Phoenix, Chaos, The Enterprise, and The Politics of Terror In America
Prior to the 11 September terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, two conditions defined American politics. In regard to foreign affairs, the United States was universally recognized as the world’s only super power. And today that condition remains unchanged: no other nation comes close to matching America’s military might.
But domestic politics was defined by doubts about the legitimacy of the Bush Administration. Al Gore had won the popular vote by an overwhelming majority, and Bush had acquired his presidential powers through a combination of nepotism and voter fraud in Florida, blatant media bias, and a judicial coup d’etat by the right wing of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Before the terror attacks, the stench of venality clung to Bush like cigarette smoke and stale beer after a night of bar hopping. Since the attacks, his standing in the polls has nearly doubled, and there’s been no more talk of an oil crunch, or the ailing economy, or of the looting of pensions plans down ten to twenty percent, or of looting of Social Security and Medicare to pay for the war of revenge, or of Republicans losing Congress in 2002.
This second, overarching condition–the inherent illegitimacy of the Bush Administration–must be remembered when considering how the apocalyptic events of 11 September changed the domestic political landscape. Symbolically, they wiped the slate clean. The U.S. remains the most powerful nation in the world, but Bush’s legitimacy is no longer an issue. As a result, all the moral and psychological prohibitions on the reactionary right have been lifted, and all the anger and frustrations it cultivated during the Vietnam War, and the Carter and Clinton Administrations, is poised to be unleashed under the aegis of counter-terrorism, not only on the usual suspects–foreign enemies sitting on vast oil reserves, suspected terrorists, and domestic dissidents–but on the unwitting, flag-waving American public as well.
Alas, righteous outrage over the crime of 11 September has enabled the once wobbly “unpresident” to stand tall, assert himself, and exploit the catastrophe in a way that seems at once crass, eerily preordained, and suspiciously opportune. Though its moral authority and intentions are as uncertain as the perpetrators of the carnage, the Bush Administration has effectively silenced its critics, and, amid rapturous bipartisan Congressional and public support, launched a “low intensity” war on Afghanistan and a nebulous, “covert” war on world terrorism, while reorganizing the executive branch of government into the most fearsome political and psychological warfare machine the world has ever seen.
There is a grave, hidden danger in this situation, for the reactionary right wing–by which I mean the owners, managers, and supporters of America’s totalitarian, military industrial information complex–have united the nation behind the Bush Administration in a spirit of belligerent nationalism. With its actions and intentions shrouded in secrecy, the Bush Administration, in this respect, fits the classic definition of a fascist dictatorship.
Already some of our most cherished freedoms have been sacrificed. Dissent has been stifled, censorship imposed, and cherished legal protections, especially regarding the Fourth Amendment, have been altered and suspended. No one knows exactly how many “suspects” are being detained, or where, and already there has been one suspicious death and widespread rumors of abuse. And the situation will only get worse.
In a 21 October article for The Washington Post, Walter Pincus reported that FBI and Justice Department investigators are increasingly frustrated by the silence of some jailed suspects. Offers of lighter sentences, money, jobs, and a new identity and life in America haven’t loosened their tongues, and alternative strategies under discussion include “using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those employed occasionally by Israeli interrogators, to extract information.”
Images come to mind of stoic Israeli soldiers breaking the hands of adolescent Palestinian rock throwers. But more serious measures are being contemplated. According to Pincus, one law professor believes “the use of force to extract information could happen” in cases where investigators believe suspects have information on an upcoming attack. “If there is a ticking bomb, it is not an easy issue,” the professor said.
Right wing Republican stalwart Kenneth W. Starr, the former Clinton inquisitor, said the danger of terrorism requires “deference to the judgments of the political branches (italics added) with respect to matters of national security.” And right wing Republican Richard Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and attorney general under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, said that due process sometimes “strangles us.” When it comes to counter-terrorism, Thornburgh said that legally admissible evidence “may not be the be-all and end-all.”
According to Pincus, “the country may compare the current search for information to brutal tactics in wartime used to gather intelligence overseas and even by U.S. troops from prisoners during military actions.”
Suddenly we’ve gone from breaking hands to cutting off fingers, attaching electrodes to genitals, and pouring soapy water down windpipes while suspects hang suspended on meat hooks.
But is there a “crisis” as government propagandist Pincus suggests? And even if there is, why must we defer to the “political branches,” as Starr claims, to combat terrorism? And what does it mean for Bush’s domestic political opponents if, as Thornburgh suggests, the “current search for information” should include the “brutal tactics” used “in wartime”?1
How To Organize A Fascist State
America was attacked and is at war; and in the rage and confusion following the morning of 11 September Bush sought unprecedented emergency powers to counter the threat of more terrorism. He received those powers from Congress with near unanimous public support. The logic was irrefutable at the moment: a murderous, suicidal enemy had invaded our homeland, and the military had to be mobilized. Fear gripped the nation, and while Bush was ignominiously hidden away in a military bunker by security forces (because, his aides falsely claimed, terrorists planned to attack Air Force One) the White House was able to impose what amounts to martial law. Armed National Guardsmen now stalk our airports, concrete barriers surround our government buildings, and the president’s press secretary cautions our apologetic comedians (when they’re not sports casting or sharing emotional moments with Dan Rather) to watch what they say.
And even though the attacks ended quickly, a bizarre outbreak of anthrax keeps the body count climbing, emotions simmering, and the emergency sustained. The military is now integrally involved in domestic counter-terror operations, and intelligence gained from CIA covert actions–evidence hitherto inadmissible in courts of law, due to the CIA’s refusal to reveal its illegal “sources and methods”–has been folded into law enforcement operations. Any number of secret presidential edicts may have been issued–we know of one authorizing the CIA to commit assassinations–and thus the scope of the assault on our civil liberties has yet to be fully revealed.
But we do know how the Bush Dictatorship will be organized. It will be based on a broad policy of anti-terrorism covering the entire spectrum of possible actions, from conventional military operations, to political intervention, and to economic sanctions against nations like Afghanistan, Cuba, and Iraq. This broad policy of anti-terrorism will include specific counter-terror programs and operations, at home and abroad. White House political and security advisors will coordinate this bifurcated effort under the ostensibly direction of dimwitted George Bush and the actual direction his Machiavellian Vice President, Dick Cheney. Should Haliburton Oil Company executive Cheney depart the scene for health reasons, an equally aggressive individual, most likely Secretary of State Colin Powell, will take his place.
The job of managing overseas counter-terror operations will fall to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. A board member of Chevron Corporation, which operates in 100 foreign countries, Rice, like Bush and Cheney, has an abiding personal interest in the growth of the oil industry. She is a “hard liner” and advocates a worldwide war on terrorism, to be fought in more than 60 countries. As she said in an 18 October article posted on the CNN website, “you’ve got to get to these (terrorist) cells and root them out and disrupt them before they strike again.”
The job of coordinating the domestic counter-terror effort will fall to former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, as director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security (OHS). In less sophisticated times, the domestic counter-terror effort would be referred to as “internal security,” and Ridge would head the Office of Internal Security. But the Bush Administrations public relations experts evidently think “internal security” has a negative connotation, and that the word “homeland” connotes “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” as opposed to the Fuhrer and his adoring volkreich.
Although he is a personal friend of Bush and a decorated Vietnam veteran, Ridge supports a woman’s right to an abortion, and thus is mistrusted by the reactionary right wing of the Republican Party. Even the mainstream media is beginning to portray him as a mere spokesman and figurehead without real authority, and it’s clear the White House’s political cadre will make the real decisions about internal security, and foreign policy.
In existence since 1947, the National Security Council implements the President’s foreign policy wishes, which are to organize the world based on the totalitarian corporate paradigm, in a political way that will enrich himself and his loyal supporters. The new OHS has the same purpose, and same organizational structure, as the NSC.
The political pretext for creating the OHS was simple enough: 6000 citizens were killed in a terrible terror attack, and the Bush Administrations claims that the OHS is the best mechanism to reduce the risk of such a calamity happening again. To this end, the OHS will coordinate more than 40 federal agencies involved in intelligence, security, and law enforcement endeavors.
Although the lines of authority have yet to be determined, the OHS will work with the murky Military Homeland Defense Agency under Deputy National Security Advisor General Wayne Downing. Though he is describe as Ridge’s deputy, Downing has far greater experience in counter-terror doctrine and operations, including service as an intelligence and Civil Affairs officer during the Vietnam War. Before his retirement in 1997, Downing was Commanding General of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg (1991-1993), and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base (1993-1996).
The man to watch, Downing will advise Ridge and Bush on how best to detect and disrupt domestic terrorist organizations. Downing will be OHS’s liaison to the Pentagon and its highly evolved counter-terror units. These units will likely serve as the OHS’s “action” arm in hostage situations or in cases when the “brutal tactics” used “in wartime” are required to persuade a terrorist to reveal the location of a “ticking bomb.”
Downing also will likely oversee the Stalinist military tribunals the Bush Administration has proposed as a method of trying, dispensing with, and even executing terrorists. In a 25 October article titled “How We Punish Saboteurs” for Legal Times, Philip Lacovara, cited the case of eight German saboteurs executed during World War II. President Roosevelt ordered the men tried before a military tribunal composed entirely of military officers. The saboteurs took their case to the Supreme Court, but the Justices backed the President, ruling that the Germans had no right to a public trial or a trial by jury. The Court even implied that the President as commander in chief had the power to order the men executed without any trial at all. Ultimately the military tribunal did its job, and in early August 1942, six would-be saboteurs were hanged.
As Lacovara notes, without any sense of irony that every member of the CIA falls within this definition, “The laws of war grant no quarter to those who plot their evil in the shadows.”
It’s unclear if the OHS, in conjunction with Downing’s organization, will have the power to torture and summarily execute. But the OHS is being funded by hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, and Bush Administration propagandists are busy lowering expectations. Defending our homeland will not be an easy task, according to Michael Ledeen, a former counter-terror expert in the Reagan Administration’s State Department and National Security Council. In a 1 October article for the National Review OnLine, Ledeen said the difficulty will be getting the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies “to coordinate better with one another.” 2
Ledeen defines this organizational problem as ideological, and he specifically blames the Clintons, “for failing to properly organize our nation’s security apparatus.”
He even goes so far as to suggest that the Clinton Administration is liable for the terror attacks of September 11th, because, “People who took security seriously were sneered at by the Clintons. Bubba’s White House was a security shambles,” and his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, “presided over one security debacle after another. Rooms were bugged, files and computers disappeared, perhaps into the same black hole as the Rose Law Firm records having to do with Ms. Hillary’s billable hours.”
Ledeen’s vilification of “the Clintons” is a textbook example of the unsubtle political and psychological warfare being waged on the American public, to legitimize the Bush Administration, and to justify the political repression of those people whom Clinton is presumed to represent: obviously not those who take security seriously.
Bombing a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, endless economic sanctions against Iraq, more than a billion dollars to fight narco-terrorism in Colombia, and the war in Bosnia–none of this was serious enough to suit Ledeen and the radical right. Nor was Clinton’s total commitment to Israel. Clinton’s failure was here, at home, and the radical right is about to set things straight.
The terror attacks of 11 September cry out for violent retribution, and if, as Ledeen alleges, “the Clintons” are to blame–through sins of omission, ignorance, or arrogance–then violent retribution must surely be visited upon them and their associates. This is exactly what Ledeen is advocating, and this is the tricky part, because he does not define whom these people were who sneered at security. But his visceral hatred of them is indicative of the violence the reactionary right wing wishes to inflict, through the OHS, on its political opponents–however erroneously represented by Clinton they are–in order to instill “respect” for the illegitimate Bush Administration.
According to Ledeen, Clinton’s sneering lack of respect took “a terrible toll on the system, and Ridge will not find it easy to instill a proper respect for proper secrecy, even in his own offices. It takes quite a while to stamp out corrupt habits of mind and action.”
Ledeen’s solution to the problem of domestic terrorism is “to stamp out” the “corrupt habits of mind (italics added)” that are still lingering around, somewhere. In other words, the reactionary right wing must impose its “proper” ideology through the institution of an official Thought Police, the OHS, in order to create the politically correct, security conscious, uniform American citizenry, marching in lockstep, flags waving, that is necessary to win the tough war ahead. It’s a matter of will.
“This is time for the old motto, “kill them all, let God sort ‘em out.” New times require new people with new standards,” Ledeen asserts. “The entire political (italics added) world will understand it and applaud it. And it will give Tom Ridge a chance to succeed, and us to prevail.”
The “new times” means a society in which the organizing principle is terror. The “new people” are those who take internal security seriously enough to impose the “new standards,” which allow military tribunals to order summary executions and torture here in America, when necessary, and mass murder anywhere in the world there are thought to be terrorists, as is happening in Afghanistan right now.
It all depends on whether or the reactionary right wing succeeds in terrorizing the American public into submission. As the Bush regime is fond of saying, “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.”
Douglas Valentine writes frequently for CounterPunch. He is the author of The Phoenix Program, the only comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture and assassination operation in Vietnam, as well as TDY a chilling novel about the CIA and the drug trade.