Cage Match: Where Easgles Soar


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True story. Last fall, not long after six Yemeni-Americans were arrested in the Buffalo, NY suburb of Lackawanna on terrorism charges, I nearly crossed paths with John Ashcroft. I was living in Buffalo at the time, and Ashcroft was making a semi-clandestine visit to the city to address local Justice Department officials about the case and other matters. And this address took place in my building.


The office of a newspaper where I was working at the time was located in the Statler Towers, formerly a grand luxury hotel but now, like everything else in Buffalo, a shimmering monument to the spectacular failure of municipal vision that has been the proud cornerstone of that city’s collective identity for almost 100 consecutive years. Ashcroft was addressing his troops in a washed-out, The Shining-esque ballroom on the first floor, directly above a barbershop last visited in 1973, and 15 floors below the beer-can-strewn office I kept upstairs, across the hall from the local ACLU.


I was on my way into the office that day when I caught the ACLU contingent in a panic, turning their office upside down. They were like priests scouring the belfry for garlic after hearing word that Dracula had strolled in and taken a seat at a pew downstairs. "Fucking John Ashcroft is here," one of the guys whispered to me, hands trembling. "We’ve got to get downstairs… Get a look at him."


So we went down. The meeting was closed, but the attorney general was visible through the glass doors of the ballroom, his brow furrowed and mouth seemingly fixed in a letter O as he held forth. When I tried to get a little closer to get a picture, a Secret Serviceman stopped me–and proceeded to interrogate me and the two ACLU types, one of whom was a bespectacled older woman nearing 70.


"What do you want?" the SS man asked.


"We just wanted to take a look," I answered.


"Who are you?"


We produced ID. The ACLU folks explained who they worked for. The SS man had never heard of the ACLU. He peered at us.


"You’re going to have to stand back," he said. "We have to take precautions, in case you were thinking of throwing acid on the attorney general."


I shook my head, stunned and amused. "In case we decided to throw acid on the attorney general? Specifically in case of that?"


"That’s right," he said, folding his arms, "In case you decided to throw acid at the attorney general."


We backed up, and finally were backed out of sight. I’d hoped to get within smelling distance of Ashcroft, but I never got to see him again at all. I wondered whether people often tried to throw acid on Ashcroft, or whether this particular SS man was just insane. Both were very provocative possibilities. I’ll never know the truth; the only clues to the mystery of the inner John Ashcroft are the ones he offers himself. Of course, those are strange enough.


I’m back in Buffalo. I came up a few weeks ago to watch the last of those terror suspects, Yassein Taher and Mukhtar al-Bakri, plead out to seven- to 10-year sentences.


The Lackawanna Six case was held in Buffalo, despite the fact that the root crime–material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization–occurred outside the United States, in Afghanistan. No one, least of all Attorney General Ashcroft, disputed the idea that the U.S. had jurisdiction over this crime. When an American citizen violates American laws overseas, the thinking goes, American justice cannot be too zealous. Hard to argue with that.


Except that John Ashcroft himself argued exactly that. In a move that received almost no press in the U.S. (the New York Times, busy with the Jayson Blair business, blew it off), Ashcroft recently filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on behalf of the California-based energy company Unocal, which was facing suit in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California. The case–and the brief–say just about everything you need to know about John Ashcroft.


The Unocal case is the kind of story that ought to get more press in the U.S., but never does. In 1992, the company, along with the French oil company Total, entered into an agreement with the governments of Myanmar and Thailand to build a natural-gas pipeline from the offshore Yadana field to neighboring Thailand. Of course, finding labor in a Jeffersonian paradise like the former Burma is problematic, so Unocal and Total did the logical thing: They relied on labor "contracted" by the Myanmar army, a progressive bunch if there ever was one, to build the thing.


According to Myanmese villagers who brought the original suit, the army, with the knowledge of both companies, used forced labor, compelled to work under the threat of rape, torture and even execution, in providing security for the project. A U.S. District judge later agreed; though he dismissed the case for jurisdictional reasons in 2000, Judge Ronald Lew in California ruled that Unocal knew about and benefited from the forced labor. A higher court later overturned Lew’s dismissal and ruled that Unocal could be held liable for damages in the case, if the defendants’ assertions were proved at trial. Thus the current case.


The current suit cites one of America’s oldest laws, the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). Passed by the first Congress in 1789, it holds that foreign citizens can bring suits in the United States for abuses "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." The law was designed to prevent the U.S. from becoming a safe haven for pirates.


Which brings us to Ashcroft. In his brief, he argued that ATCA should not be used in civil cases, and that the "law of nations" outlined in the act should not be interpreted to include human-rights treaties. Ashcroft didn’t file a brief specifically in defense of Unocal; he filed a brief against the very idea that foreigners should be allowed to apply to U.S. courts for redress when international laws are violated. Moreover, he wrote, such litigation "bears serious implications for our current war against terrorism, and permits [ATCA] claims to be easily asserted against our allies in that war."


So a kid from a Buffalo ghetto travels to Afghanistan, visits a terrorist training camp and comes home. Before he commits any crime, he goes to jail for 10 years. Even the government admits there was no overt violent crime here: "Material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization" was stretched to include the purchase of a uniform at the camp. But if an American company goes overseas and for six years invests millions of dollars and uses slave labor and torture to build some miserable gas pipeline–committing not one crime, but many hideous violent crimes, at a systemic level–it shouldn’t even be sued, according to our attorney general.


Just this week, a seventh Lackawanna suspect, Jaber Elbaneh, was indicted by the Justice Department. He’s overseas somewhere. There would have been an eighth named Kamal Derwish, but he was killed last year in a CIA missile attack in Yemen. In Iraq and everywhere else, the whole world has been informed that it is subject to U.S. law. With a few exceptions.


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