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McCarthyism Revisited

Photo by United States Senate | CC BY 2.0

Founding Father James Madison warned 230 years ago that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  In his farewell address nearly 60 years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower echoed this warning regarding the impact of permanent war and a “permanent arms industry” on our rights and liberties.  Thus, it is no surprise that the past 17 years of warfare have been accompanied by a series of lost liberties; a revival of McCarthyism; and a belief in conspiracy theory that has afflicted the left wing (“Deep State”) as well as the right (“Drain the Swamp”).

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the U.S. government and other institutions led to the term “McCarthyism” to describe any campaign or practice that endorses the use of unfair allegations and investigations.  During the past decade, we have experienced the Bush administration that deputized the Pentagon to spy on law-abiding citizens and expanded the scope of the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping against American citizens; the Obama administration that used the Espionage Act of 1917 against whistleblowers and created an informant network among millions of federal employees to watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers; and the Trump administration that recently seized the phone and email records from a reporter for the New York Times, and has denied rights to immigrants seeking asylum.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last summer that the Department of Justice was pursing three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama administration, and that the FBI had created a new counterintelligence unit for such cases.  President Obama was more active than any of his predecessors in launching leak investigations; and President Trump regularly excoriates news agencies, such as NBC and CNN, as the “country’s biggest enemy.”  Trump’s accusations of “fake news” are similarly designed to weaken the credibility and effectiveness of the news media.

Obama and Trump failed to recognize that leaks are a legitimate and vital channel for any democracy.  Investigative journalism is central to the monitoring of democracy, and there cannot be investigative journalism without whistleblowers.  The uncertainty and disarray of the Trump administration and the ill-prepared “war cabinet” has made the importance of telling “truth to power” more essential than ever.

President Trump has no respect for the rule of law, and his administration has been particularly aggressive in trying to stop leaks to the media.  In the case of the subpoena against Ali Watkins, the Times’ reporter, she was approached by an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  This agency is part of the Department of Homeland Security and typically does not take part in the government’s leaks investigations.  If the CBP violated the reporter’s privacy to obtain information, it could “constitute a criminal act.”  There has been no allegation that Watkins’ communications contained classified information.

The FBI’s use of an informant, Stefan Halper, who was on the faculty of the University of Cambridge is another worrisome development. The self-professed mission of Cambridge is to “contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research, but the university was witting of Halper’s long history as an informant for the FBI.  Halper himself is a shady character with personal and professional ties to both the FBI and the CIA; he has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment over the past several years.

Halper worked in several Republican presidential campaigns and, in 1980, worked in the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan.  He was implicated in a spying scandal that involved providing inside information on President Jimmy Carter’s campaign to the Republicans.  In the 2016 presidential campaign, Halper met with and elicited information from several Trump campaign workers, including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.

The FBI investigation of Page is a curious affair, not only because Paige himself is such a shallow and bizarre figure.  One of the reasons given to investigate Page, however, is also shallow and bizarre.  According to FBI sources, Page made several trips to Moscow (that were not secret) and lectured to several Russian colleges where he criticized U.S. policy in terms that echoed the views of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  I’ve never lectured in Moscow, but I lecture regularly in Washington, DC, and have sympathized with some Russian views on the responsibility for the decline in Russian-American relations.  I’m assuming that the FBI had more reason to investigate Paige than the possibility of guilt by association or associated views.

The strengthening of the national security state during the period of permanent war as well as the absence of checks and balances within the national security state have fostered the compromise of American liberties.  In addition to the National Security Agency’s campaign of massive surveillance, the Federal government claims the right to investigate the laptop computers of American citizens returning to the United States.   American police departments have become increasingly militarized, and American troops are being assigned to the U.S. border in contravention of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the use of the military for law enforcement.

There has been no accountability for the CIA’s use of torture and abuse in the War on Terror, a violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution.  Even worse, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Gina Haspel, a leading implementor of torture and abuse, as the Director of the CIA, adding to the picture of an American government moving far to the right.

There is no better illustration of Donald Trump’s mendacity and cruelty than his current handling of the family-separation policy.  Trump has imposed himself as prosecutor, judge, and jury for the immigrants who cross our borders.  He has ignored the due process requirements of the 4th and 14th Amendments that apply to all persons, including those who enter the country illegally.  His aggressive attack on the judicial system for unauthorized immigrants is one more example of the possible loss of freedom in an environment of permanent war.

We have come full circle from President Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to make the “world safe for democracy,” to President Donald Trump, who finds the world too dangerous to honor constitutional democracy.  The excessive use of secrecy limits necessary debate on national security policy and deprives citizens of information on which to base policy and politics judgments.  As long as Congress defers to the president in the conduct of foreign policy; the Supreme Court intervenes to prevent any challenge to the power of the president in the making of foreign policy; and too much of the mainstream media defers to authorized and anonymous sources, we will need courageous whistleblowers.

 

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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. His latest book is A Whistleblower at the CIA. (City Lights Publishers, 2017).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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