After 9/11: The Stories We Tell and the Stories We Don't

For a little over seven years now, I have contributed columns to the Huffington Post on the subject of civil liberties and America's wars. It sounds strange to say it like that, in the plural, America's wars. But that is the way to see it if we want to be honest. Since 2003, we have been a country famous for not merely the occasional war, dedicated to the destruction of an enemy by air power (as in Vietnam) or by a proxy army on the ground (as in Nicaragua). We are also the world's innovator of preventive wars, "wars of choice" against selected target countries such as Iraq or Libya. Our leaders in both parties have consented to a state of things in which the fame of the United States is tested and must be proved by continuous engagement in multiple wars. And if not wars, then widely distributed black-ops killings, in faraway places where the United States is said to have vital interests. Those killings now come under the official description counterterrorism, which is a way of saying: terrorism by the right people.


The column that appears below this one, "What 9/11 Makes Us Forget," was originally published on the tenth anniversary of the attack of September 11, 2001, and it is reprinted in my book of essays, Moral Imagination. It occurred to me that the shorthand notation "9/11" was being used as a conversation stopper. The name of the date cut off argument; it worked to prevent thinking.

How then can we come to think again? The effects of any war on civil liberties are poisonous. The initial panic and built-up structures of the War on Terror were bound to lead, as they have done, to the amassing of new powers of arrest and detainment and to the surveillance of U.S. citizens as well as foreign suspects. The new powers were hoarded at first in secret, and later, under pressure, were sometimes defended in public. The overriding aim of the surveillance state has become apparent over the last decade and especially in the last year. It is, as Glenn Greenwald has said, to secure the destruction of privacy worldwide, and to create a monopoly on the benefits derivable from the destruction.

My columns have been written as occasional reports on the symptoms of this double crisis. The reports have taken the form of a political diary, but I imposed from the start certain restrictions on subject matter and presentation. (1) To write only about events which seemed significant but which were in danger of passing quickly from view. (2) To analyze not the immediate political uses of an incident for a given political actor or interest, but the forces in play under the surface. (3) To shun the first-person singular (the present column is an exception).

But what are "forces in play under the surface"? If you keep track of the news in these extraordinary times, a story that seems anomalous may remind you of an earlier story that seemed unusual in the same way. So, in May 2009, the justice department called off the prosecution of what seemed a well-supported case against two AIPAC agents, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissmann, for spying on the U.S. government. That the case had been brought to trial at all, it might be said, was as unusual as its being suddenly stopped. But to a reader of the news, alert to the complexities of U.S. power in the War on Terror, the story jogged a memory.

In 2004, the FBI had launched an investigation into actions of the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, the adviser-in-exile enthusiastically cited by the neoconservatives who pressed hardest for the war on Iraq. The investigation of Chalabi had been unexpected, too; and as with the prosecution of AIPAC agents, an action by the justice department, surprisingly launched, had been as abruptly terminated. To a reader who prefers innocent explanations, this might argue nothing more than two cases of similar contours, in both of which the FBI put itself forward to detect a wrong and was then reined in. But reined in by whom? On a less innocent reading, we were seeing the signs of an internal conflict in government that evaded public view.

Maybe this story was not worth pursuing. I cite it as an example of the kind of story that has appeared with peculiar frequency since 2001 and that rarely gets followed up. Blogs may serve a civic purpose in reminding the mainstream press of aberrations they seem to be continually unearthing and continually leaving behind. There is, indeed, nothing surprising in the fact that a Republican attorney general for political reasons called off an investigation that might prove embarrassing to his boss; or the fact that a Democratic attorney general, covering for a president under attack by the Israel lobby during his first months in office, called off a prosecution that might have proved highly impolitic. Then again, maybe the similarity between the two incidents does require attention. At least, we should be surprised by the fact that we are not surprised.

These things come up every day. Consider today, for example, the headlines about the sacking of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times. The publisher of the Times, A.O. Sulzberger, said that the reason she was dropped had to do with Abramson's bad management of the newsroom; and supporting statements adequately testify to her "condescension," "brusque manner," and so on -- all of which seems credible enough -- and yet the same qualities were compatible with a longer run for some of her predecessors.

Meanwhile, there has emerged a rival account, which points out that Abramson recently asked for a salary raise after learning that the male editor who preceded her had received higher pay. This is said to have been the more serious cause of discord; and this, too, sounds credible -- but again not really sufficient. There is one clue however, possibly no more telling than the above, which has been oddly neglected in the first round of journalistic motive-hunting.

The national and international stories that loom largest today have emerged from documents supplied to the news media by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. These documents have turned up facts concerning the ambition and the immense resources deployed by the NSA for the secret surveillance of private persons, companies, and governments. The New York Times was initially passed over by Snowden because its previous editor, Bill Keller, at the urging of the Bush administration had suppressed a major story on warrantless surveillance in 2004. But the paper in this area has grown a little braver; some of Snowden's documents were eventually transferred to it by the Guardian; and Jill Abramson has been straightforward in defending the commitment of the Times. In an interview in January on Al Jazeera, asked whether Snowden was a traitor or a hero, she replied: "I view him, as I did Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as a very good source of extremely newsworthy information." The Times under Abramson, in short, was not first on the story and it was not second or third, but it did not avoid the controversy the NSA revelations might bring. So much for Abramson; what about her successor, the managing editor Dean Baquet? Forget for a moment the clichés and the public-relations "narratives," the PC alarm at the sacking the first female editor, muffled by the cool vibe of hiring in her place the first African-American editor. Has Baquet had any relationship to the NSA stories at the New York Times or elsewhere?

In fact, he had an intimate involvement in such a story early in the War on Terror. Documents supplied to the Los Angeles Times by Mark Klein, an AT&T employee troubled by violations of civil liberties, showed that the NSA had constructed a building within the company building and was monitoring internet transactions. Klein and the Los Angeles Times reporter who worked on the story, Joe Menn, were given to understand that theirs was front-page material. Two months passed. The editor of the Los Angeles Times agreed to meet with Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA, and John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence; and after speaking with those officials, the editor killed the story. The editor who did that was Dean Baquet. He said afterward that his choice not to publish had nothing to do with his prior consultation with the highest officials in charge of government surveillance; rather, Baquet just could not see the story in the story -- "we did not have a story...we could not figure out what was going on."

The New York Times disagreed; and in April 2006 Mark Klein's facts were published, in a story by John Markoff and Scott Shane; four days later, a Times editorial backed the paper's commitment by posing questions about the legal limits of secret surveillance. After his meeting with Hayden and Negroponte, the facts appeared to Baquet too abstruse for an ordinary mind to digest. Yet a summary by Matthew Guariglia, at an unpretentious site called, made the necessary point in a short sentence yesterday: Klein had discovered "at AT&T, where he worked, that the NSA was installing surveillance rooms and equipment where they could monitor and copy internet traffic." Markoff and Shane also made a comprehensible summary of the facts Baquet had found mysterious and perplexing. The story was this: the NSA installed at AT&T special surveillance rooms and equipment to capture everyday traffic on the internet. A source and a reporter told it; an editor in Los Angeles seemed to like it and then talked to two government officials and then killed it; an editor in New York found it newsworthy after all and printed it.

As usual, there is a second layer. Abramson, in the months before being sacked, had sought to hire as a second managing editor, alongside Baquet, the editor of the American Guardian, Janine Gibson. Gibson's sense of the public importance of secret surveillance, to judge by the evidence thus far, is of a different order from Baquet's.

According to the version we are asked to believe, the initiative by Abramson to hire Gibson enraged Sulzberger and Baquet, because it amounted to an unauthorized reorganization of the managerial hierarchy. So far, so plausible. But was this about nothing but personal pique and a failure of proper consultation? Anyway Baquet is in command at the New York Times now -- the paper that ran the NSA story which he killed at the Los Angeles Times -- and if Abramson's sacking was in no way related to her connection with the Snowden stories or a fear of controversy and harassment by government, this can be proved by the courage Baquet displays in following the NSA trail he once helped the government to obscure.