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Twenty Years Since 9/11: A Legacy of Attacks on Civil Liberties and Human Rights

On the anniversary of 9/11, we look back at how the attacks were a cover for a broad assault on civil liberties and human and political rights in the United States and abroad.

Scott Cooper and Emma Lee

September 11, 2021
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Photo: Michael Springer / Getty Images

With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States — which spurred the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq — coming only weeks apart, analysts of all political stripes are reflecting on what it all means for U.S. imperialist hegemony in the world. These reflections focus mostly on geopolitical issues. There has been very little in them reminding us that U.S. intelligence agencies had warned of just such an attack, or of the close ties between the Bush family and the family of Osama bin Laden, who the government immediately suspected of being the mastermind. 

Beyond geopolitical considerations, 9/11 not only produced a military “war on terror” but also began a wholesale assault on human rights and civil liberties in the United States itself.

This assault has been part and parcel of how the bourgeois regime in the United States conducts itself with respect to immigrants, political activists, people of color, and the working class generally. It is part of a class war waged against the great majority of people. It is also of a piece with waging military war, which U.S. imperialism does to protect the interests of capital and to punish those who might stand in the way of its efforts to maintain global hegemony. In short, it destroys people for profit.

As former FBI special agent Terry Albury puts it in a recent New York Times Magazine article,

The FBI … has given agents the power to ruin the lives of completely innocent people based solely on what part of the world they came from, or what religion they practice, or the color of their skin. And I did that. I helped destroy people. For 17 years.

Arbury leaked documents about the “war on terror” to The Intercept, was indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, and spent four years in a federal prison. What he describes went even further to include domestic spying and harassment of political activists on an scale unseen in this country since the end of COINTELPRO — the vast series of covert and illegal projects that the FBI undertook from 1956 to 1971 to disrupt and infiltrate “subversive” groups and individuals in the antiwar movement, feminist movement, civil rights, and Black Power movements, and so on.

Just how vast a scale? Consider the demonstration called for September 9, 2003, at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, where U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to meet with law enforcement officials in a closed meeting and brief them on the specifics of the United States PATRIOT Act (discussed below). Some 1,200 demonstrators answered the emergency call for a protest.

At one point during the protest, one of the present authors, who had been one of the organizers, was pulled aside by a man dressed to look like he was part of the crowd. The man made sure to show the holstered gun on his hip. Taken to the edge of the crowd, the author was referred to by his full name and told, “We’re watching you and your ‘comrades’” — that last word said with a sneer.

The man flashed a badge from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The DIA’s own website explains that its purpose is to “provide military intelligence to warfighters, defense policymakers, and force planners in the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, in support of U.S. military planning and operations and weapon systems acquisitions. We plan, manage, and execute intelligence operations during peacetime, crisis, and war.” There’s not a word about intervening in domestic political protests.

In the aftermath of 9/11, no one in this country was immune from state-sponsored repression inflicted by police and security forces — the state’s “special bodies of armed men,” as Lenin described them in 1917. Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), writes in a recent Foreign Affairs article titled “Resistance Is Futile: The War on Terror Supercharged State Power”:

The rise of states immune to rebellion is not a good thing. It is naive to think that states’ new powers will be used only against people plotting bomb attacks. … The rich nations of Europe and North America are liberal democracies, but their governments are also ferociously efficient repression machines. The surveillance tools at their disposal have never been more powerful.

The government has used those tools continually since that day in 2001 when the twin towers and Pentagon were targeted by terrorists.

The encounter with a DIA agent at a political protest in Boston took place in the early days of the new Department of Homeland Security, which had just been formed the preceding November from legislation passed in response to the 9/11 attacks. It brought together disparate U.S. intelligence agencies under one roof, but not the DIA. Still, it was a sign of just how deep and broad the new surveillance and repression was going.

USA Patriot Act

Six weeks after 9/11, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act. It was a massive revision of U.S. surveillance law that had long been sought by those “special bodies of armed men,” the FBI in particular. Congress had repeatedly rejected this extension of surveillance powers in the past, but the 9/11 attacks changed everything. The Bush administration hectored the legislative branch, charging that anyone who failed to vote yes would be responsible for future attacks. Amid the hysteria, and with virtually no real review, the act passed the House by a vote of 357-66 on October 24, 2001, and passed the Senate by a vote of 98-1.

In short, the Patriot Act facilitated a massive expansion of the U.S. government’s authority to spy on American citizens — something that had been barred, at least officially, in the wake of the COINTELPRO revelations — while at the same time crippling a lot of the checks and balances on that surveillance, including judicial oversight, public accountability, and citizens’ ability to challenge government searches in court.

Much of the Patriot Act has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. It increased the government’s powers to spy in a host of ways: records searches, secret searches, intelligence searches, and “trap and trace” searches. The government could look at records on an individual’s activity being held by third parties, for instance. Notably, this led to protests across the country by librarians and bookstore owners angered by FBI agents demanding to know about what books patrons were checking out or purchasing. Further, government agents could search private property without notice. The narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment that had been created for the collection of foreign intelligence was expanded to include domestic actors, and another exception to that part of the Constitution allowed for collecting the “addressing” information about the origin and destination of communication, as opposed to the content. This would be the basis of the Edward Snowden disclosures, the first of which emerged in June 2013.

Even Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who was the primary author of the Patriot Act, said in 2013 that the National Security Agency was abusing his intentions by collecting information on every phone call made in the United States. He filed an amicus curiae brief in a 2013 lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the government, siding with the civil liberties group.

The unchecked power afforded the “special bodies of armed men” by the Patriot Act gave them access to individuals’ financial records, medical histories, internet usage, reading habits, travel patterns — any activity that leaves a record. They no longer had to show evidence that search subjects were “agents of a foreign power” or even that they had a “reasonable suspicion” that the records were related to criminal activity. They just had to say it was related to an ongoing terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation. FBI agents could go into a court and tell the judge, with no evidence or proof, what they would be doing, and the judge had no authority to reject the application.

Anyone forced to turn over records to the government was even prohibited from disclosing the search to anyone. The gag order meant the subject of spying might never know it had taken place. And the Patriot Act as a whole was what the repressive state had always wanted: the ability to conduct what the ACLU called “mass, suspicionless surveillance” — including of political activists with no ties to Islamic terrorism or the 9/11 attacks.

Indeed, Section 411 of the Patriot Act broadly expands the definition of terrorism, making it possible to label as terrorists domestic political groups that engage in certain types of civil disobedience.

“Terrorism,” writes Janet Reitman in the Times profile of the FBI agent, “was the new communism.” The American landscape became like that of 1919 and 1920, when the U.S. Department of Justice executed the Palmer raids — named for then attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer — and rounded up foreign communists, anarchists, and other leftists and deported as many of them as possible, all to stem the social unrest that came on the heels of World War I’s end. But at the same time that the “special bodies of armed men” began to invade mosques as well as the offices of political organizations and immigrant rights advocates, the government launched a trick aimed at rounding up immigrants — a trick that clearly violated civil liberties and human rights and that speaks to the wider objective of maximizing the use of new “tools” in the post-9/11 era to advance state repression and discrimination.

Special Registration

In late 2002, Ashcroft announced the implementation of a new program that would be run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the forerunner of today’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Dubbed “Special Registration,” its stated goal was to enhance the screening of travelers arriving at U.S. ports of entry from specific countries, almost all majority-Muslim countries. But there was a domestic component that got little attention at first — noncitizens already in the United States would have to come to local INS offices for interviews and fingerprinting.

It began in Southern California. The Los Angeles area is home to the largest Iranian population, estimated at 600,000, outside Iran. Dates were announced when Iranians would have to show up at the federal building for this new program. Almost immediately, reports came out that hundreds had been arrested, perhaps up to a thousand people, and placed in detention at new immigrant detention centers that the INS had set up, often by contracting with county sheriffs to use part of their jails. They weren’t all Iranians, but most were.

The ACLU compared it to the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. Why, the ACLU asked, are people who voluntarily appeared to comply with the new registration requirement being arrested, when it’s obvious that no actual terrorist would have shown up? And as the ACLU predicted, jail overcrowding in Southern California meant that many of the arrestees were transferred to other states, where they languished behind bars for months without receiving a hearing.

The writ of habeas corpus, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 9), applies to anyone in the United States (citizen or not), but this had now been effectively suspended. According to the Constitution, this can happen only when in “Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

The INS refused to say how many people it had detained and pointed out that the arrests had nothing to do with terrorism. Most were for visa overstays or other immigration “violations.” The message to immigrants was clear: 9/11 is our excuse for a new round of anti-immigrant repression.

The Los Angeles experience with Special Registration was a trial run. Next up was Boston, where the local INS decided to demand that not only Muslims but the burgeoning population of Central Americans show up at the federal building — even though the “official” 25 countries were all in Asia or Africa. And as in Los Angeles, people disappeared into INS detention. But Boston activists — having learned about the Los Angeles experience — were prepared, organizing to “pre-register” the people waiting in long lines to enter the building, in the dead of winter, beginning at 5:00 a.m. It was an effort to keep the government from “disappearing” people. Those in line were encouraged to provide names and contact information of friends and families, and lawyers were standing by to help.

This spurred the FBI to send two agents to the home of one of the present authors, who had been a central organizer of this effort, to issue a threat. “You’re probably guilty at least of ‘disruption of government business, 18 U.S.C. 1752. Six months in prison would do you good.” He wondered at the time whether Section 411 of the Patriot Act might be invoked as well.

Special Registration continued across the country, but its scale was reduced a year or so later. Still, the program persisted until the Obama administration bowed to pressure and canceled it.

Internationally, civil liberties and human rights also came under assault, as the attacks were used as a green light to commence “endless war” and make a joke of the international conventions against torture to which the United States is a signatory.

Endless War

In the aftermath of the attacks, the United States was in a state of heightened emotion — a combination of despair, rage, and fear. With 88 percent of the American public in favor of military action, President Bush signed Public Law 107-40, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, one week after the attacks. The law, which passed both houses of Congress with only one nay vote, states,

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

The day before this authorization of the “war on terror,” Bush signed a classified covert action memorandum authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency to begin secretly detaining terrorist suspects. With a blank check from Congress, the Bush administration was already crafting a secret program of “rendition, detention, and interrogation” — and its lawyers were working to make it beyond the reach of the law. It would be the beginning of a long series of heinous human rights abuses — the sort the United States had long used as excuses to justify its invasions and coups against sovereign nations.

War is good for capitalism, and beyond the explicit intention to hunt down those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, a war meant new opportunities for profit for the bosses. Afghanistan became a cash cow for private military companies, the defense industry, and all manner of contractors that are part of the huge military-industrial complex that profits from crisis and death.

“Endless war” began in Afghanistan the next month.

“Unlawful Combatants,” Mass Detentions, and Torture

On October 7, 2001, Bush announced that airstrikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban had begun in Afghanistan, targeting the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. The stated objective of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” as the United States called its invasion, was to destroy terrorist training camps and infrastructure, capture al Qaeda leaders (including Osama bin Laden), and eradicate terrorism.

The United States hunted “terrorism” on its own terms while conveniently precluding its own actions from the definition. In early January 2002, the CIA began picking up “unlawful combatants” from the conflict and secretly holding these detainees not only in Afghanistan but also in Lithuania, Morocco, Poland, Romania, and Thailand — countries that had agreed to host secret “black sites” — as well as the infamous U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (The existence of the base on Cuban soil held by U.S. forces since the Spanish-American War constitutes an illegal occupation.)

The case of Maher Arar is a good example of the new U.S. reach. An engineer with dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship who had resided in Canada since 1987, he was detained during a layover at a New York airport on his way home from a family vacation. Arar was held without charges in solitary confinement for two weeks while being questioned and denied a lawyer. The U.S. government then deported him to Syria, not Canada (on whose passport he was traveling). In Syria, he was detained and tortured for a year until finally released to Canada. The Syrian government later declared him “completely innocent” of the U.S. charge that he was a member of al Qaeda.

On February 7, 2002, Bush issued an executive order that echoed an earlier declaration by Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. defense secretary, that “members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces are unlawful enemy combatants who are not entitled to the protections that the Third Geneva Convention provides to prisoners of war.”

The Geneva Conventions establish “explicit protections” for “all persons captured in an international armed conflict, even if they are not entitled to POW status.” The Bush administration knew that staying bound to the conventions would put officials at risk of prosecution for war crimes. So a new status was invented for the thousands of individuals who would be detained simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were subsequently tortured.

Circumventing international agreements is part of U.S. history. It took the United States 40 years to sign the Genocide Convention drafted after World War II. The United States maintains a hostile posture toward the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes violations of these conventions; in 2020, a Trump executive order effectively criminalized ICC staff after investigations into U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. (It should be noted that the United States is quick to use the ICC to pressure other countries when doing so serves U.S. interests.) The argument that conventions contravene “national sovereignty” are a smokescreen; in truth, it is all about fear that the U.S. government and military personnel will be held to account for war crimes, both abroad and domestically.

With the new special status of “unlawful enemy combatant” created, Bush assured critics that detainees would be treated “humanely” — but the conventions would not apply. The “advanced interrogation” techniques used by the CIA and military, though, are hardly “humane.” They are described in Globalizing Torture, a report from the Open Society Justice Initiative:

These techniques included “walling” (quickly pulling the detainee forward and then thrusting him against a flexible false wall), “water dousing,” “stress positions” (forcing the detainee to remain in body positions designed to induce physical discomfort), “wall standing” (forcing the detainee to remain standing with his arms outstretched in front of him so that his fingers touch a wall four to five feet away and support his entire body weight), “cramped confinement” in a box, “insult slaps,” (slapping the detainee on the face with fingers spread), “facial hold” (holding a detainee’s head temporarily immobile during interrogation with palms on either side of the face), “attention grasp” (grasping the detainee with both hands, one hand on each side of the collar opening, and quickly drawing him toward the interrogator), forced nudity, sleep deprivation while being vertically shackled, and dietary manipulation.

When rumors spread of the abuse, Bush boasted of U.S. successes in capturing and questioning “high-ranking terrorists” involved with the 9/11 attacks, arguing that the methods employed were within the scope of the law, and more importantly, were producing “critical” intelligence. A 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program (heavily redacted) put the lie to that claim: “The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.”

Common sense dictates that there is absolutely no difference between “enhanced interrogation” and “torture,” as attested to by former interrogators, human rights groups, and international conventions. For U.S. imperialism, though, any “intelligence” — good or bad — can be used to spin a narrative aimed at justifying endless war, which was growing increasingly unpopular at home. One piece of such bad intelligence was that the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, possessed “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).

The Iraq Invasion and Abu Ghraib Prison

Invading Iraq was on the bipartisan agenda well before 9/11, but the attacks prompted a convenient justification for implementing the objectives of a burgeoning neoconservative movement. After the Cold War, a new ideology emerged from the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), a neocon think tank that advocated a strong interventionist and “moral clarity” foreign policy to secure global U.S. hegemony. To the neocons, the Middle East in particular was a strategic region for intervention that would win over the “hearts and minds” of repressed citizens and win the “war of ideas” by spreading the “American ideal” of democracy. This was yet another smokescreen for installing new, more pliable puppet regimes to promote U.S. capital’s interests in the oil-rich region.

On March 19, 2003, the United States dropped its first bombs on Baghdad. Bush announced that he had no other choice but to invade the sovereign nation, citing baseless claims that Iraq possessed WMD and that Hussein posed a threat to the United States — all wrapped into a false narrative of Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

After the invasion, U.S. and coalition forces took control of the Abu Ghraib prison complex and began to hold alleged “combatants” there who were suspected of terrorism. By 2004, the prison held nearly 8,000 detainees. Investigative reports began to detail horrific accounts of torture and humiliation at the prison by U.S. service members and civilian contractors. Amnesty International’s report revealed that prisoners had been exposed to extreme heat, not provided clothing, and forced to use open trenches for toilets. They had also been tortured, with the methods including denial of sleep for extended periods, exposure to bright lights and loud music, and being restrained in “painful ‘stress’ positions.” In 2004, Taguba’s report corroborated the earlier claims. There are additional reports of sexual humiliation, rape, and methods that resulted in at least one prisoner death.

Several military personnel and civilian contractors were audacious enough to pose for photos of themselves in front of horrific scenes of abuse — naked prisoners in a human pyramid, prisoners threatened by large dogs, and prisoners on leashes, forced to crawl around like dogs themselves. Several were court-martialed for mistreating detainees — a war crime under the Geneva Convention. Those who were convicted mostly received little more than dishonorable discharges and a few years in prison, with many winning early release. No officers were charged; the highest-ranking soldier was a staff sergeant. The entire incident stands in sharp contrast to the over 3,000 Black Americans serving life sentences for possessing cannabis.

The eight-year war in Iraq was a tragic example of the perniciousness of American imperialism. On top of the 600,000 or more who died, the vacuum of power and anti-American sentiment left by U.S. destabilization created a fecund breeding ground for the very terrorism it “intended” to eradicate — not just of the “radical Islam” variety, but also motivated by sheer hatred of U.S. imperialism and its crimes. The abuses and destruction left by U.S. forces pushed many into the arms of the Islamic State (ISIS), which occupied the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2017.

Extraordinary Renditions

At the same time prisoners were being taken from conflict zones, the CIA also implemented a program of global hunt for individuals outside the conflict zone who might have information about the 9/11 attacks. To find, kidnap, and torture these suspects, it would have to team up with dozens of countries and private aviation companies.

To extend its reach outside the bounds of the law, the CIA created a kind of global network of clandestine “black site” prisons, where it secretly and systematically tortured terrorism suspects. This practice came to be known as “extraordinary renditions,” defined by the ACLU as “the practice of kidnapping or capturing people and sending them to countries where they face a high risk of torture or abuse in interrogations.”

As a way to circumvent legal repercussions, the United States outsourced much of this criminal enterprise to other countries.

The CIA relied on foreign governments to conduct interrogations and do the torturing, under American supervision. It contracted private aviation companies to haul prisoners to and from these black sites in countries such as Syria, Iran, Jordan, and Egypt.

The United States has never released an official list of countries that participated in its extraordinary rendition program, but we know that as many as 54 countries were involved in the scheme.

Remember All the Victims

As we remember the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives during the momentous and horrific 9/11 attacks, we must not forget the hundreds of thousands who died as a result of U.S. imperialism’s “war on terror.” Of the more than 900,000 deaths, more than 364,000 were civilians, and more than 5,000 were U.S. service members, many recruited from poor Black and Brown communities. These figures do not include the many indirect deaths the war on terror has caused through disease, displacement, and loss of access to food and clean drinking water. Meanwhile, 40 prisoners are still held at Guantánamo today, having never been given a fair trial.

Over the 20 years since 9/11, U.S. imperialism has used its military might in an effort to maintain its global hegemony, buttress its claims to Middle East oil, and enrich U.S. capitalists — especially those who benefit directly from waging war. Its global attacks have killed and maimed people, left countries reeling, and destroyed the environment. Every act of U.S. imperialism, even those that do not fall under the “official” definitions of various international conventions, is a war crime.

In time, the world working class will bring U.S. imperialism to justice for these global attacks.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

Emma Lee

Emma is a special education teacher in New York City.

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