WASHINGTON — William Barr — President Donald Trump’s nominee for the position of attorney general, the chief law enforcement post in the U.S. — is the subject of no shortage of controversy over his past as he testifies this week on Capitol Hill. But Democrats are hammering Barr over an unsolicited memo he wrote to the president that slammed the Mueller probe as “fatally misconceived,” while paying far less attention to far more troubling pieces of information about his past.
In particular, Barr, who was attorney general previously between 1991 and 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, has expressed backward views on mass incarceration. And his use of indefinite detention tactics for political gain, his approval of presidential pardons for six Reagan officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, his opposition to Roe v. Wade, his views on the president’s authority to use force abroad, and his pioneering of a mass surveillance program should all raise red flags for progressives, lawmakers, and civil liberties advocates alike.
In 1992, Barr, as attorney general, authored a memo entitled “The Case for More Incarceration.” The document includes sections and subsections like “Prisons work,” “A failure to incarcerate leads to increased crimes,” “Prisons do not create criminals,” “More prisons are needed,” “We are not over-incarcerating,” “Failure to incarcerate costs money,” “A failure to incarcerate hurts black Americans most,” and even includes an appendix that cites Rand Corporation “research” supposedly showing that the disparity in incarceration rates along racial lines is not attributable to bias.
“The study concluded that one could predict with 80 percent accuracy whether an offender would be sentenced to probation or prison. Adding the offender’s race to the equation did not improve the accuracy of this prediction. Race was also unrelated to the length of prison term imposed,” Barr’s document read. In other words, the racial disparity wherein black Americans are far more likely to be given harsher sentences or prosecuted at all in the first place is an entirely natural phenomenon, in Barr and Rand’s view.
But when it comes to incarceration, the memo is perhaps the least concerning part of Barr’s record.
Barr’s concentration camp for HIV-positive Haitians fleeing U.S.-backed death squads
Following the CIA-backed coup in Haiti in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Haitians fled the military regime terror that was sweeping the island, many to seek asylum in the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard then destroyed their boats and took them aboard. Eventually, they were taking to the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were then assessed to determine whether they had real fears of political persecution or were merely seeking economic opportunity.
The State Department went to Belize and Honduras, asking them to take in the Haitian asylum-seekers, but the countries demanded they be tested for HIV. After some tests turned up positive, the U.S. government conducted HIV tests on every single person whom it had determined had a legitimate need for asylum.
But federal law banned the U.S. from accepting HIV-positive refugees, and since their fears were determined to be credible, the U.S. government was unable to return them to Haiti. So the Haitians were detained there in Guantanamo indefinitely. Reportedly even Dick Cheney — then secretary of defense — who is not generally regarded for his commitment to rule of law, objected to the interments Barr had schemed.
“Even Dick Cheney, … not to mention the military’s own doctors, expressed concern about keeping these asylum seekers in Guantanamo for political gain,” Senator Richard Blumenthal recently told The Daily Beast. “When you’re to the right of Dick Cheney on Guantanamo, you know you’ve gone too far.”
Barr later recalled the opposition he faced, saying in an interview years later:
What do you want me to do? You want 80,000 Haitians to descend on Florida several months before the election? Come on, give me a break… Florida will go ape. …
Their position was, ‘Guantanamo is a military base, and why were all these people here, the HIV people, all these other people? How long are you going to be on our property with this unseemly business?’ I’d say, ‘until it’s over. But we’re not bringing these people into the United States.’”
Reportedly, conditions at the facility — which was later likened to a concentration camp for HIV patients by federal judge Sterling Johnson — were horrid. Food was covered in maggots and the refugees — among them 200 HIV patients — were forced to live in makeshift barracks with no protection from the outside elements. Women were also reportedly given forced birth-control injections. U.S. military fighters clad in riot gear would be sent in to periodically quell protests and hunger strikes.
Barr defends his role in indefinitely detaining Haitian asylum seekers in Guantanamo during his tenure as AG. He deflects a question about possible regrets by bringing up the Clinton administration. pic.twitter.com/ZhzNudzShD
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2019
Judge Johnson eventually ruled in 1993 that the refugees could not be indefinitely detained, writing:
Although the defendants euphemistically refer to its Guantanamo operation as a ‘humanitarian camp,’ the facts disclose that it is nothing more than an HIV prison camp presenting potential public health risks to the Haitians held there.”
And so the Haitians were released to the U.S. mainland, but the legacy of Barr’s prison lives on in Cuba. The asylum deal blocked any judgments on whether U.S. laws apply to prisoners held in Guantanamo, effectively paving the way for the detainee abuse and torture that have occurred there during the post-9/11 era.
The “Godfather” of illegal National Security Agency surveillance
In 1992, Barr helped draft a surveillance program for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which saw the agency beginning to amass phone call data and order telecommunications companies to covertly turn over records on all phone calls made from the U.S. to a list of other countries (which eventually, according to the ACLU, became “well over 100 nations”).
The program was drafted by Barr and his deputy at the Justice Department, Robert Mueller. That’s the same Robert Mueller carrying out the investigation into allegations of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the officials of the Russian federation, and the same investigator whom some worry Barr will fire should he become attorney general.
Barr and Mueller’s DEA program went on to become the “blueprint” for the National Security Agency’s mass cell-phone surveillance program under the 2001 Patriot Act. Barr later argued that the illegal surveillance and all the other abuses of the draconian post-9/11 security bill did not go far enough.
During the administration of George W. Bush, Barr worked as a lobbyist for Verizon, taking up such causes as getting a bill through Congress that would immunize telecom giants from lawsuits by people illegally surveilled with the telecoms’ assistance.
Supporting the president’s authority to wage war anywhere he damn pleases
William Barr went to bat for President George H.W. Bush on three occasions in the midst of war-powers debates — including Panama, Somalia and Iraq — Chip Gibbons, Policy and Legislative Counsel at Defending Rights & Dissent, uncovered. In the case of Iraq, Barr advised Bush that he had the legal authority to preemptively strike Baghdad, but suggested he seek a non-binding resolution of support from Congress, which the president did.
The subject of who is in charge of authorizing American military force continues to be a contentious one since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress just three days after the attacks, allowed for the president to circumvent Congress when waging war on specific, loosely-interpreted targets.
The Senate has recently tried to invoke the War Powers Act, which checks the President’s power to unilaterally wage war, in order to curb U.S. support for the genocidal war in Yemen. As Gibbons notes, it is likely “that the President and Congress may soon butt heads over war powers.”
Top Photo | Screen shot from William Barr’s confirmation hearing.
Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons, and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News.
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