating up. I asked him in an oral history, what were his ideas once he got there. Did you think the war could be won? He said, No, I knew almost right away that war could not be won. I was taking Marines out on patrol, and even in those early years they would just pretend to be out on patrol because they didn’t want to get too far away and not get back to the helicopter to pick them up. So they were already shirking their duty, because they didn’t want to put their lives on the line for what they already knew was a lost cause.
They knew that the people didn’t want them there.
How political were you then?
In 1983 I got hired as a computer technician in the active duty reserve program, and I was on active duty for almost 10 years, and during that time that’s when I got more politically interested and began spending a lot of time in the library. And I will admit that I became a neoconservative. I had been a liberal through the 70s, then came the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And it just seemed like something is wrong here. I was a blue collar Reagan Democrat at that time, though I didn’t like Reagan. I may have even have voted for John Anderson. I forget, but I was leaning more to the right at that time. As did a lot of people.
This is when the guerrilla war was heating up with El Salvador and Nicaragua. And being anti-totalitarian and anti-communist, I wasn’t a right winger, I was a social democrat type you could say, but there had been some Nicaraguan Sandinistas who had broken off, and one of them was a former nun from southern Minnesota. She had been married to a Sandinista, but as the government became more Leninist he became disaffected and left the country.
And another guy was studying for a doctorate in Iowa who was a former Sandinista. He had actively supported the revolution when he had been in Europe, he was very knowledgeable about liberation theology. And Minnesota was a hotbed for support for the Sandinistas, with the Socialist Workers Party playing a large role. My interest was always in ideologies, revolutionary ideologies.
You weren’t on that team?
No. I was against Trotsky and against Stalin and on the other team. I was coming from the liberal critical side toward Communism, and I got more involved in my reading, and I got acquainted with a person here who would remain a neoconservative, an attorney, who had gotten involved because of the involvement of the pro Sandinista side at her Lutheran church. She didn’t think she was getting the fullest picture. We joined forces. I was also talking to a number of different professors who had opinion pieces in the papers consistent with my own. And I met an IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] officer then teaching at the University of Minnesota. Some friends introduced me. If I had a political mentor then, it was this IDF officer.
Would you take the same stance today visavis the Sandinistas, given the leftwing crowd you’re in?
I don’t apologize for being anti Sandinista. The people who interested me were the critics from the left side criticizing the Leninism. I was talking about the influence in global education of a pro-Sandinista point of view without any opposing viewpoint. That was the issue. There didn’t seem to be a counter narrative. I wasn’t interested because of a kneejerk pro American perspective.
But your leftwing friends in NY, the late Michael Ratner and Michael Smith, this would be a real difference between you.
They would have been on a different side. And like I say, I would remain anti Sandinista today, but today, I would be against interventionism. Someone I am friends with now is David MacMichael, he worked with the CIA at various levels. He’s a member of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity group, which Ray McGovern and a few others started in opposition to the Iraq war. MacMichael is elderly now, and he’s much more on the left today than he would have been in the 50s and 60s. In the 80s he served as an expert witness for the Sandinista government in a lawsuit against the United States. And when I worked in military commissions I got acquainted with Pauk Reichler, co counsel for Nicaragua in that lawsuit. So talk about coming full circle.
I would respectfully disagree. I remain anti-totalitarian. That’s why I am doing what I am doing today. That’s why I volunteered to defend Guantanamo defendants. Because we had adopted the same techniques I had spent my life in opposition to.
When 9/11 came, almost immediately when we picked up people in Afghanistan and Bush and Cheney were saying, they don’t get the protection of the Geneva Conventions, my position is No, that’s wrong. I had the experience of my dad in my background, and I said, wait a minute, this is what we used to accuse communist regimes of doing, violating human rights etcetera. It’s no more right when we’re doing it than it was back when I was in opposition to the Sandinistas.
How long were you a neocon?
One of the professors I knew referred me to the National Association of Scholars, which was started by Herb London and Steve Balch, both of New York, and I got involved with them. Balch said, Why don’t you start a state chapter of the Minnesota Association of Scholars. That was 1987. And our first issue that we took a stand on was a call for a more balanced approach on global education.
In this period of time, I also got acquainted with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. All the neocons! And I got acquainted with Peter Collier and David Horovitz. I was arranging for various people to come into the state and speak at colleges. And I also got acquainted with Michael Ledeen’s wife, Barbara Ledeen, who had worked with a group that sponsored Horowitz and Collier.
One guy I met in the association of scholars, I won’t name names, but he was known as a Straussian at Carleton, and in our first meeting getting this association together he said, Where do you teach? He figured I must have been a professor. I broke the news, I don’t even have a college degree. I was putting on a good act.
What was your religious training, and had you met Jews?
We were very irreligious in my family. We went through the formality of getting confirmed in the Lutheran church, but just like in school, I didn’t go to confirmation very much. My neighbor wrote my confirmation report. At the end of ninth grade, we had to meet every morning for a week with the pastor to prepare for confirmation and then write a five-page paper. I went the first day and didn’t go the rest of the week. I talked to the pastor, and he said, well, if you get the paper in we’ll confirm you. So my neighbor wrote the paper. I don’t know how I persuaded her. I couldn’t tell you what it was on.
The only Jews I knew were a local grocer, who would drive up from Minneapolis every day. He and his brother had a dry goods and grocery store, named Mark’s.
They were hardworking guys?
Yes they were, and they gave credit, which farmers needed.
What about anti-Jewish prejudice?
None that I was aware of. Minneapolis, according to the Mary Tyler Moore show, had antisemitism, but it just wasn’t an issue where I grew up. We liked these guys, we shopped there, they were always friendly. My grandmother liked them. I got to know Aaron, he was a real character, with a lot of jokes, he could have been on the comedian circuit. His brother Bert was older and a little bit more reserved.
Now you were meeting them professionally. Were you thinking, wow, these are Jews?
No, it wasn’t the way I thought. I thought this IDF officer, he knows something about war and politics.
You told me your ideas really started to change with the Gulf War.
Right. August 2, 1990 came along with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. I believe that was a Saturday, and our unit had a mission to the Mideast, as theater area material management center. They said right away, We’ll be mobilized for this. I was a very patriotic person. I supported the Gulf War. But it also opened my eyes to how corrupt things were.
How was that?
Just the way things were done. We got mobilized to Fort Polk [Louisiana] in September. Then to Saudi Arabia beginning of October. The first thing we got told was, You will be here at least a year. And I was told to train someone in the computer job, because the computer was going to be left in Saudi Arabia.
The US Army wanted to be in the Middle East. Even before we left Baton Rouge, I was told that my computer, the computer I was the sole technician for, would not be coming back. They weren’t going to see what Saddam Hussein would do, they had their opening to get into the middle east.
This particular computer I maintained maintained all the ammo stockages in the theater; any ammo that came into the theater was digitally inventoried on the computer and allocated. So it was sort of an inside view of what was being done at a high level of command. And like I say it opened my eyes to how things really worked in the military.
Why did they want to be in Saudi Arabia?
To me at the time, but more with hindsight—it was that yeah, the United States wanted to get more involved more directly in the Middle East. We were already propping up the Saudi regime in a variety of ways. And Osama bin Laden, one of the complaints he had was that the United States was in Saudi Arabia. When you break that down, the complaint was about the United States propping up the Saudi regime, which was corrupt and keeping most of the wealth for themselves in the Saudi family. When you got there, you could see that first hand. I’d go for a walk, and you could see a palace there and the rest of the people largely in poverty.
We got there in October, and most of the units were out of there by May. But because we had a permanent mission there we were still there and I don’t know when they planned on getting us out. But the people from Baton Rouge and Arkansas said, When are we getting out of here, and they started calling congressional members, saying The war is over. And about May they said, we’re going to keep part of the unit here, and send the rest back to Baton Rouge, and we’ll continue the mission.
But what was the mission? The war was over, so what was the mission? The mission was to plant the Unites States in the Middle East, with a remnant here in Saudi Arabia.
I got out of there only because a regular army soldier wanted to stay there, a computer technician. So he transferred to our unit and he stayed there. We left part of the unit there in the Khobar towers. I helped them move in. It was giant apartment complex. Like the projects in Chicago.
Did that make you cynical?
That was where I really became cynical in a whole lot of ways, both at the micro level– officers having adulterous affairs and having a motive to stay there, with one another, and I’m being careful not to name names, but high ranking officers, who were actually lobbying to keep us there, because they didn’t have a financial interest in going back, plus they had their mistress there. It was the lower level people suffering in various ways financially, and this was before cell phones; phone calls home were expensive, and they were trying to maintain contact with their families.
People have had affairs in the command before.
No, that’s not new at all. It happens at every level in the military. Not just the adulterous affairs, but more just the conflict that goes with it, and how that works out personnel wise. I didn’t worry about who was having sex with who, but rather what consequences that had for me and the other soldiers. You see people getting promoted faster and what not.
What about the macro level?
That computer is probably still there. Rusting now that things are updated. But they were setting up a system of logistic bases. They had already started one in Saudi Arabia, then they had another base in Kuwait, where they launched the war in 2003. We were putting a stranglehold on Iraq from the very beginning of the end of the Gulf War.
Whose plan was that?
I have to believe that we were doing it from the time we left. From the highest level. George H.W. Bush and Cheney, they had exhibited some prudence in not invading Iraq at the time, but at the same time they were exercising total control over Iraq in a variety of ways.
Let me throw in one other thing here, very quickly. I came back and I got a promotion and a job down in Fort McCoy [in Wisconsin]. I was applying to law school at the time, and fulfilling the requirements by getting a four year degree. And I entered Hamline law school in 1993, at age 42.
But that experience in Fort McCoy made me even more cynical. The way the commanders were. Again, adultery. Which is there everywhere you go. But the personality of the commander was very controlling. I got down there and I’m hearing right away from enlisted men and officers, don’t say a word, don’t question anything. And every week they had a meeting with the commander who would talk, and the second week, a captain raised a question, Why isn’t this being done? The people around me were whispering, He’ll be gone in a week. And sure enough the next week he was shipped out to a less desirable place.
How did you go from law school to becoming a JAG?
My goals were modest. I wasn’t looking for a large law firm partnership or anything. My goal was just to be a prosecutor in a medium sized Minnesota county where I live. I was more of a law and order guy.
But when I was finishing law school, [a former army colleague] had become commander of the legal support unit for an army reserve unit. And by that time I had joined the army psyops unit as a reservist, one weekend a month, as a non commissioned officer, but that unit was being disbanded so I called him up and I said, do you have any positions. He did and said, I can’t promise you but I might get you a commission as a JAG… [T]he paperwork went in and I got the commission. So then I became a JAG. I got commissioned in 1996 and I was 45 years old.
Meantime, I applied to be a judicial law clerk in St Cloud, with a judge. I got hired by him, and it was fortuitous, we were very compatible in outlook. He was a state judge, very senior, appointed by a Democrat. In the course of working for him, I won’t give you too many details, but my outlook shifted, after I saw a couple of cops testifying falsely on a couple of cases. I thought, yeah, there’s a place for the defense more than I appreciated before. My sympathies shifted. I remained more conservative at that point. But conservative in the idea that, No, you got to have the defense and defend these civil liberties.
That was a transformational experience. We had a few cops come in, and a cop was lying, this cop who was investigating false allegations became involved with the alleged victim’s mother, and you read the police report and the thing just fell apart. And the charge was very serious: a charge of sexual conduct with a 15 year old girl. The case was filled with inconsistencies, and I persuaded the judge to dismiss the charges. No judge wants to dismiss a charge of criminal sexual conduct involving a 16 year old girl, because It is going to get a lot of attention. But I went back to him three times.
The charges were against the mother’s new husband. They’d met in a nudist camp. He had a pension as a teacher, and the daughter never liked the guy. I don’t blame her, but she made the allegation of sexual contact, and the story rang false for a lot of reasons. The cop had gotten in an affair with the mother. I persuaded the judge, this is inherently incredible, it couldn’t be true. It took three times to convince the judge and he dismissed the charge.
The judge said yeah, go ahead and write up an order dismissing the charge, but make it very careful and make it bulletproof. And I did. And that was later vindicated by the prosecution and the police.
What effect did that have on you?
Well it added another layer of cynicism.
Our conversation began with you saying the foreign policy positions of the Democrats and Republicans are fascistic. That’s a strong statement. Do you think that in this belief, with your long ideological history, that you have a romance about when America was good?
I have a yin and yang view. Yeah, there’s much that’s good about America and relatively speaking in the course of human events and history, we are often exactly as we have held ourselves up to be. We did break ground in opening up more freedom for the world. But at the same time we were committing genocide in constant warfare against the indigenous people. Which cannot be denied and cannot be legitimized, or justified.
How are we doing in terms of those freedoms?
Many people could argue that at any point in our history we really were hypocritical because of the way we treated indigenous people. And you can make an argument that every war we had, even the revolutionary war, was driven by economic self interest, but again, it brought about good outcomes. We were always on an imperialistic course with manifest destiny and subjugating the indigenous people. And you can’t justify that and you can’t defend it in a moral sense. But we really took that to a higher level with the Spanish American war, where we become a global imperialist and joined the other imperialist powers. My great great uncle was part of that, as a minister to China. But even then it was always mixed. John Quincy Adams said we don’t go abroad to slay dragons or tyrants, but we stay at home. Like any country you have schizophrenic political attitudes.
So how do you measure our achievement? In the long term, I guess you have to measure by what we brought about in human rights.
But I think it’s like we hit a peak and now we’re on a downhill side. Now human rights has become a pretext to go to war and to use as a weapon against other countries, not equally against despotic regimes, but selectively at whoever we want to target. It goes to Hannah Arendt’s point about totalitarian foreign policy, which I take to be a fundamental principle of fascism, and as others have written, fascism, contrary to what some will say– what’s a fascist regime, and they get into minutiae, what did Mussolini do. While more astute observers point out that fascism is what fascism does. Even if we don’t have anybody speaking Italian to us doesn’t mean that we can’t be fascist. And fascism is a national manifestation, so every country is going to have its own cultural form of it. We’re seeing an American form of it, particularly in the political conventions. Last night [at the Democratic convention], some antiwar protester said no more war, and they were drowned out with people chanting USA, USA.
They didn’t treat them any different at the Democratic one from the Republican. This morning, Joe Scarborough said you know the Democrats have gotten rid of their Vietnam syndrome. They’re back in full warfare mode. They’re just triumphant. There’s a satisfaction that both parties are united on their foreign policy. No more of this antiwar dissent, or Democrats apologizing for what we’re doing. We finally silenced the antiwar left. There’s a triumphalism being expressed.
St. Cloud led where?
I learned there was an active reserve JAG officer opening at Fort Snelling [in Minneapolis]. I thought I have to apply and see what happens. I got hired. I went on active duty in 1998, as again an active Army Reserve JAG officer. About the same time the Kosovo war was beginning, and in large part coming out of the Gulf War I had become anti interventionist, to give him his due credit, partly under Pat Buchanan’s influence. He was making the argument, the Cold War is over, get the peace dividend, it’s time to come home, America, invest in the United States, lower the defense budget. I’d been anti-communist and anti-Soviet, but I wasn’t militaristic.
So I was very much in line with that. I had already had two indications through the military of our real long term goals in foreign policy. Being told our computer would stay in the Middle East, then seeing how we ramped up our logistics bases there. Then when I was in the psyops unit, during training, our commander came to us one day and said, you know, if you guys are thinking your mission is going to be reduced, you’re wrong. We had just come back from the Gulf conflict. We’re actually going to be doing more things around the world on these psyops missions. That was probably 1993 or 1994. So we’re being told, and bear in mind the psyops are mainly in the army reserve. The way it’s set up they don’t need that many people on hand except during a war. So when a war breaks out that, they need psyops and they’ve got them all ready in the Reserve.
Also when I was undergoing that psyops training, down at Fort Bragg, one of the instructors was a master sergeant who had been in Iraq during the Gulf War, and she was up in the Kurdish area after the war, and she and a captain had nothing to do, they were twiddling their thumbs– and this goes to show the incompetence of the military and the lack of sound reasoning—her and this captain were up there as psyops working with the Kurds. They’re supposed to be helping them get food, and they decide, well, we need to do something in line with psyops, so they started preparing this propaganda message, Rise up against Saddam Hussein.
And she hated the Kurds because they did exactly what they’d asked them to do. The Kurds in the north rose up and got decimated by Saddam’s forces. And she just couldn’t contain herself, she allowed as she hated the Kurds, because they’d actually listened to her. I presume she got some kind of rebuke for it officially.
That was in the news, right?
There was another rebellion in the south. That was driven by George H.W. Bush made some statements that encouraged southern Iraqis, the Shiites to rise up, the so called Marsh Arabs. She was up in the Kurdish area, and I’m just relying on her anecdote here, but according to this person who would have been a senior NCO, on her own, she and this other officer incited the Kurds to rise up and rebel. She hated the Kurds, because she didn’t care about the Kurds getting killed as a result—and I’m guessing but she probably got in a little bit of trouble, maybe a reprimand, for an ad hoc psyops campaign. But she didn’t get too severe a reprimand, because she was working as a senior instructor.
They succeeded in inciting them to rebel, but she didn’t want them really to rebel. They were just doing that because hey– this is what we do. It was just a gross dereliction.
What was next for you?
I got off active duty in November 2002 as they were ramping up for the Iraq war. And I took a job as assistant county attorney in Fillmore County, in southeastern Minnesota, in February 2003, then I left in April 2004 and started working at the Minnesota secretary of state’s office, and worked there till March 2008.
Then I went on active duty for Guantanamo in June 2008.
Did you elect to do that?
Yes I volunteered. Again, going back to the very beginning stage of the global war on terror, they said, we’re not going to recognize the Geneva conventions. I was on active duty then. I opposed that, and I opposed the Iraq war.
What does that mean to oppose the war inside the military?
There was a senior NCO who put up a sign, No war in Iraq, in her yard. And someone saw that and reported her. They were looking at punishing her. It never made it into the papers. That put me in a quandary, because they wanted to have punitive action against her, and I’m trying to recall if it ever got to the stage where I had to say yes or no. I opposed any action. And I had very good relations with the general. I would have told him not to do anything.
Where were you on 9/11?
I was on active duty as a JAG officer. I went into work that morning. And our staff was small, me and a lieutenant colonel, and he routinely would come in late. And that day he didn’t come in till 2 or 3 o’clock, which I won’t say anything more about. It was all happening when I got to work, and the second plane hit and we knew it was terrorism, and so we began wrapping up immediately our command, because we were responsible for all the Reserve units in six states. Also we knew people were being mobilized almost immediately. I was in on all the discussions because the more senior guy hadn’t shown up yet. And you could just see the hysteria taking hold of a lot of people.
Then at the end of the day, late in the day, because we worked late, finally my senior officer arrives, so I can go home, and I picked up my son [from school in Minneapolis] so we could go home, and see my stepson who was back from the Marines on leave. He’d been in a year and a half, and I was anxious to see him. And there was a huge traffic jam. And finally we got north, and we came to an overpass, and there was a guy on the overpass with a kid waving a flag. He backed the traffic up five miles because everyone honked a horn and slowed down a bit. It was something like after Pearl Harbor. But I was ticked off. I wanted to get home and see my stepson.
The next night– the same thing. The guy was out there again with a flag. The third night, I pulled over. I had my uniform on, and I said, Hey you’re backing up traffic for ten miles. You’ve done this now for a couple days, we get it. He said, “I just want to show my support.” I said, I’m in the military, I want to get home, you’re doing a disservice to me.
The guy was out there again the next night. I called the highway patrol. I said, Look, I understand free expression, but backing up traffic? Can you at least suggest that he stop? But they said Oh no, we can’t.
Fortunately, he wasn’t out there after the weekend.
Why wasn’t it freedom of expression?
It was hysteria. Immediately– out came this outpouring. He was patriotic, but again to me, sitting out there—he was backing traffic up for miles. I never criticized anyone’s patriotism, though we could get on to a different topic, of how it’s become hyper militarism.
Where else did you see the hysteria?
Just watching my fellow officers. They were changing before our very eyes. We have to go to war, we have to start killing people. Then it all started. Picking people up with no Geneva conventions.
But what were your feelings on 9/11? I remember myself that day. I said, I’d go after those bastards.
Absolutely. Remember, I was still inclined to be hawkish. I was noninterventionist but I was still hawkish, and I said, We got to go after the guys who are behind this. I had no doubt about that. I was mobilizing troops and I was fully in support of these guys. But let’s do it right. Let’s do it legally. I was going back to all my time having an interest in guerrilla war and how do you deal with it. When you start acting outside the law, when you act hypocritically, you are aiding the enemy. This is a fundamental principle of counter insurgency, which we’ve never followed in spite of Petraeus’s talk. You’re aiding the enemy.
Hey we’re doing everything wrong. Almost from the beginning we did everything wrong. We went into Afghanistan– yeah hunt down Al Qaeda, the perpetrators. Then it turned into removing the Taliban. The Taliban aren’t terrorists. The Taliban may be horrible people, they are not terrorists. You can’t expand the war.
Then it expanded to Iraq. Even at the beginning, they were talking about Iraq. So everything we have done is wrong and has led to the creation and expansion of ISIS. We brought it into existence by our own policies.
Did you ever say this to Michael Ratner? He used to say the same thing.
I said it frequently on an email list I was on with him. I remember he responded to me when I talked about martial law– that these principles, if we follow them, are a threat to our civil liberties and political dissent.
That was happening in the Vietnam days?
The military wanted to do it. I went in and did quite a bit of research on Westmoreland and these guys. I read this book On Strategy, which is a mimicry of Clausewitz’s book, On War. It pretended to be taking Clausewitz’s thought and applying it to Vietnam. In fact, Clausewitz said the strongest form of warfare is defensive. He was writing as a Prussian national, in opposition to Napoleon’s invasion, and he said, stay at home, defend your country, don’t go out on offensive operations. And in this book On Strategy, Podhoretz turned that upside down. The book is by Harry Summers, but Podhoretz is listed. There’s a section on the offensive. How the offensive is a stronger form of war, and as a footnote, Podhoretz is given as an authority for that, not Clausewitz, who said the opposite.
Clausewitz’s book wasn’t popular with the Germans because Clausewitz also said you need to have civilian leadership making the decisions on war, because the military is more narrow minded. So the German military almost immediately reinterpreted Clausewitz’s book, and that’s how it’s handed down to the Americans.
The point of Colonel Harry Summers’s book, On Strategy, was we would have won the Vietnam war had our will not been diminished by the antiwar movement and the press. I had actually adopted that view a bit in the 80s myself. Till becoming sober again. But the press had been targeted as the enemy, for having reported the news. In the course of our argument on the right to know, I read these memoirs by Generals Davidson and Westmoreland and Admiral Sharpe. They were all in agreement that the press lost the war for us, the antiwar movement. Davidson and Sharpe said for the next war, we got to have military detention and censorship. Basically, we got to bring back the martial law we had during the civil war and in Hawaii during the world war, which they had all been familiar with.
In Hawaii, they needed Japanese-Americans as a work force, so they didn’t have the mass removal. They had martial law. I went to the museum in Hawaii. They had signs, imposing censorship. And that’s what these Vietnam-era generals would have known all about that, and they were advocating that for the Vietnam war. It’s unconstitutional, so it’s difficult to do, but the military internalized this way of thinking, so they’ve been coming up with these ways of basically suppressing news and information ever since.
How long did you serve as a Guantanamo defense attorney?
I began June 2008, and it actually continues to this day. I’m still on a case before the DC Court of Appeals, we’re still waiting on a decision.
How many guys have you met at Guantanamo?
At Guantanamo itself, I have only met one client, one prisoner [Ibrahim] al-Qosi. The appellate case I’m still on, he would never meet with us. Though one time to the surprise of my co counsel
he agreed to meet; and it was my co-counsel who was down there, so they met and actually they ended up talking throughout the day. His name is [Ali Hamza] al-Bahlul. He told my co counsel I want to give you a message to send to your president. The guards wouldn’t let him bring in his pen and notebook for some random reason, but he had a MacDonald’s coffee cup, and al-Bahlul twisted the lid of the coffee cup to use as a stylus and etched his message into the styrofoam. “Stop waging war on us and we’ll stop fighting back.”
It’s clear all the time, what is their motivation. We sent the whole cup to the White House.
So I only met al-Qosi. Now I have met a number of former prisoners after– British and Sudanese.
Did the meetings have an effect on you?
Actually it didn’t have any real effect on my thinking. It only confirmed the conclusion I had already come to, that here’s why they fight. Our client was a very calm person, low-key person. This
was his personality, this wasn’t just putting on an act. He had gone to Afghanistan in the late 1980s from Sudan, and volunteered, maybe having been encouraged by CIA propaganda to go fight the Russians. He came late in the war, so he might have done a little fighting late in the war, and that war ended, but the group he joined up with happened to be bin Laden’s, because that was one of the groups fighting and organizing people. So he went to continue fighting the Russians in Chechnya, but he got there just at the time when a cease fire was going down. So he didn’t do much fighting there. He probably was never involved with much fighting. Then he went to Sudan, when bin Laden went there. He became more of a gofer for bin Laden and did some menial jobs trading produce from bin Laden’s farm, which he wasn’t very good at.
Bin Laden had a farm in Sudan?
Yes, he invested quite heavily in Sudan for a while. But the US put pressure on the Sudanese government to kick him out, so then he went back to Afghanistan. Our client al-Qosi followed him to Afghanistan. There he was basically a driver and a logistics guy, picking people up and bringing them there. He definitely agreed with al Qaeda’s goal of fighting the west, for the reasons al Qaeda said. We were being monitored, so I didn’t get into real specifics. So I couldn’t quote you.
On Israel I did casually say or carefully say something about Israel, and– yeah, that’s an issue. But I knew that because the other client had created a propaganda video or a documentary of why we fight.
The coffee cup one?
Yeah. In 1998 or 99. The video is called the State of the Umma, the Umma being the Islamic people. It’s their version of our World War 2 propaganda movie, Why We Fight. And they list the reasons. The three reasons in 1998 or 1999 were: The US troops staying in Saudi Arabia. It’s not just they’re on supposed holy ground, rather it’s why they’re there, they’re propping up a Saudi regime that is plundering the state’s coffers.
The second reason they cited, I think in this order, I believe was the sanctions on Iraq which led to the deaths of indisputably 500,000 children, which Madeleine Albright said was worth it, and they obviously disagreed. She was asked about it on 60 Minutes, and I think Lesley Stahl said well we hear there’s been 500,000 children that died as a result of sanctions, Madame Secretary. “Well, we felt it was worth it.” She later said it’s not what I meant. But that’s what went out, as her response.
And the third reason was the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. And those were the three reasons listed in 1998 or 1999. That’s what they were operating under when they planned 9/11. 9/11 was not intended to bring the United States down, but it was a classic guerrilla technique, how do you bring the enemy into your territory. Bin Laden had concluded, why are we going to fight the Saudis when the Saudis are the tool of the Americans. Get the real enemy. And none of this is to defend anything bin Laden did. But he attacked a building, the Pentagon, that was a legal military target. And the World Trade Center, you could make an argument that it was too, because it was crammed with national security offices. There were a lot of federal government offices in there.
They wanted to draw the United States into their battle space, so they would have a better advantage in fighting us. But the purpose in targeting the United States was because it was the United States pulling all the strings in the Middle East. Including with Israel. Because we’re a Joint military command with Israel, you could say today. Then with Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. You can tell me if you disagree. But when you look at the ammo carriers– when Israel runs out of ammo in an assault on Gaza, we’re the logistics train, bringing up and resupplying them. Just like my unit in Saudi Arabia was the logistics train for the troops, we’re doing the same for the Israeli Defense Forces when they launch a war.
So would you say you became politicized?
My politics today are non-ideological, if you can call it that. As far as ideologies, I can disagree with everybody. Libertarians may be right against the wars, but they advocate economic policies that allow the Sheldon Adelsons to get ever richer, so that they can push for a war. So functionally they’re supporting war. Uri Avnery captured the Republicans perfectly. When Netanyahu spoke to Congress, he said it reminded him of a German Reichstag session, and half the Democrats are as bad. So there is at least a remnant of Democrats who aren’t fascists.
So I don’t consider myself ideological. But a pragmatist. Certainly with ethics– we don’t go out and kill people at random. But also arguing, This is against our national interest; what we’re doing in the Middle East is not advancing our national interest.
Where is Israel in your thinking?
I think it’s right up there with everything I’m criticizing about the United States. Again, militarily we’re functionally a joint military command. We know all about the PNAC [Project for a New American Century] thing. And before that it was Oded Yinon, writing in 1982, advising the Israeli government to fragment the Middle East. He was an Israeli foreign service officer saying, Rather than dealing with these other Arab states and being in a state of war, what we should do is fragment them, break them into pieces. And later when Netanyahu was prime minster, in 1996, Richard Perle came along making that same recommendation [in A Clean Break].
A lot of people make a lot of recommendations. Is that the active thread in their thinking?
Yes. I’m acquainted with Ilan Pappe and 1948 now. So I know much of that was being done well before today. And whatever opinions are of 1948, and criticisms—myself I’m a bit of a pragmatist, ok, so, Israel is in existence, and life and history is filled with injustices, like the Native Americans. You can’t undo all that. So as a pragmatist, Israel has got those borders. Even though in 1948 it went beyond those borders. They got those 67 borders [from the 1949 armistice], and so, to reconcile and bring some peace– you’re not going to undo ‘48, but we got to not allow them to continue that conquest that’s taking place. I mean if the United States was continuing to wage war against the indigenous people, say, or Mexico or South America, continuing the war against the indigenous people, I’d say OK whatever happened 150 years ago, there’s got to be a statute of limitations here, it’s got to be fixed, we can’t continue it. That’s the crime going on today; we can’t allow an ongoing crime to continue.
So reading all this, and seeing the part where the expansion is continuing. And Ben Zion Netanyahu said, Wipe out the Arabs, get rid of them; and my son agrees with me! Though he’s more cautious about what he says. I can give you the exact quote.
How influential has that thinking been in the U.S.?
Well I think before 9/11 it had obviously been influential with the neoconservatives. Which I had left. But I was still leaning toward the conservative side of things, in large part because of Bill Clinton and Hillary and their wars on Kosovo. That’s what resonated with Buchanan’s criticism. Because no one on the left was talking about this. So that by default put me on the right, as an anti-Interventionist.
And you got the Christian Zionists. So it was always there. But with 9/11 it expanded exponentially. When 9/11 happened it created a readymade audience for the neocons to say we got to do what Israel does. Karen Kwiatkowski worked in the Pentagon at the time, and she said the IDF officers had regular access. They didn’t even have to go through, like I did, with a pass, to get through.
So right away we turn to the IDF. But what the IDF knows is not counter terrorism, in the sense of a democracy defending itself against outside assault– what the IDF knows is how to exercise a military occupation, in the most repressive manner.
And the law of war allows a belligerent nation when they’re occupying a nation to protect itself from what the law calls hostile acts. But there’s a danger, when you adopt this idea of martial law and military occupation, you’re bringing in totalitarian law. The law of war is fundamentally totalitarian law. Because it allows you to protect yourself as the belligerent against any possible threat. So in the case of Israel, a kid writes a graffiti on a wall in the occupation, that can be deemed a hostile act, and they are put in military detention.
Do you remember a case like that?
Yes I remember reading about such a case. So a hostile act, here’s where it raises questions about our drone targeting. We deemed everybody in Iraq who opposed us to be a terrorist, even though they were a legitimate resistance force under the principle we established in France and elsewhere, in World War 2. But we’re deeming them to be terrorists. And are we doing the same with people who we’re targeting with drones?
And maybe someone who is a journalist– and there have been a lot of journalists killed by the United States– are we deeming them to be undertaking a hostile act just because of opinions that they’re expressing? I suspect we are.
I was at a Code Pink event on drone warfare, and they had a guest there speaking about a relative who’d been killed. He was a youth, 16 or 17, and he went to an anti drone war event. A Pakistani politician held a large event in one of the larger cities against drone warfare, and this kid had gone to it, and on his way back he was killed by a drone. Again, when you look at the way the war of law has been interpreted under martial law, the customary way we think of a hostile act is someone carrying an AK-47, but just as I was in psyops–propaganda is deemed to be a hostile act, and propaganda is loosely interpreted. So in a strict military mind, in that tunnel vision mind, if you’re weakening our will, like they described in On Strategy, then you’re aiding the enemy. Therefore you are the enemy.
That’s what the generals were arguing in Vietnam. These antiwar protesters are weakening our will, therefore they’re aiding the enemy, therefore they should be treated like the enemy and put in military detention. If you can put somebody in military detention, then you can kill them as well. Because it’s the same principle. In one of the early military commission cases, they had put this US citizen [Yaser Esam] Hamdi in military detention. It was bought up on habeas corpus appeal, and the Supreme Court justices said, I think it was Sandra Day O’Connor who wrote the Opinion, In warfare you can kill your enemies, so of course you can put your enemies in military detention. And the reverse is true. If you can put somebody in detention, you can also kill them, because they’re the enemy.
I’ve talked to the group that monitors drone warfare in London. And I have asked, how many journalists have been killed. They said 9 or 10 at least. Again putting things together, I don’t think it’s wildly speculative to say, we have targeted people who are most outspoken against military policy either as journalists or activists in the Islamic world, under the principle that they’re committing hostile acts against us. Which may just be what they’re saying.
And al-Awlaki the same way. He’s accused of being a propagandist. But when they’ve been challenged they say, He was actually an operational leader. That conjures up the vision that he’s planning military acts. But you could say as well I as a psyops NCO was an operational leader too. In my case I was a member of the military. But what they’re saying is If you’re engaged in propaganda you’re engaged in war. Therefore you’re a lawful target. You’re taking direct part in hostilities. And that’s what gets to a lot of civilians that we don’t bother even to defend what we did. We say they have an operational role in the war, when they might just be expressing dissenting thoughts.
What do you mean, we haven’t defended?
Other than Awlaki, we haven’t bothered really, when we kill a group of people and they’re civilians, they’re collateral damage. We’ve never gone into specifics of this, because no one has even challenged us who has any voice. When you kill this journalist, they keep track of it, in London. But they don’t have a voice that anyone listens to beyond their narrow circle. But like I say they told me that at least 9 or 10 journalists have been killed.
Dissenting voices, where are they in the culture?
They’re virtually nonexistent in my opinion. Which is a danger. We’ve evolved into this fully militaristic society. You have writers like Phil Giraldi, Ray McGovern, Glenn Greenwald, and websites like Consortiumnews, Antiwar.com, the intercept, Alternet, and mondoweiss.net opposing militarism. How many others are there? Very few. We’ve just been overwhelmed. The Democrats court Petraeus and Petraeus endorses Clinton, and Republicans court General Flynn who collaborates with neocon Michael Ledeen. The mainstream has been fairly unified. Trump is a bit of an outlier. But like I told a lawyer friend who wanted to start a superPAC against Trump, I’m against Trump but I’m also against the entire Republican party, and I’m not sure that they’re not worse. Trump you can at least recognize as a fascist. It’s the ones who we don’t understand how their policies are fascist that are the real danger. Ted Cruz and Rubio and what’s his name Bush, all these guys wanted to continue the George W. Bush policies.
And Hillary Clinton, going back to the first Clinton administration, people said then, she and Madeleine Albright were the hawks in that administration. And she’s changed nothing.
Are you worried about the lack of voices questioning these policies?
Absolutely. I’ve mentioned the case of Ernest Fraenkel. Ernst Fraenkel was describing the situation in 1939 that at least is in formation here. Section 1021 gives the prerogative to the
government. What it says is that a military officer could go and arrest someone should the commander deem that person to be a terrorist threat or a terrorist. That’s exactly what the Gestapo used to do with an internal enemy. That’s what 1021 provides a legal basis for.
I’ve argued about this with a lawyer I have a lot of respect for. I say, This applies to US citizens. He said it doesn’t apply to US citizens. But the other section explicitly refers to foreigners. There’s sections 1021 and 1022 [of the Defense Authorization Act of 2012], and 1022 applies to foreign terrorists. Within that section, it says it only applies to foreign people. But 1021 doesn’t say anything about foreign or domestic. Just by a standard statutory interpretation, I would argue that 1022 explicitly exclude U.S. citizens. Which it doesn’t have to do. While 1021 doesn’t exclude US citizens.
Has it ever been applied?
What I argue is the correct legal interpretation has been applied, in the Hedges v Obama lawsuit. That’s why I keep going back to it. In Hedges v Obama, Chris Hedges and a couple of other
activists brought a case against the government for injunctive relief. They said, We don’t know what we can do any more, we don’t know who we can talk to, we don’t know what we can say. The district court granted the injunctive relief of 1021 and the second circuit court of appeals issued a stay, and the DoJ went in and said, Yeah, we’re at war, the president is commander in chief, and furthermore, you have the Congress—and when the Congress and the president are in agreement the president’s powers are at its apex. 1021 was passed by Congress, so therefore the presidential powers are at the apex. So if they deem someone to be a terrorist or a terrorist threat, they could be put in military detention. That doesn’t exclude someone for something they write. The government made the argument, it doesn’t exclude just expressive activities. It can include expressive activities. It gets back to the kid writing graffiti on the wall. That’s a hostile act if the military leader deems it to be so. So in Hedges v Obama, the DoJ made that argument that expressive activities could be included and could be considered a hostile act, meriting military detention. But the case was dismissed because Hedges and others didn’t have standing because their expressive activities had never been affected. Which is how these cases are always dismissed.
So in other words, we have this Government on record saying, we’re not ruling out any powers.
In my complacency as a journalist who’s a dissenter leading a happy life, I say, Todd you have a dark view of world. There’s a difference between prosecution and marginalization. We’re not being heard, but we’re not being thrown in jails.
Well, number one I say Hedges v Obama vindicates my concern. What the DoJ said to the court vindicates my concern. Number two, I’m not saying this is imminent. Posner and Vermeule wrote a book, they’re the two who say we have to go back and study Carl Schmitt. Prominent law professors, one at Chicago, one at Harvard, they say, go back and study the work of Nazi Carl Schmitt. In The Executive Unbound, three years ago they wrote, there’s always a political factor. So yes, the president has all these unlimited powers and the Congress has no constraints on them, but they say, don’t worry, there are political factors that will inhibit the president. So what they’re saying in essence is, “So Hedges, yeah the government says they can throw you in military detention, but don’t worry. They won’t do it.” But in the right situation, as these generals said in Vietnam, if it means a military setback or defeat, yes, we’ve got to resort to these measures. So right now we’re fighting a nondescript enemy, whether it’s ISIS or al Qaeda, but now we’re ramping up against Russia…
Yes, at the present day, as of right now, I agree, I think it would be unlikely. But one factor always to be considered in warfare, is the legitimacy of your cause, who you’re defending. That’s what you’re fighting over in a guerrilla war. So you always want to maintain the utmost legitimacy. We do that by, we profess to be a democracy, so we profess to protect civil rights. We don’t want to squander that legitimacy if we can help it.
Part 2 of the Interview: