Zaid Jilani

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Zaid Jilani

Template:TOCnestleft Zaid Jilani has been a Senior Reporter/Blogger for at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.


Zaid Jilani grew up in Kennesaw, GA, and holds a B.A. in International Affairs with a minor in Arabic from the University of Georgia. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Jilani interned for Just Foreign Policy and was a weekly columnist at The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s official student newspaper. He is a co-editor at the Georgia-based blog Georgia Liberal and a regular on Russia Today America's The Alyona Show and The Thom Hartmann Show and has been a guest host on Al Jazeera English's The Stream. He is also an occassional contributor to the op-ed pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.[1]

Controversial resignation

In December 2012, Israel lobbyist Josh Block attacked several writers who work for two Democratic Party-linked organizations-- Center for American Progress and Media Matters-- as anti-semites. Since then, CAP has |done little to stand up for its writers' comments, and today a writer targeted by Block has left CAP, the Washington Post reported".

Zaid Jilani confirmed to Philip Weiss that he's leaving. The job was long in the works, and he's excited: he is going to United Republic, a nonprofit that fights the corporate influence in politics. "I moved to a new spot I like and I wish everyone well at the Center for American Progress," he said.

Weiss regarded this news as a big setback. He called Jilani a fabulous young journalist, "he should be allowed to voice a critique of the Israel lobby inside the Democratic Party machinery". As Glenn Greenwald says today, there's racism in the focus on Jilani and Ali Gharib, another wonderful young journalist. The New York Post went after Jilani yesterday and focused on a tweet of last summer:

“Waiting 4 hack pro-Dem blogger to use this 2 sho Obama is still beloved by Israel-firsters and getting lots of their $$"

Glenn Greenwald said the anti-Semitism charge is being used to staunch criticism of the idea of attacking Iran:

So according to Block, you are not allowed (unless you want to be found guilty of anti-Semitism) to use “policy rhetoric that is hostile to Israel” or — more amazingly — even to “suggest that Iran has no nuclear weapons program.” Those ideas are strictly off limits, declares the former AIPAC spokesman. Apparently, then, America’s National Intelligence Estimates of 2007 and 2010 are both anti-Semitic, since they both concluded that Iran ceased work on developing a nuclear weapon back in 2003 and that there is no conclusive evidence demonstrating it resumed; to cite those reports and to embrace their conclusions makes you an anti-Semite, since you’re not allowed to “suggest that Iran has no nuclear weapons program.” Israel’s government is also evidently suffused with anti-Semites...[2]

Greenwald to the defense

In December 2011, Glenn Greenwald's Salon colleague Justin Elliott revealed that AIPAC’s former spokesman, Josh Block, had been encouraging neoconservative journalists and pundits on a private email list to attack as “anti-Semites” various Middle East commentators employed by two of the most influential Democratic-Party-aligned organizations: the Center for American Progress and Media Matters.

Block distributed a dossier containing posts by these CAP and MM writers about Israel and Iran that he claimed evince anti-Semitism, and then issued these marching orders (emphasis in original): “YOU SHOULD AMPLIFY this. And use the below [research] to attack the bad guys.” According to Glenn Greenwald, The predictable roster of neoconservative, hatemongering extremists on that email list – led by The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, who recruited the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the cause — dutifully spewed out articles echoing Block’s attacks against these mostly young, liberal writers: Matt Duss, Ali Gharib, Eli Clifton and Zaid Jilani at CAP’s ThinkProgress blog and Media MattersMJ Rosenberg (a former AIPAC employee).

Block’s once-secret email campaign followed a Politico article by Ben Smith which accused these CAP and MM writers with deviations from “the bipartisan consensus on Israel” and voicing “a heretical and often critical stance on Israel heretofore confined to the political margins”; moreover, Smith wrote, “warm words for Israel can be hard to find on [CAP's] blogs.” Block was quoted in that article accusing the two progressive groups of publishing “anti-Israel” and “borderline anti-Semitic stuff”; Smith subsequently acknowledged that it was Block who had fed him files containing the supposedly anti-Semitic posts in order to enable the article to be written.

The Democratic-aligned Truman National Security Project then expelled Block for using “mischaracterization or character attacks” in order to impede “the ability to debate difficult topics freely.[3]

Center for American Progress

In 2005 Zaid Jilani served in the Communications department of Center for American Progress.[4] Reporter/Blogger

"This progressive stands with Rand"

Zaid Jilani wrote an article for In These Times, March 7, 2013, entitled "This progressive stands with Rand."

Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster struck a much-needed blow at the Obama administration’s senseless drone warfare.
I’ve spent my entire political life working with the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. I’ve worked for the Democratic Party-aligned think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP). I’ve raised money and organized campaign volunteers to elect progressive Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Alan Grayson. I’ve never voted for a Republican.
Yet when right-libertarian Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took to the floor yesterday to filibuster John Brennan's nomination as CIA director, I was joining staffers at the Koch Brothers organization FreedomWorks and writers at by tweeting out the hashtag #StandWithRand. I did so with the full realization that this would put me at odds with much of the progressive movement and partisan Democrats.
And Paul, to his credit, has been remarkably consistent in his effort to restrain government violence. He has repeatedly called for substantial cuts to the military budget. In 2011, I attended his “coming out” foreign policy speech at Johns Hopkins University. During that address, he said he’d “much rather send some of your professors around the world than I would our soldiers, if at all possible. Even in Iran, does anybody want to go to Iran? Iran has a large undercurrent of people who like the West. They like our music, our culture, our literature, and so I think we can influence people in those ways. I’d rather do that than go to war with Iran...”
For most activist Democrats, the drone program is a distraction from issues they joined the party to tackle—economic inequality, gay rights, women's rights, environmental degradation. These other issues, which also matter deeply to me, supersede any concern about, say, the sanctions regime on Iran that is denying people needed medicines, or a drone program that regularly kills innocent men, women and children. Restraining state violence simply isn’t high on their list of priorities.

It’s very high on mine. Here’s why. During an emotional moment last year following the killing of African American teen Trayvon Martin, President Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” As a Pakistani Muslim American, if I had a brother, he would likely look like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. As a Pakistani Muslim American, if I had a brother, he would likely look like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Like his father Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdhulrahman was an American citizen. Unlike his father, who preached support for terrorism, he was not known to be or accused to be engaged in anything like terrorist activity. Yet a drone strike ended his life two weeks after his father was killed. President Obama has never explained why, but Rand Paul explained last night before a worldwide audience what former administration flack Robert Gibbs told an activist about the attack.
“Here’s the real problem: when the president’s spokesman was asked about Awlaki’s son, do you know what his response was?” noted Paul during his filibuster. “He said he should have chosen a more responsible father.” Paul’s comment was the first time a U.S. Senator of either party brought up the killing of Abdulrahman, and when he did, I couldn’t help but cheer.
I’ve been going to Pakistan on regular trips my entire life. When I used to go as a child, people would beg my family to help them get visas to travel to the United States. Women wanted to wear American blue jeans. During a trip in 2007, “Live Free or Die Hard” was one of the most popular films in the theaters of Karachi. But in the past few years, anti-Americanism has been on the rise. Gruesome drone killings have driven thousands of people into the arms of radicals who want to exploit the issue to spread their jihadist agenda. Approval ratings of the United States are at a record low, and are lower than under Bush. Obama’s policies are literally tearing the country apart, and even the former U.S. ambassador to the country admits that the CIA’s drone strikes have gotten out of hand...
This afternoon, the Senate confirmed Brennan by a vote of 63–34 after Rand ended a 13-hour filibuster. I’m probably not going to join the Libertarian Party anytime soon, and I’m sure I’ll butt heads with Rand Paul next time he calls for cutting Social Security benefits or claims that just about every federal department is unconstitutional. But what he did last night was incredibly heartening to someone like me—someone who is tired of seeing people who look like me needlessly killed over and over again in a perpetual war led by a country so powerful it could stop criminal terrorists without using killer robots, but rather with smart use of police and intelligence service. So I #StandWithRand.

ITT article on NSA

In 2013, Zaid Jilani worked part-time for the advocacy group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has raised funds for NSA leaker Edward Snowden's legal defense.

Jilani wrote an article for In These Times, July 5, 2013 entitled "Actually, If You’re a Progressive, You Have To Be Critical of the NSA."

When “In Defense of PRISM,” an opinion piece published on on July 3, 2013, by self proclaimed 'progressive' labor unionist Louis Nayman received heavy criticism, ITT invited journalist and privacy advocate Zaid Jilani to write a rebuttal.

Some of the most prominent defenders of the National Security Agency's spy programs are the people you might expect: right-wing authoritarians. There was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who praised the agency's “lawful program to protect Americans” and demanded the prosecution of whistleblower Edward Snowden. There was former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who said “the program is a good one” and that it has “kept us safe.” And the list wouldn't be complete with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who praised the spying program and even brought forth the spectre of terrorists smuggling in a nuclear device to rebut critics.

None of this reaction is particularly surprising from those like Cheney who have been at the forefront of advancing the brutish, violent side of government for years. What is more disconcerting is that fact that self-avowed progressives have risen to the defense of the NSA's violations of American freedom.
Louis Nayman—a longtime union organizer who I'm sure has been involved in difficult and important struggles as a progressive activist—makes a major misstep by suggesting that progressives should be defending the NSA's conduct.

His article for In These Times, “In Defense of PRISM,” begins with a long series of unsubstantiated claims meant to defend the NSA recently disclosed domestic spy programs. For example, Nayman repeatedly asserts that the NSA's phone and Internet surveillance programs are beyond any doubt legal. But numerous legal scholars have pointed out that the powers the government is claiming to have are incredibly broad, and quite likely beyond the scope of powers authorized under the Patriot Act. This is also the view of Rep. Jim Sensebrenner (R-Wis.)—and he should know, he wrote it. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the government to seek “tangible things” after proving relevance to a foreign intelligence investigation. Seizing the millions of phone records under the logic that a handful may have relevance is stretching the law.
Additionally, the constitutionality of mass surveillance itself has yet to be tested, although the American Civil Liberties Union is sponsoring a constitutional challenge through the courts. Former Vice President Al Gore has said that he believes the NSA surveillance programs are unconstitutional.
Nayman also writes, “According to NSA officials, the surveillance in question has prevented at least 50 planned terror attacks against Americans, including bombings of the New York City subway system and the New York Stock Exchange.”
The important phrase here is “according to NSA officials.” It is entirely possible that PRISM and the NSA's other surveillance programs have stopped terrorist attacks aimed at Americans. But it's also entirely possible that they haven't—we have no idea, and uncritically taking the word of government officials would be a foolish choice.

Take, for example, the case of Najibullah Zazi, a man who allegedly plotted to bomb New York City subways, whom NSA head General Keith Alexander, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others claimed was NSA mass surveillance programs. As the Associated Press pointed out, investigators looking into Zazi's case already had probable cause to suspect that he was involved in plotting terrorism, meaning that obtaining a warrant to surveil him would've been easy. In fact, British authorities first learned of Zazi by seizing the physical computers of another terrorist suspect—meaning that they got wind of him through good old-fashioned police work, not mass surveillance.
Meanwhile, there's reason to believe the word of NSA officials may not be good. We can't forget Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's infamous testimony before the Senate in March:
WYDEN: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
WYDEN: “It does not?”
CLAPPER: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.
Clapper later told the media that his response that day was the “most truthful, or least untruthful” response he could give.
After this spree of misleading statements from top government officials, it would be folly to simply trust those in power. Recall that most of this mass surveillance stems from the opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)—a court whose rulings are secret, denying us the ability to even debate whether we as Americans are comfortable with mass government surveillance we don't even know is happening.
Following Nayman's substantive defense of the NSA—which, while flawed, is something reasonable people can debate—his argument veers into much more pernicious territory. “The more the Left aids and abets the reactionary Right’s cynical critique of government, the more both sides make the case to replace collective mission and accountability with the free hand of the market,” writes Nayman, along with some missives aimed at character assassination of Edward Snowden—he seems not to understand or to willfully ignore the fact that Snowden is fleeing to countries unwilling to be bullied by the government in Washington, not bastions of press freedom that would instantly turn him over to CIA interrogators (see the recent EU capture of Bolivian president Evo Morales, known globally as a friend of labor and the poor, qualities that should inspire solidarity from Nayman.

He goes on to condemn progressives who are critical of government spying for “doing the Tea Party’s dirty work,” and concludes that if “progressives believe in a legitimate and necessary role for government in achieving social and economic justice, we ought to think twice before delegitimizing the government’s national security function.”
But he actually gets the logic backwards. Progressives should not aim to validate actions by the government that violate our own progressive principles of human rights, freedom and justice. If that was the case, then progressives would be holding mass rallies praising the War On Drugs, which puts millions of people behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes, two-thirds of them racial minorities. Or we would be demanding more funding for drone strikes in Pakistan.
If progressives really were to accept the principle that we should defend government no matter what it does just so some people in the Tea Party don't use that same message to attack food stamps or some other program we favor, we'd soon find ourselves with a ridiculous and counter-productive message. We as progressives would not only be defending programs that empower people, like Medicare, but also ones that oppressed people, like the government-imposed Jim Crow laws. We'd have to be in favor of wasting money on the F-22 if we advocate for a national high-speed rail system.
Reflexively backing government, no matter what it does, is not progressive. Progressivism isn't just about supporting government—it isn't now, nor has it ever been. We don't cheer on massive government subsidies for oil companies, Big Pharma, or for-profit colleges. We don't support all government spending—like the costly and illegal war in Iraq.
In fact, it's important that the movement proactively stand against abuses by the government, if for no other reason than political self-preservation. That's the difference between American progressives—for whom basic freedoms of privacy, speech, and due process have always been an important principle—and the authoritarian Left that ruled countries like the Soviet Union.

If the government continues to abuse people's rights by invading their privacy with programs of questionable constitutionality and policy merit, Americans will fail to trust it to handle their health insurance, to fund their schools, to clean up the air they breathe.
Government can be an incredibly positive force when it is transparent, accountable and empowering. When it is not those things, not only should we oppose it, but we should be proud that there are people on the Right who are willing to join with us in that cause—they're helping us actually increase faith in the positive aspects of the public sector by addressing its abuses. Not only can we advocate for rolling back the national security state and implementing positive government programs like Medicare for All and a national living wage, but if we are to win over the American public, it may very well be necessary to do both.

DSA Convention

Zaid Jilani attended the Democratic Socialists of America national Convention in Chicago, August 2017.