Rep. Peter King (R-New York) is a tough guy – the kind of man you call on to do distasteful, but necessary things. In his first hearing since regaining the chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee, King publicly reaffirmed his intention to hold hearings into the extent of jihadist radicalization inside the Muslim-American community.
Since King made his intention known late last year, Muslim-American groups have been outraged at his insinuation that their community represents a disproportionate terrorist threat inside the United States or his contention that they are somehow reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement to protect the country from further jihadist attacks. They fear, legitimately, that the hearings will only contribute to a recent surge in Islamophobia across the country exemplified by the Park 51 Community Center controversy from last summer and the disturbing, hate-filled protest outside an Orange County, California, mosque last month, which have been compiled into a video by California’s Council on American-Islamic Affairs.
King has been called a “bigot” and accused of engaging in a McCarthyite witch hunt. These accusations have merit, considering King’s 2007 statement that there are “too many mosques in this country.” But King remains undeterred; he has truth on his side. “I’m outspoken, but I can back up everything I say,” King told The HIll in early January. “I am what I am and people seem to like it and I’m at peace with myself.”
But King’s Charlie Sheen-like self assessment is at best inflated and, more often than not, flat out wrong. It’s not that King is politically incorrect that is troublesome; it’s that he’s empirically incorrect. From his wide-ranging positions on the Guantanamo prison camp, torture, civilian trials for terrorists, profiling, Muslim-American involvement with terrorism and support for ever more intrusive security measures, King engages in wild demonizations and irresponsible fear mongering that exaggerates the jihadist threat and alienates Muslim-Americans. By doing so, King, a potent symbol of US Homeland Security policy, conceivably makes recruitment and radicalization easier for the very jihadists who prey on young Muslim-American alienation. His obsession with radical Islam also leaves more American forms of extremism and, therefore, less conspicuous, unexamined. To see why a general sense of uneasiness surrounds this week’s fast approaching hearing is as easy as reviewing some of King’s controversial and inaccurate statements relating to the war on terrorism and Muslim-Americans.
Club Med for Terrorists
Representative King has rejected any criticism of the extralegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and dismissively called it a Club Med for terrorists. “The prisoners are being treated better than American citizens in any prison I’ve been to in the United States,” he told The New York Post. “They’re allowed out of their cells for hours at a time – even the worst of the worst.”
King’s characterization of Guantanamo, however, says more about the sorry state of US federal and state prisons considering the Pentagon-run prison has been the site of torture, unlawful indefinite detention and, allegedly, murder, according to whistleblowing guards.
According to journalist Jane Mayer, suspected al-Qaeda operative Mohammed al-Qahtani, known as “detainee number 063,” endured a 54-day span of harsh interrogation techniques that included 20-hour interrogations; standing sessions that swelled his hands and feet; sexual humiliation, including a forced enema; and denial of bathroom breaks. The constant application of these 15 special “counter-resistance techniques” approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December 2002 led Qahtani’s health to plunge. He begged his interrogators to let him commit suicide. In January 2009, Susan J. Crawford, the Bush administration’s convening authority for military commissions, told The Washington Post that she refused to refer Qahtani’s case for prosecution because “his treatment met the legal definition of torture.”
What makes King’s blasé attitude toward Guantanamo even more frightening is that a majority of the detainees could not have been “the worst of the worst” or even guilty of anything. According to Human Rights First, only 172 Guantanamo prisoners out of 779 remain at the prison, with more than 500 of them released under the Bush administration. But journalist and Guantanamo expert Andy Worthington makes an even grimmer claim, writing that the “overwhelming majority of those held – at least 93 percent of the 779 men and boys imprisoned in total – were either completely innocent people, seized as a result of dubious intelligence or sold for bounty payments, or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.”
The general thrust of Worthington’s claim has been confirmed by a former Bush administration official. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell during the first half of the Bush administration, said that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knew the majority of detainees were innocent. Referring to Cheney, Wilkerson wrote, “He had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent … If hundreds of innocent individuals had to suffer in order to detain a handful of hardcore terrorists, so be it.” King, by refusing to acknowledge this gross miscarriage of justice, carries on in Cheney’s vein.
Murder allegations have also haunted this “Club Med for terrorists.” In 2006, three detainees were found dead in their cells under questionable circumstances. International human rights lawyer Scott Horton, who writes the No Comment blog for Harper’s, investigated these “suicides” and found the overwhelmingly redacted Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) report’s description of what happened that night “simply unbelievable.”
“According to the NCIS documents, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat,” Horton recounts. “We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.”
According to a Guantanamo sergeant on duty the night of the “suicides,” three prisoners were removed from his prison camp and allegedly taken to a location outside Guantanamo’s wire known as “Camp No.” Afterward, three detainees were found dead in their cells with rags stuffed down their throats, all officially deemed suicides.
“I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Guantanamo monitoring military commission hearings,” Daphne Eviatar, a senior associate for the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First, told Truthout. “You could arguably say it’s Club Med for the military. There are some very nice beaches there. You have restaurants. But the detainees don’t ever get to go to those places.” Instead, she says, the US taxpayer spends $150 million annually to operate Guantanamo to confine 172 detainees in violation of America’s best traditions, most of whom have no connection to 9/11 or al-Qaeda.
Even more self-destructive from a security standpoint is that Guantanamo has historically been a dinner bell for jihadists. Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator in Iraq, who obtained the intelligence that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, explained why in 2009. “I heard numerous foreign fighters state that the reason they came to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay,” he wrote in The National Interest. “Our policy of torture and abuse is Al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.”
He goes on to argue a concept King always has failed to understand. “One of al-Qaeda’s goals is to prove that America does not live up to its principles. They assert that we are a nation of hypocrites,” he wrote. “By engaging in torture and abuse, we are playing into their hands. This war has two fronts – protecting our security by thwarting terrorist attacks and preserving American principles. We cannot become our enemy in seeking to defeat him.”
“A Tragic Verdict”
King has also been a ferocious critic of the Obama administration’s decision to try Guantanamo detainees in federal court, which the White House looks to have abandoned.
Responding to the guilty verdict in the trial of Ahmed Ghailani for his role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, King issued a statement condemning civilian trials. “In a case where Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was facing 285 criminal counts, including hundreds of murder charges … the jury found him guilty on only one count and acquitted him of all other counts including every murder charge.” More than two months later, the federal judge in the case sentenced Ghailani to life in prison. Despite this fact, conservatives led by King continue to argue that the American legal system isn’t equipped to handle terrorism cases, even though federal prosecutors have convicted over 400 terrorists since 9/11 in civilian trials, according to Human Rights First.
King’s statement also demonstrates his complete lack of respect for due process. Trial by jury isn’t a process with a preordained outcome. Individuals charged with a crime should only be convicted if there’s enough evidence to do so without a reasonable doubt: a concept the Obama administration has abandoned as well in its embrace of indefinite detention. During talk of civilian trials for five Guantanamo detainees, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Attorney General Eric Holder guaranteed the men on trial would be convicted or he wouldn’t prosecute them. “Failure is not an option,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in November 2009. But conviction shouldn’t be a slam dunk for the prosecution. And there’s a simple reason for that: the suspect may be innocent.
Since the Supreme Court gave detainees the right to contest their detention before federal judges in 2008, the government has lost an embarrassing proportion of these habeas corpus petitions. In 38 out of 59 habeas corpus hearings, detainees have won. This means that in 64 percent of the hearings, a federal judge said the US government did not have the evidence to hold the petitioners. Some of these men had been detained indefinitely without charge since 2002.
“No Cooperation From Muslim Leaders and Imams”
In his December op-ed in Long Island’s Newsday, King wrote, “Federal and local law enforcement officials throughout the country told me they received little or – in most cases – no cooperation from Muslim leaders and imams.”
King’s anecdotal claim is impossible to verify since he fails to provide any specificity. But the idea that the Muslim-American community stands passive as fanatical co-religionists attack their country is not, says Alejandro Beutel, government and policy analyst for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Since 9-11, Muslim-American tips have been instrumental to stopping attacks before they could occur. Forty percent of all jihadist-related attacks were disrupted due to tips from Muslim communities, according to MPAC’s Post 9/11 Terrorism Database. Since December 2009, this number has risen dramatically to 75 percent.
“It’s hard to make a statement like King has said in the face of such very clear evidence,” says Beutel.
As for King’s claim that it’s the Muslim-American community leaders who are the problem, Beutel says the level of Muslim-American cooperation with law enforcement belies that assertion. He believes the evidence points to Muslim-American leaders helping to foster a climate where Muslim-American individuals feel comfortable coming forward to law enforcement. Beutel also expressed frustration that an imam knows the intimate details of those who attend his mosque. “The imams themselves are not always going to know everything that goes on in an entire community, just as much as perhaps a reverend or a pastor may not know the lives of every single family member that attends his or her church,” he notes.
During that first House Homeland Security Committee since King regained his chairmanship, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael E. Leiter addressed Muslim-Americans’ counterterrorism role. His comments directly contradicted King’s previous statements of non-cooperation.
“Many of our tips to uncover active terrorist plots here in the United States have come from the Muslim community, so we have to make quite clear that communities are part of the solution and not part of the problem and we do that through using a variety of tools” Leiter testified. Later in the hearing, Leiter responded to a question by stating, “If you look at the numbers, [Muslim involvement is] significant in terms of the attacks we have, but in terms of the broader Muslim community throughout the United States, it is a minute percentage of that population,” he said.
“If The Threat Is Coming From a Particular Group …”
King has also gone on the record in support of ethnic and religious profiling of Muslims at American airports. In 2006, King told Newsday that airport screeners should have the latitude to disproportionately screen people of “Middle Eastern and South Asian” descent because “if the threat is coming from a particular group, I can understand why it would make sense to single them out for further questioning.”
Aside from the fact that this unnecessarily paints all Muslims as a security threat, it also fails to anticipate al-Qaeda and other associated jihadists attempt to recruit terrorists that look like average Americans. In January 2010, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations released a report stating that approximately 70 Americans have traveled to Somalia and Yemen and are feared to be jihadist recruits. About ten of these Americans living in Yemen were described as the perfect jihadist recruit: blond-haired, blue-eyed and white. According to terrorism expert Peter Bergen, recruits like these are known as “clean skins“: “without previous criminal records or known terrorist associations and intimately familiar with the West.” Profiling based on skin color obviously would do nothing to stop jihadi recruits that look like Bobby from down the street.
Worse, King’s concentration on radicalization inside the Muslim-American community leaves other more American forms of extremism left without scrutiny. Over the past two years, fringe elements of the radical right and anti-government groups have carried out or attempted terrorist attacks inside the United States. On May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder walked into a Lutheran church in Wichita and blew a hole into the skull of late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. Less than two weeks later, white supremacist and Holocaust denier James Wenneker von Brunn entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and shot and murdered security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns. In February 2010, Joseph Stack piloted his Piper Dakota into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, killing one and injuring 13 others. Just this past January, someone left a sophisticated bomb in a backpack along the route of a Martin Luther King Day Parade in Spokane, Washington. The bomb was spotted by city workers and defused. According to MPAC’s database, there have been 80 non-Muslim domestic terrorism plots and attacks since 9/11 and 45 Muslim plots, including both foreign and domestic attacks. Yet, King has not signaled that he will conduct any future hearings on right-wing extremism inside the United States.
John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, told Truthout that focusing on one particular form of extremism is a mistake.
“Nobody expected Timothy McVeigh to be responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing,” he said. “We must not overly focus on Muslim extremists at the expense of a fuller picture of the variety of threats to national security.”
It’s a point King’s colleague Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, made to him in a letter asking King to widen the scope of his radicalization hearings.
“According to a polling of state law enforcement agencies conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s START Center of Excellence, there are a variety of domestic extremist groups more prevalent in the United States than Islamic extremists, including neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, anti-tax groups, and others,” Thompson wrote. “Islamic extremist groups were named a threat in 31 states, according to the poll; Neo-Nazi groups, by contrast, posed a serious threat in 46 states.” Thompson also noted that of the five CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and enhanced conventional weapons) plots disrupted in the United States since 9/11, three involved white supremacists; none involved jihadists.
King also exhibits the mindset that terrorists prey upon. Once an attack or attempted attack occurs, King always stands ready to defend new, more intrusive security responses that, in his mind, protect the American public. For instance, the Long Island Congressman is a vocal supporter of full-body scanners and called out conservatives for opposing them. “As a conservative,” he wrote in The New York Post last November, “I find it disappointing that so many on the right taking issue with the TSA sound like left-wing liberals.”
King embodies the fear and reaction that jihadists like Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki, who US officials allege is an operational asset of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), exploit. After AQAP’s failed underwear bomb plot, al-Awlaki released his call to jihad, where he taunted the United States: “Nine years after 9/11, nine years of spending, and nine years of beefing up security you are still unsafe even in the holiest and most sacred of days to you, Christmas Day.”
In late February, a disrupted terrorist plot by a Saudi man on a student visa in Texas led King to advocate new surveillance policies for visa holders from countries associated with jihadist terrorism like Somalia and Yemen. “I think we have to realize that if they come here from these countries, they’re going to be subjected to more surveillance than others,” King told Fox News. “If they fit a certain profile, if you’re coming from Saudi Arabia and you want to major in chemistry … I think you should be able to monitor the Internet and be able to see what these people are doing.”
The Inquisitor’s List
If King were serious about his radicalization hearings, he would follow the advice of radicalization expert Horgan on what would constitute a worthwhile hearing. “I … would expect the hearing to call witnesses who are knowledgeable in this field, with long-standing and verifiable domain expertise in assessing social and behavioral evidence,” the professor told Truthout.
Instead King has called upon witnesses who appear to have no such expertise. (Despite multiple attempts, King’s office would not disclose its witness list to Truthout or answer whether any witness was a radicalization expert.) Rather, King will call on Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a prominent Muslim-American critic of political Islam, as well as “mystery witnesses,” which news reports contend will be family members of Minneapolis men who left the United States to fight for the al-Shabaab militia in Somalia, which has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. Therefore a hearing ostensibly about jihadist radicalization will not feature an expert on jihadist radicalization.
There’s a reason many Muslim-Americans are afraid of King’s forthcoming hearing. Based on his public positions, King exposes himself as a chauvinist and an authoritarian, who believes that the only way to protect the United States from an exaggerated threat is to do al-Qaeda’s and their fellow travelers’ work for them. In the process, he makes the United States less free and more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.