A human rights activist in Yemen who testified in May at a United States congressional hearing on the US drone program was detained under the same United Kingdom terrorism law used to justify detaining Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, in August. Simultaneously, Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who has represented drone victims, says he is currently being blocked from entering the US so he can speak to Congress about US drone strikes.
As Yemeni human rights activist Baraa Shiban recounted in a piece for the Guardian, “The border agent asked what my job is. When I explained I was the Yemen project co-ordinator for London-based legal charity Reprieve he said, ‘Sir, please come with me. We have a Terrorism Act and I have some questions I need to ask you.’”
I was then taken away from the desk and interrogated for over an hour. The suited man quizzed me about my political opinions. When I suggested that these should have no bearing on whether I am allowed into the country, the agent threatened to hold me for the maximum extent of his powers. ‘I am authorized to detain you for up to nine hours,’ he said. “We have only been here for an hour, but we can be here for up to nine. So you understand what this can lead to.”
He took my Reprieve business card and disappeared. When he returned – I would guess having made use of a computer and a popular search engine – he suggested he had detained me not merely because I was from Yemen, but also because of Reprieve’s work investigating and criticizing the efficacy of US drone strikes in my country.
Shiban detailed a Kafkaesque exchange he had where the “suited man” asked, “So, does your organization have anything to do with terrorism in Yemen?” He replied, “My organization addresses counter-terrorism abuses inside the country.” To which the “suited man” said, “Exactly! Why doesn’t your organization do something about the terrorism that happens in your country, instead of focusing on the counter-terrorism abuses?”
The “suited man” later told Shiban, “The relations between Yemen and the UK are important. I want to know that your organization is not disrupting them.”
Akbar, according to Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge, “wants to come to the US to serve as a translator and lawyer for Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani schoolteacher who says a drone strike killed his 67-year-old mother and injured his children. Rehman hopes to speak to members of Congress about his experience, and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) has welcomed his visit.”
Grayson said, if Akbar cannot travel to the US, Rafiq and his family will not be able to share their stories about drone strikes in Pakistan. But, perhaps, this is what is motivating the State Department’s refusal to grant Akbar a visa.
It has been a struggle for Akbar to enter the US before. In April 2012, Akbar was scheduled to speak at a summit on drones organized by CODEPINK. He had to wage a public battle with the support of activists in the US to force the State Department to give him a visa.
In June 2011, Akbar reported the State Department prevented him from “traveling to the United States to participate in a conference hosted by the human rights program at Columbia University law school in New York City.”
When I interviewed Akbar at the “Drone Summit” on April 28, 2012, he talked about how the US and especially the CIA became unhappy with him after he began his work in October 2010 because it bumped up against the narrative that the US was only killing “bad guys.” He found through work with victims that the US was mainly killing civilians and innocent people in Waziristan, who have nothing against the US.
But, after the drone strikes, they now have a reason to be against the US and fight back. These people do not have any resources to do much of anything, Akbar added, so, this is a systematic abuse and Akbar the CIA does not like the narrative he has promoted.
There is evidence that US intelligence supports the neutralization of individuals like Akbar and Shiban, who speak out against drones. Greenwald has published an article describing a document from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden that shows the intelligence community considers “propaganda campaigns that target UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] use” to be a “threat” to drone operations.
The document provides an example of what it considers to be an “adversary propaganda theme”:
Attacks against American and European persons who have become violent extremists are often criticized by propagandists, arguing that lethal action against these individuals deprives them of due process.”
Greenwald points out just about every argument made in the US against US drone policies—”threat of terrorism is small when compared to other threats, that drone strikes intensify rather than curb the risk of terrorism by fueling anti-American animus, and that drones kill too many civilians”—is mentioned as an “adversary propaganda theme.”
Essentially, according to the US intelligence community, any debate or discussion that runs counter to the community’s views of drone operations is “propaganda.” It could be helpful to al Qaeda’s fight against the US. There can be no freedom of speech on the issue because what is said may lead to operations being curtailed, which is what the terrorists want.
The document contends that the word “drone” happens to “connote mindless automatons with no capability for independent thought” to generate an “emotional reaction,” which is what propaganda is intended to do. [Note: Although unmentioned, The Washington Post actually reported on this top secret report, "Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles," on September 3.]
“The US government has a long history of treating drone opponents as national security threats,” Greenwald highlighted. ”In 2012, it denied a visa to filmmaker Muhammad Danish Qasim, a Pakistani student at Iqra University’s Media Science. He had released a short film entitled The Other Side, a 20-minute narrative that ‘revolves around the idea of assessing social, psychological and economical effects of drones on the people in tribal areas of Pakistan.’ The film highlighted the pain and havoc wreaked on surviving children and other relatives of drone victims. The visa denial meant he was barred from receiving the Audience Award for Best International Film at the 2012 National Film Festival For Talented Youth, held annually in Seattle, Washington.”
Shiban, Akbar and Qasim are a part of a growing list of individuals who have essentially been blacklisted or targeted because they have views that run counter to US policy. Rather than risk having these individuals’ views influence public opinion and put operations at risk, the US government opts to use anti-terrorism laws or protocols to obstruct those people from being able to exercise free speech.
Additionally, conflating their views and work with any effort by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to spread propaganda is similar to how the NSA has stated the disclosures from Snowden make it possible for terrorists to change tactics. It is similar to what was said by the government during the sentencing of Private Chelsea Manning about al Qaeda using portions of documents released by WikiLeaks in propaganda videos. It is similar to the decision by a federal judge to not release interrogation videos of Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed al Qahtani because the “written record of torture” made it “all the more likely that enemy forces would use al Qahtani’s image against the United States’ interests.”
Drone opponents are victims of an information war. US intelligence agencies cannot have Americans coming into contact with documents that expose the war on terrorism. They cannot have Americans exposed to the personal knowledge of individuals, who have witnessed the effects of drone warfare. Which is why laws and security protocols in place to fight terrorism are used by the US government—and any allies it can convince to do its dirty work—to violate drone opponents’ rights.
Shiban submitted video testimony to the Congressional Progressive Caucus back in May and it can be viewed here.