Stealth Administration

Bill Berkowitz, columnist for the Working for Change website, recently began a piece, Whither America’s homegrown terrorists, with a description of the last couple of weeks of panic and fear-mongering:


“Just before Christmas, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terrorist alert level from yellow — an elevated risk of terrorist attack — to orange — indicative of a high risk of attack — after ‘indications’ that terrorists may have been planning attacks to coincide with the holiday season and beyond. The Secretary encouraged Americans to go about their holiday plans because… you guessed it… ‘if we alter our plans…then they [terrorists] have won because they have dislocated activity, they have caused economic loss and made us act in ways simply by threatening us and we cannot be burdened by that threat or fear…’


“Once the alert level was raised, America‘s cable news networks had a field day: They brought out their ‘War on Terrorism’ banners and focused unswerving attention on the myriad potential threats from overseas. An atmosphere of fear was created, a climate that has prevailed for better than two weeks. Actions by government officials ranged from the cancellation of several Air France flights to the US, because they supposedly contained al-Qaeda operatives — a charge that was quickly proven false — to an FBI warning to be on the lookout for people carrying almanacs — a patently ridiculous directive.”


In the meantime, a fingerprinting-and-photo program (SF Chronicle, 1/6) was begun at 115 airports and 14 cruise-ship ports that would, according to Ridge, “focus on ‘at-risk’ travelers while speeding the entry of everyone else.’” As it turns out, visitors from 27 countries, mostly European, who don’t need visas for short trips here, will not be subject to these add-ons. This is so patently illogical that it gives “profiling” a bad name. After all, Richard Reid, the terrorist who tried to light his explosive sneakers in mid-air, came from England and many of the September 11th attackers seem to have made their way here via Germany or at least through Europe. (And then there are our own home-grown variety of terrorists who are not meant to scare us at all…) Oh and as for those almanac-toting terrorists (FBI Issues Alert Against Almanac Carriers):


“The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning. In a bulletin sent Christmas Eve to about 18,000 police organizations, the FBI said terrorists may use almanacs ‘to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning.’ It urged officers to watch during searches, traffic stops and other investigations for anyone carrying almanacs, especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways. ‘The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning,’ the FBI wrote.”


I leave it to you to make sense of that last sentence, re: almanacs. On this basis, I fear Benjamin (“Poor Richard’s Almanac”) Franklin might have found himself, annotations in hand, taking up residence in Guantanamo. According to the Associated Press, the FBI added that “use of almanacs or maps may be innocent, ‘the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities.’ But it warned that when combined with suspicious behavior such as apparent surveillance a person with an almanac ‘may point to possible terrorist planning.’”


I can see how almanacs might be handy for terrorists. In a single volume you can find out what city and airport you’ve just landed in (in transit, I’m sure, from some European country like Slovenia, or from Brunei, Singapore or New Zealand, all visa-less departure points), check out the weather for crucial upcoming months, get directions to landmarks worthy of being blown up, and have an instant reference guide should some suspicious American try to stump you with a question like: What failing baseball team did both President Bush and Alex Rodriguez make a fortune off of? Answer: check your World Almanac. (Of course, I pity the poor almanac-makers who, like the airlines and our tourism industry, aren’t exactly likely to do great business off all this.)


My travel advice to you: Should you, for legitimate “recreational or commercial” reasons, have to bring an almanac with you on your next trip — even down the block — I suggest you replace the cover with something pornographic or anything about Michael Jackson. You’ll never be stopped.


But seriously, folks, goofy as some of this sounds, it couldn’t be more serious because creating Fortress America on our soil is not only a dream (see, for instance, Farai Chideya’s evocative piece up at Alternet) but potentially — given who’s doing it — a nightmare. More accurately, this administration seems eager to re-imagine the United States as a giant Green Zone (à la the one in Baghdad) in an ever-more embattled world — and then to go out and ensure that the world remains ever more embattled. This urge for a vast closing-down may, in the end, have little to do with protecting us against terrorists. My guess is that it will prove something beyond even Maginot-Line-style thinking. In a sense — à la Sharon‘s Israel — what we claim to be fighting against is what we seem to be in the process of creating.


The Busheviks have evidently never met a restriction on any action they wanted to take that they didn’t immediately have a desire to dismantle, or noticed any act of ours that they didn’t have the urge to restrict. Their goal, it seems, is an ever-widening field of activity for them and an ever-narrower one for the rest of us — and American rights and liberties be damned. Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Insight section reprinted a fine piece by James Bovard from American Conservative magazine, “Quarantining dissent, How the Secret Service protects Bush from free speech,” (1/4/04). It gives a vivid sense of just how strong their urge to restrict us is. Bovard reports that:


“When President Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up ‘free speech zones’ or ‘protest zones,’ where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.”


“Free speech zones” are, of course, meant to severely restrict speech by putting it far out of the sight and hearing of those at whom it’s directed. If you actually try to exercise your right to free speech by getting anywhere near the presidential party, you’re hassled and then arrested. Bovard offers a series of examples of this which all read more or less this way: “A recent St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, ‘At a Bush rally at Legends Field in 2001, three demonstrators — two of whom were grandmothers — were arrested for holding up small handwritten protest signs outside the designated zone.’”


When Bill Neel, a 65 year-old retired steel worker in the Pittsburgh area, refused to retire to one of the “zones” with his sign which read, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us,” he was arrested for disorderly conduct. District judge Shirley Rowe Trkula — and good for her — made the following comment when she threw out his case: “I believe this is America. Whatever happened to ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it?’”


Neel himself had the following comment: “As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free-speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.”


All of this — as so much else — is done under the rubric of the “war on terror,” fear of terrorists, and the need to protect our highest officials — and it represents the application in this country (even if in a somewhat milder fashion) of the city-clearing tactics that now precede any presidential visit anywhere. This administration fashions its own bunkers wherever it goes and so reveals a constant gnawing fear of the world that it would be hesitant to name.


An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Unfair assault on Greenpeace,” 1/4) highlights another kind of administration tactic for squelching dissent — in this case against the environmental group Greenpeace, two of whose activists were arrested in April 2002 for boarding a cargo ship to protest the importation of mahogany from Brazil. After a week in custody, they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were released. The end? Well, not quite. Greenpeace, as it happens, was an early critic of the Bush administration.


“Fifteen months later… federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Greenpeace, the organization, for authorizing an act of civil disobedience. They used an obscure 1872 law intended to end the practice of ‘sailor mongering’ — luring sailors with liquor and prostitutes. Although the organization cannot serve time in prison, it can be placed on probation and required to report its activities to the government. Greenpeace could also lose its tax-exempt status, which would destroy the public interest organization.


“To Jonathan Turley, a professor law at George Washington University, this obscure ‘law is being used to prosecute the administration’s most vocal critics in an unprecedented attack on the First Amendment . . . and appears to be part of a broader campaign by (Attorney General John) Ashcroft to protect the nation against free speech.’”


Indeed. Add in harassment no-fly lists for activists and the like and everywhere critics, potential critics (after all, this is the administration of “preventive war,” so why not preventive everything?), and passing humans are being hemmed in. Everywhere, behind a smokescreen of fear, of alerts and alarums, they continue to nibble away. They arrived on the scene as a stealth administration. (Remember, for instance, the excessively non-nation-building moderation that George, the Texas “unifier,” proposed in debating Al?) They had something like a stolen election in hand; a bunker-mentality vice-president in love with backroom deals with energy cronies, and a secretary of defense in love with the idea of secret strikes anywhere on earth.


War rules


What September 11th did for this administration, as Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, pointed out in the Sunday Los Angeles Times Opinion section, was provide an opportunity to put the country on a prolonged “war” footing. As we all know, there’s nothing like a wartime atmosphere to squelch critics and change the rules. The “war on terrorism” was declared to be the next mega-war, the one after the Cold War, which itself had lasted almost half a century, or even, as ex-CIA director and neocon James Woolsey proclaimed, World War IV. None of them ever missed a chance in the year after 9/11 to proclaim that we would be “at war” for years… no, decades… to come, and they rushed to launch a couple of small wars to make the point.


Then, with prisoners swept up in various versions of their war — people about whom Americans understandably cared nothing — they began to create a whole new set of “war rules” offshore, almost without opposition, and to apply them first on a tiny chosen spot of land in Cuba beyond the reach of the law itself. There were human beings on Earth who now could be swept away by an American administration into incarceration, into darkness, never to be released, charged, tried, never again to contact humanity, family, friends, never to have the right to proclaim themselves innocent or plead their case — not until the “war,” which wouldn’t be over in our lifetime, was “over.” War rules via war-rules forever — that might have been their motto. Even in the Cold War when the global dangers to all of us were, objectively speaking, far higher, nothing like this occurred. Now, the most extreme of rules ruled for at least a category of human extremity till the end of time. And sooner or later — it’s an imperial rule of its own — what’s offshore begins to come home. Usually sooner.


As Roth comments (“In Bush’s America, Rules of War Trump Civil Law,” 1/4):


“In ordinary times, governments are bound by strict rules of law enforcement. For example, police can use lethal force only when facing an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. Once a suspect is detained, he must be charged and tried. In times of war, these rules are supplemented by the more permissive ones of armed conflict. Under ‘war rules,’ an enemy combatant can be shot without warning (unless he is incapacitated, in custody or trying to surrender), regardless of any imminent threat. If a combatant is captured, he can be detained without charge or trial until the end of the conflict…


“As for alleged Al Qaeda members captured during the war, they are at least entitled, under the Geneva Convention, to military hearings to determine their status… But the Bush administration makes the radical claim that it should be able to detain these men until the end of the ‘war’ against terrorism, whenever that is — without a trial or a hearing to contest their detention.”


The ethos of war established, as one alarum after another was sounded it began to blanket the “homeland” (a strange new term that fit all too well with this war on terror) as well as the media. In the meantime, the urge within the administration to relieve every sort of legal restriction on themselves — to act in new extra-legal ways — spread. Recently, for instance, in the same section of the LA Times, military analyst William Arkin, who has a sharp eye, wrote about one of the many areas of military technology where the administration has been pushing hard beyond the boundaries of the permissible and the legal — the area of so-called nonlethal weaponry. To offer but one example of this sort of weaponry-in-development (“Pulling Punches,” 1/4):


“The most promising new capability, according to military sources, is the ‘active denial system,’ a euphemism for a microwave weapon that could stop would-be attackers from advancing. A Humvee-mounted prototype utilizes a powerful millimeter-wave beam that penetrates skin to a depth of about 1/64th of an inch, heating water molecules and producing what a Marine Corps legal opinion calls ‘intolerable pain.’”


A number of these prospective weapons, especially the chemical ones (which can, however, be used for domestic law enforcement), are clearly illegal under international law. Arkin comments:


The “irony of this drew Rumsfeld’s scorn during a congressional hearing. ‘We are doing our best to live within the straitjacket that has been imposed on us,’ he said.”


As with Rumsfeld’s “hunter-killer teams” discussed in my last dispatch, this urge not to live within the “straightjacket” — a fabulous euphemism in its own right — is powerful indeed. And the willingness of reporters, when they write of such matters at all, to do so only within the context of this urge — as if it were but one reasonable side of the most reasonable debate on Earth — is unnerving.


Arkin writes, for instance:


“The legality of a weapon, and how it is perceived, is vitally important to military commanders and policymakers. One argument made by nonlethal-weapons proponents is that such weapons are politically more acceptable than lethal force. Yet if at the same time the public perceives that the United States is using weapons that cause unnecessary suffering or are humiliating in their effects, the purpose is defeated. The Pentagon recognizes this tricky balancing act.”


Is that what it is — a tricky balancing act? I might be able to come up with another term or two for it.


Stealth legislation


We now live in the context of “war” — with, of course, old Osama always around on tape to lend a hand — and so in the context of stealth campaigns to increase wartime-style controls linked to panics over terrorist strikes that we know are about to happen due to intelligence intercepts of terrorist “chatter” and the like. As we all know, of course, nothing has actually happened in the United States since 9/11.


David Martin of the San Antonio Current recently wrote (“With a Whisper, Not a Bang,” 12/24/03):


“On December 13, when U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush not only celebrated with his national security team, but also pulled out his pen and signed into law a bill that grants the FBI sweeping new powers. A White House spokesperson explained the curious timing of the signing — on a Saturday — as “the President signs bills seven days a week.” But the last time Bush signed a bill into law on a Saturday happened more than a year ago — on a spending bill that the President needed to sign, to prevent shutting down the federal government the following Monday.


“By signing the bill on the day of Hussein’s capture, Bush effectively consigned a dramatic expansion of the USA Patriot Act to a mere footnote. Consequently, while most Americans watched as Hussein was probed for head lice, few were aware that the FBI had just obtained the power to probe their financial records, even if the feds don’t suspect their involvement in crime or terrorism.”


The bill was the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 and this little Patriot Act add-on was tucked away inside it. It was then passed in the Senate by a voice vote, as Martin says, “to avoid individual accountability.” So much for stealth legislation.


In the meantime, the most startling case of near-terrorism within our borders took place in our president’s home state, right in little ol’ Tyler, Texas, and passed largely unnoticed (except in the world of the Internet — see, for instance, the Berkowitz piece quoted above). A rare bit of mainstream attention was offered by Kris Axtman of the Christian Science Monitor (“The Terror Threat at Home, Often Overlooked,” 12/29/03) who reports:


“Last month, an east Texas man pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon of mass destruction. Inside the home and storage facilities of William Krar, investigators found a sodium-cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands, more than a hundred explosives, half a million rounds of ammunition, dozens of illegal weapons, and a mound of white-supremacist and antigovernment literature.”


But those charged (and not all of them seem to have been found) were white supremacists, not al Qaeda operatives. So John Ashcroft, an attorney general who loves nothing more than lights and a podium made no dramatic announcement. There were no mass round-ups of suspects. And there were lawyers all around. “The fact is the number of domestic terrorist acts in the past five years far outweighs the number of international acts, says Mark Pitcavage of the fact-finding department at the Anti-Defamation League.” But we’re not just in a “war” atmosphere — it’s their war and the definitions are theirs as well. And those definitions go largely unchallenged in the media.


As James Carroll recently wrote in a Boston Globe column reconsidering the McGovern defeat of 1972 (1/6/04):


“George W. Bush obscenely exploits war for his own purposes. He sponsors a paranoid assessment of what threatens America now and draws political advantage from the resulting fear. The news media propagate that fear. Pundits continue the false opposition between ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ visions, marginalizing anyone who dares question Garrison America. Meanwhile, the unnecessary Bush war rages, and not even the steady death toll of young GIs makes much news anymore. If a Democrat running for president dares to speak the truth about these things, it is the furthest thing from shame.”


And yet, I don’t want to imply as some critics do that our leaders are but a set of detached Machiavellian maneuverers. Last Sunday, for instance, I noticed a piece by Neil MacKay, a reliable reporter for the Scottish Glasgow Sunday Herald that offered some passing explanation for the orange-alert crisis permeating the holidays (“Al Qaeda exodus triggers panic,” 1/4):


“The sudden movement of large numbers of highly trained al-Qaeda terrorists across the Middle East triggered the panic over possible attacks on Western aircraft which led to the grounding of international flights to the United States last week.


“The Sunday Herald has learned that the US raised its terror alert to Code Orange — the second highest level — on December 21 when Washington discovered that trained al-Qaeda terrorists had been leaving their strongholds and hideouts in the Hadhramouth area east of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa… The terrorists then moved into two areas of Saudi Arabia: Najran and Jizran, Osama bin Laden’s homeland. Terrorists in Najran are thought to be planning missions inside Saudi, while those in Jizran are believed to be readying themselves to move overseas. Jizran has a number of ports, ideal to move men and weapons out of the country.”


Whether this is the case or not, whether this Washington “discovery” was accurate or not, I have no way of knowing, but the word “panic” in the passage above rings true. We’re such complex creatures, quite capable of holding seemingly incompatible, certainly illogical sets of thoughts and feelings inside us. Our war governors are using fear to manipulate, control, and advance their own interests as they imagine them. But they are also — as the very first moments after 9/11 showed all too clearly — easily frightened and easily panicked. It’s not hard to imagine their fear that another al-Qaeda-style horror might occur on their watch and be pinned on them. The Bush people should not be overestimated or imagined as more far-seeing or all-knowing than they are. They are deeply embedded (to use a favorite term of theirs) in their moment; they fear discontrol; they can find themselves at a loss; they are not brave.


A singular skill of theirs, however, is their ability to exploit moments of “serendipity” (like Saddam’s capture) for their own ends. They have also proved extraordinarily capable of using war rules to advance their agendas, and of embedding us in their fears and panics. What is perhaps most striking to me — and this is their success to the moment — is the narrowness of the fears they have foisted upon us and made our own, even if they too are sometimes driven by them. Our media is constantly convulsed with “terrorism”; the country has tightened desperately from fear of it; we have allowed all sorts of restrictions, as well as unrestricted acts, that would otherwise have been inconceivable because of it; we have already given up much in its name, and yet no matter how real and how terrifying terrorist acts may be, they are not by any means the scariest things we face. In a sense perhaps “terrorists” put a no-name “face” on fears that we don’t care to face at all in — if I could give the Age of the Younger Bush a label — this Age of Denial.


Take a piece from yesterday’s British Guardian on global warming by its environmental correspondent Paul Brown. It begins (“An unnatural disaster,” 1/8):


“Climate change over the next 50 years is expected to drive a quarter of land animals and plants into extinction, according to the first comprehensive study into the effect of higher temperatures on the natural world. The sheer scale of the disaster facing the planet shocked those involved in the research. They estimate that more than 1 million species will be lost by 2050.


“The results are described as ‘terrifying’ by Chris Thomas, professor of conservation biology at Leeds University, who is lead author of the research from four continents published today in the magazine Nature. ‘Much of that loss — more than one in 10 of all plants and animals — is already irreversible because of the extra global warming gases already discharged into the atmosphere. But the scientists say that action to curb greenhouse gases now could save many more from the same fate.’”


Now there’s something to be scared about and yet Inter Press reporter Jim Lobe in a recent piece tells us that a study of TV news reveals the following ):


“The American Geophysical Union and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences both concluded last year that greenhouse gas emissions almost certainly contribute to global warming, which is altering the Earth’s weather and climate in potentially catastrophic ways. The three evening network news shows devoted 15 minutes to global warming in 2003.”


Fifteen minutes. I guess Andy Warhol was right! More locally (for me), the New York Times ran their report (James Gorman, “Scientists Predict Widespread Extinction by Global Warming,” 1/8) on the Nature magazine piece on p. 4, under the text of a continued page-1 article on the Japanese habit of returning lost items like umbrellas to lost-and-founds (“Never Lost, But Found Daily: Japanese Honesty”) and the piece itself focused largely on the imprecision and uncertainty in the scientists’ numbers. Unlike at the Guardian, there were no examples of the kinds of species devastation that might occur. Read the two pieces yourself and compare: I can understand the choice by the editors. Isn’t lost-and-found always more interesting, and certainly more heartening, than just plain lost?


Stealth economy


Finally, what could be more important than a reminder or two that this administration with its stealth hunter-killer teams and its stealth legislation is also hard at work creating a stealth economy. Andrew Gumbel offers a piece on military Keynesianism. It’s not so complicated really. The Bush men are claiming a tax-cut revitalized economy. Economists, Gumbel reports, think that’s so much Bushwa, but that there is a link between the recent economic upswing and Iraq, between money pumped into the economy and those Halliburton and Bechtel contracts. What especially interests me is that the piece comes from the British Independent (1/6/04), though the economists Gumbel interviewed were American. Militarization and a militarized economy are stealth subjects here. They’re simply not considered fit for the American press.


Another piece, Paul Krugman’s New York Times column from Jan. 6, lays out the stealthy path of the “surging” economy of the world’s lone superpower. It’s stealthily heading south — in the economic direction of devastated Argentina. Krugman ends: “If this kind of fecklessness goes on, investors will eventually conclude that America has turned into a third world country, and start to treat it like one. And the results for the U.S. economy won’t be pretty. ”


But let me end with the final paragraphs of Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis’ latest column with the apt title, “America: The real danger lies within,” (1/4/04):


“This writer has witnessed nine colonial wars and saw how they corrupted the armies, and then the nations, that waged them, brutalizing conquered and conqueror alike. Iraq is the latest.


“Mankind’s three worst scourges are religious fanaticism, nationalism and imperialism. Each of these three evils has been whipped up by the Bush administration to justify domination abroad, repression of dissidence at home and, of course, re-election.


“Those who truly love and respect the United States, like this writer, a conservative and U.S. Army veteran, see the very qualities that made America a beacon to the world — its very soul — now under heavy assault by a cabal of religious fanatics, foreign-leaning ideological extremists, and self-enriching Enron-Republicans. That is a danger considerably greater than al-Qaida.”


What more need be said by any anti-imperialist who cares about this country at the moment.


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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