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Ashcroft’s Scary Gambit

Over the weekend attorney general John Ashcroft took to the airwaves to warn of the likelihood of another terrorist attack on American soil in the days to come. On Sunday and Monday nearly every major American news outlet followed his lead. The papers were full of dire ruminations on the next bin Laden strike, and practically all the email I received was about the same thing: Are we about to be hit again? The only sensible answer is that no one knows. Every day brings fresh reports of terrorist plots foiled and terrorist plots possibly still in the offing, but it’s impossible to tell the difference between credible evidence, disinformation left behind by the 9/11 perpetrators, and disinformation concocted by the U.S. government.

The one sure thing is that the timing of Ashcroft’s PR offensive had everything to do with ramming the Bush administration’s hastily forged anti-terrorism bill through Congress. At minimum the Justice Department wants vastly expanded wiretapping rights-so-called roving wiretaps that would apply to standard phones, cell phones, email and the Internet-and the power to detain indefinitely and deport at will any non-U.S. citizens it considers suspicious. A less publicized provision would allow the use of the National Security Agency’s Echelon program-a little-known multinational data collection system that intercepts telephone and computer communications around the world-for purposes of domestic police actions in the U.S. According to Declan McCullagh of the Wired.com website, “Information gathered from Echelon and other electronic surveillance by foreign governments could be used against Americans ‘even if the collection would have violated the Fourth Amendment,’ according to the Justice Department’s analysis of the bill.”

One overarching question for legislative purposes is what will count legally as “terrorism.” According to a report in Monday’s Los Angeles Times, “the Justice Department has proposed to define ‘terrorism’ so broadly that some lawmakers fear it would include a teenage computer hacker or a protester who tosses a rock through the window of a federal building. And because the government wants to prosecute all those who ‘harbor’ or ‘conspire’ with terrorists, a loose definition could thousands of protesters as conspirators in a terrorist plot.” By administration standards, a hacker who posts a joke on a government website could be branded a terrorist and jailed for life.

Thus far Congress has balked at the administration’s efforts to expand federal police powers. It appears that even in the face of the September 11 bombings, a sizeable contingent of the public and its elected representatives still fear the depredations of their own government as much as the threat of foreign-bred terror. Hence the weekend offensive by Ashcroft. The skeptics include not only usual suspects on the left-liberal side, such as the ACLU and its adherents, but numerous members of the Republican right motivated by the memory of Waco and Ruby Ridge. “It would be entirely inappropriate to move such an important legislative initiative without serious deliberation,” Georgia Republican Bob Barr said on the floor of the House. “Let us not rush into a vast expansion of government power in a misguided attempt to protect freedom. In doing so, we will erode the very freedoms we seek to protect.”

Powell v. Rummy: a False Dichotomy?

Much continues to be made of the Bush administration split between the Powell/State Department and Rumsfeld/Pentagon factions. (As noted previously, the former prefer strong diplomacy and limited military strikes while the latter wish to pick fights on several fronts; for more background, click here.) Assessments of who’s winning vary from day to day and week to week. It’s the pennant race story of post-attack coverage. First it was Powell out in front, then Rumsfeld by half a game. Now most press accounts put Powell in the lead once again. And indeed the president, by his very hesitance to leap in with both feet, seems to be following the Powell line even as he keeps insisting on a “war against terrorism” of broad scope and long duration.

In some quarters Powell v. Rumsfeld is deemed a Manichean struggle on which the future of the American Imperium will stand or fall. But the seeming contradiction between the two sides may come to less than presently imagined. There’s ample room for synthesis of both approaches. Bush so far has demonstrated an admirable tendency to restraint and forethought, and the preponderance of signs points to a first strike as carefully targeted as possible. Score one for Powell? Not necessarily.

What does seem clear is that Bush wants to get bin Laden and prefers setting up surrogates to do the heavy lifting in going after the Taliban. It’s an elegant solution apart from the fact it can’t work. Even with money and arms from the U.S. and U.K., the Northern Alliance and other sundry Afghan rebels just don’t have the manpower to do much more than annoy the Taliban. But their efforts will likely buy Bush and the U.S. time to regroup and assess options; they may spare U.S. forces the almost certain debacle of waging ground war in the Afghan mountains in wintertime. But eventually circumstances will militate toward sending more American special forces units and “advisers,” and then additional troops. That’s where the Rumsfeld option comes into play. Bush will have to decide how far he wants to go in carrying hot war to Afghanistan and elsewhere-a list that certainly includes the Pentagon’s favorite secondary target, Iraq. His choices will be circumscribed by factors it’s impossible to speculate about for now: the degree of support at home; the state of the U.S.’s many fragile international alliances; the behavior of Israel toward the Palestinians; and whether there are any more attacks on American soil in the meantime.

Go, Sharon!

Longtime critics of American Middle East policy-and its linchpin, the U.S.’s unstinting support of Israel’s provocation of the Palestinians and its continual efforts at shrinking Palestinian territories-now find themselves in an ironic position. If you believe the U.S. needs to begin distancing itself from Israel in order to blunt the radical elements of Islam and forestall a protracted war it cannot win, you have to root for the continued belligerence of the Sharon government in the short term.

The calculus is simple enough. The perpetrators of the September 11 attacks want to draw the U.S. into a war of attrition on numerous fronts. American prerogatives for waging such a war depend on the stability of the moderate pro-U.S. governments in the Arab world, which in turn depend in large part on the Americans’ ability to hold Israel in check for the duration. If Sharon charges ahead in his offensive against the Palestinians, as he obviously wishes to do, two salutary consequences follow: The U.S. will be unable to make war on multiple fronts, and it will be forced to start the process of cutting back its ties to Israel-a step that would do more to short-circuit al-Qaida and its brethren than countless U.S. bombing runs. CP

Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

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