By high noon September 11, 2001 it should have been obvious what this generation of Republicans–and more than a few Democrats–would do with the attacks on New York and Washington: seize upon them as manna from heaven to promote a hard right-wing political and economic agenda at home and abroad. Dominant at this moment is reinforcement of what the U.S. military calls “full spectrum dominance,” partly, as Mark Steel wrote in The Independent (London) on March 14, in the form of “revenge against anyone who’s caused the United States embarrassment, starting with the most recent and going back, making the named targets so far Iraq, Somalia, Iran and North Korea.”
The corollary, which urgently needs to be broadcast, is that serious and constructive policies to stop terrorism are not only of less importance: they are rejected whenever they interfere with the basic priorities of Bush and company. Should there be a conflict between (a) measures that might thwart a terrorist attack or uncover a terrorist cell before it acts, and (b) the full range of right wing priorities, then (a) will be trashed.
Since the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, followed by attacks on U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the suicide ramming of the U.S.S. Cole only 11 months before 9/11, there were growing signs, picked up by the CIA, U.S. military intelligence, and their counterparts in Europe and the Middle East, that more such attacks were in the offing. Yet on September 10, 2001 (yes, that’s the right date), Attorney General John Ashcroft submitted the final budget request for the Justice Department for fiscal 2003 to Budget Director Mitchell Daniels. Ashcroft dismissed FBI requests for $58 million for 149 new counterterrorism field agents, 200 intelligence analysts, and 54 additional translators. Instead, he proposed reductions in 14 such programs; one was a $65 million cut for state and local governments for counterterrorism equipment, including radios and decontamination suits and training for preparedness.
It wasn’t as though Mr. Ashcroft was uninformed about the possibility of terrorism. On May 9, July 11, and August 9, 2001, he stated in public, when pressed, that “our number 1 priority is the prevention of terrorist attacks . . . At the Department of Justice, we recognize that the threat of terrorism here at home is a serious and growing challenge.” But in a May 10 letter to department heads setting out the Bush policy agenda, Ashcroft made no mention of terrorism. Among the goals he announced were these: “securing the rights of victims of crimes,” “securing the nation’s borders and cutting the immigration backlog,” “reducing gun violence and drug trafficking” and “reducing overcrowding and drug use in prisons.” All should lead to more spending on the increasingly privatized incarceration industry complex. On August 9, a chart entitled “Strategic Plan-Attorney General Priorities” was distributed inside the Justice Department. The same goals were listed, this time with 36 objectives under them, 13 of which were highlighted in yellow as “Highlight-AG Goal.” One of the 36 referred to intelligence concerning terrorists; it was not highlighted. According to a former FBI official, Ashcroft’s attitude “really undermined a lot of effort to change the culture and mind-set” of FBI agents.
As upholder of public morality, the Attorney General did find $8,000 to spare for a cape to cover the exposed breast of the female guardian of law statue in the lobby of the Justice Department, but no loose change for bolstering the nation’s defenses against terrorism. Nor did things change after September 11: Ashcroft would not compromise or set aside right wing priorities in favor of anti-terrorism measures. On September 16 the FBI began checking a list of 186 suspect people against federal gun purchase records. The search yielded two “hits,” meaning that the individuals had been approved to buy guns. The following day Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh ruled that continued use of the records was against the law, a position confirmed by his boss. Another request by the FBI in October to check 1,200 names was refused. As defender of Second Amendment rights of guns owners, Ashcroft insisted that neither the Constitution, nor the 1994 Brady Act (which authorized advance background checks on people seeking to buy guns), allows the government’s database to be used for the purpose of tracking potential terrorists, a position he repeated in front of disbelieving Democratic Senators (Edward M. Kennedy and Charles E. Schumer in particular) on the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2002. Support for Ashcroft came from the National Rifle Association.
Except perhaps for a nation absorbed in a dialogue with itself about horrors imposed upon it by people who hate its “freedoms” and the need to wreak vengeance on them, there is another stunning illustration of the real Bush priorities. In the face of a historic, catastrophic intelligence failure, no effort is being made to carry out a thorough investigation into what went wrong and to bring to account those responsible. The only comparable catastrophe is December 7, 1941–after which such an investigation was undertaken, with heads rolling thereafter (including two U.S. Navy admirals). To carry out this kind of inquiry now would, unavoidably, bring into question the competence and performance of the U.S. military, the FBI, and the CIA. Clearly, this will not do in the post-9/11 era of “USA triumphant”–the absolute superiority of all U.S. institutions–and the drive to increase the military budget by $48 billion to a level of $379 billion, which will exceed the military budgets of the world’s next 14 biggest defense spenders combined. Nor must we be allowed to hear that failure to stop the terrorists did not result from budgetary starvation. During the Clinton presidency, the U.S. counterterrorism spending increased from $2 billion to more than $12 billion.
It also stands to reason that any genuine effort to stop terrorism should aim to reduce tensions all over the world, above all in areas where the United States has been heavily involved in the present or recent past. In this respect, publicly labeling other nations as members of “an axis of evil” would be the polar opposite of sane policy–unless of course the priority is to increase tensions in the world so as to justify a new open-ended, cold war-type mobilization. Or to justify a National Missile Defense boondoggle, in which case the preferred policy would be to sabotage the improving “sunshine” relations between the two Koreas and to antagonize North Korea, known to have a low-level missile capability which U.S. administrations find “threatening.” In promoting this right-wing priority, the Bush administration has been largely successful. It is building upon its success through its “review” of the use of nuclear weapons, with seven countries as possible targets, North Korea one of them. This will in turn increase the need to defend ourselves against such “rogues” by erecting the National Missile Defense network.
So the United States chooses the time when it is once again flaunting its military might in the face of everybody else, daring anyone to match us, to revive the right wing dream of doing away with the “nuclear taboo.” It is now known that the “intelligence report” that terrorists were planning to smuggle a stolen Russian 10-kiloton nuclear device into New York City was a fraud, but can anyone doubt that, more than ever, U.S. actions and threats are provoking thoughts of retaliation-in-kind against us? Adding to these tension-generating policies is the open discussion of attacking Iraq. As Jordan’s King Abdullah II told Vice-President Cheney who had come to sell him America’s war plans, “look, this is a tremendously dangerous road to go down. If our aim is to win against terrorism, we can’t afford more instability in the area.”
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has delivered the same message, in the wake of American efforts to limit the terms of the UN war crimes tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda–chiefly as a means of blocking the proposed International Criminal Court which the United States opposed from the start (the 1998 Rome Treaty approved by 120 countries to date). The United States appears not to accept, as Annan has said, that terrorism “needs to be fought with a maximum of international cooperation.” This is a strong statement from a man in a difficult position–head of an international organization that depends heavily for functional and financial support on a nation that is trying to undermine and marginalize it in every way it can, but reserves the right to use it for its own purposes whenever it sees fit.
America appears indifferent to criticism, international or domestic. Never has the left been so shut out from public debate, as well as from the “liberal media.” While we are all working on that, here’s another theme that deserves broadcasting. The “loyal opposition” party is scared witless and mute except for a rare outburst, by Barbara Lee (D-CA), the only member of Congress to vote against the war resolution last fall, and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who gave a powerful anti-war speech in Los Angeles in February. Let’s ask them what this generation of Republicans would be saying and doing had Al Gore been President on September 11 (or if the terrorist attacks had occurred two or three years ago under Bill Clinton). Wall Street Journal columnist Albert Hunt wrote last November that “under identical circumstances . . . the political right wouldn’t have given [Gore] the leeway and support that President Bush has received.” This may be the understatement of the year. Meanwhile, will any Democrat address it?