Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to make a nuclear bomb

I assume, or at least very much hope, that all readers of this blog are aware of the case of Binyam Mohamed, who was released from Guantanamo this week after seven years of imprisonment, and allowed to return home to Britain. There is overwhelming evidence that Mohamed was tortured with the full knowledge and complicity of both American and British officials, and very little evidence that he was actually guilty of terrorist acts or planning them.

In today's Los Angeles Times, columnist Rosa Brooks, who just happens to be the daughter of the progressive journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (and a writer every bit as talented and wise), offers an interesting twist on the case: One of the key pieces of "evidence" against Mohamed was that he had read a satirical piece Ehrenreich wrote 30 years ago entitled "How to Build Your Own Home H-Bomb." Brooks says that the article, which appeared in the lefty magazine Seven Days,

...was chock-full of helpful tips for would-be nuclear bomb makers. For instance, it advised those struggling to enrich uranium to make "a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the [bucket] around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes."

As a result of the torture, Brooks points out,

...Mohamed began to confess to an impressive range of sins. Pressed for details about his purported nuclear know-how, for instance, Mohamed admitted that he had, indeed, once read my mother's article on the Web, but said it was just a spoof.

They didn't get the joke. According to Mohamed's attorneys, who have had access to classified records, the article seems to have been deemed a crucial piece of "evidence" against their client. An intelligence-community game of Telephone ensued, in which Mohamed's "confession" that he'd read up on the manufacture of nuclear weapons was passed along from interrogator to interrogator, until U.S. authorities convinced themselves that Mohamed was part of a dangerous nuclear plot against the United States.

Mohamed is now free, and yet there are disturbing signs that the Obama administration might want to cover up for the Bush administration's crimes--a policy that seems to be behind several perplexing Justice Department actions in recent weeks--by refusing to release details of Mohamed's torture and imprisonment. If Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder persist in such a position, they will become enemies of truth, civil liberties, and the U.S. Constitution. Binyam Mohamed and his attorneys reportedly refused to agree to a gag order that U.S. authorities (we are talking about the Obama administration here again, remember) wanted to impose on him.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose? Let's hope not.

Meanwhile, on the disloyal opposition: Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker gets on Bobby Jindal's case for distorting, as Republicans are so very good at doing, the rationale behind spending money on certain scientific projects. "Government-waste cheap-shot artists," is what Charlie calls these intellectual midgets, aptly so.


Anne Gilbert said...

I have a hard time believing that someone like Binyam Mohamed would have been jailed for responding to a satirical piece! And yet, given the activities of the past administration, it is utterly believable! And I do hope szmebody gets on Obama's case, so that it doesn't get covered up. He shouldn't start acting like the previous administration already!

jqb said...

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose? Let's hope not.

We can do better than that -- the Obama administration has already observably executed a large number of changes from the previous administration. Predictably (by me), these tend to be in the areas of domestic issues and the environment, but not so much in terms of anything that might challenge American military hegemony or the "right" of the U.S. to do whatever the hell it pleases -- Obama differs on strategy, but not on that fundamental principle of American power and exceptionalism. Obama is not that kind of radical, and even if he were, the vast majority of those holding goverment positions are not. To get changes in these areas we will have to push, and push hard, but I think it just plays into the hands of our opponents to say that nothing has changed, that Obama is just an empty suit or a Bush clone -- he's not that kind of reactionary, either. Let's acknowledge all the progressive steps he's taken, recognize and treat him as an ally, and then say "as our ally, here's what else we expect of you". We will certainly be repeatedly disappointed, but in the pragmatic world, while something is not everything, it's better than nothing.

Michael Balter said...,0,110533.story

The Obama administration is taking terrible positions on Constitutional issues such as warrantless wiretapping that we rightly were condemning the Bush administration for just a matter of weeks ago. When they do that, they are not allies, and if they can't be convinced to change their positions they are adversaries to be fought on those particular issues--even if we have a different attitude towards the Obama administration overall. This is the position that Glenn Greenwald has taken, for example, and it is very appropriate in my view.

jqb said...

My point was that one has more leverage with people by being intellectually honest about their actions -- in this case, acknowledging all the good things Obama is doing while denouncing the bad -- especially when they are in the position of power. Making him an adversary to be fought is a lovely romantic notion, suitable for Tolkien novels where the little guys win, but IMO it's not a pragmatic path to real results. And I don't believe that Greenwald has in any way suggested that nothing has changed -- he's a very precise person.