Just a month before taking over the White House, George W. said of America’s government: “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a lot easier—just so long as I’m the dictator.” It was one of those attempts at humor he likes to deliver with that self-satisfied smirk of his, but apparently he got to listening to his own line and taking it seriously, for no president in modern times has reached so hard and so quickly to claim autocratic executive power and try to impose an invasive martial government on our land.
If we needed a hint about Bush’s proclivity for power grabs, we were given a huge one when he literally seized the presidency after the 2000 election, using the blunt instrument of longtime family retainer Jim Baker to bully Florida officials, then relying on the Machiavellian manipulations of Antonin Scalia inside the back chambers of the Supreme Court.
September 11 gave Bush and his henchmen—Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ridge—all the rationalization they needed to rush forward with a stunning agenda that will radically alter our governmental institutions, democratic culture, and way of life.
There are two mammoth ironies in their aggressive push to lock down America’s always fragile democracy: 1. Bush & Co. are trampling all over our hard-won freedoms while boldly shouting that they are defending us from “evildoers” who, according to George, hate us for our freedoms. 2. These are politicians who’ve built their careers on tub-thumping harangues about intrusive Big Gummint, and they still piously prattle today about their devotion to “limited government”—even as they recklessly remove all restraints and unleash the power of the biggest, most intrusive, most anti-democratic agencies in the Kingdom of Big Brother. If hypocrisy was a gas, the Bushites could float the Hindenberg.
What’s the rush?
It’s important to note that none of the sweeping new powers added since September 11 to the military, federal police, and spy agencies are necessary to battle the terrorists. The federal government already had the authority to detect, track, and stop the hijackers—it just did a poor job with what it had. And since the crashbombings, statutory tools already on the books are the ones the administration has used to crush the Taliban and prosecute its war.
In short, ample authority already existed to defend our country, and there is no evidence that the rash of new laws, regulations, and executive orders that they’ve hung around our necks in the past year are either needed for our national security or bring benefits that outweigh the far-reaching threat they pose to our liberties.
Instead, freedom-loving Americans now face an awesome new arsenal of government intrusion simply because the natural impulse of the Bush regime is toward autocracy and, in a jittery climate, Congress wants to be perceived as “doing something.”
First came the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” Act, so named in a cynical reach to spell out the acronym USA PATRIOT. This was Ashcroft’s baby, and it’s a skunky spawn, 342 pages of provisions shredding the genius of Madison, Jefferson, and the other founding patriots. The legislation grossly expands federal police power, allowing government agents broad new powers to spy, wiretap, enter, intercept, search, seize, detain, incarcerate, and prosecute—mostly on executive whim and with little recourse to courts by those targeted.
Ashcroft demanded that this abusive bill be passed intact within three days. It took a bit longer, but he got practically all of the new authoritarian powers he sought, with barely a peep of protest from Congress. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, even tried to ram it through whole, without allowing amendments. When the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee showed a little spunk by adding a few protections for civil liberties, the White House got the House leadership to snatch the bill from the committee and rewrite it in the dead of night to remove the protections.
Their excuse for such rushed-up ham-handedness was that these are extreme times, demanding extreme measures, and besides, those demonic foreign terrorists have no right to constitutional niceties—so stand back, Bucko, and let us backroom boys do what has to be done.
But, as detailed in an excellent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Insatiable Appetite: The Government’s Demand for New and Unnecessary Powers After September 11,” this load of uglies is not restricted to foreigners or terrorists. Most of the liberty-snuffing provisions crafted by Ashcroft are as broad as a federal agent’s imagination, specifically applying to U.S. citizens as well as foreigners, and specifically available to the FBI and other agencies not only in terrorist cases, but in all federal investigations. For example:
The government is given expanded authority to run “sneak and peek” searches without notifying the person being searched, including investigations of American citizens in cases having nothing to do with terrorism.
Police agents are now permitted to investigate without showing probable cause, simply by designating that the investigation is for “intelligence purposes.”
Federal agents are given short cuts around court reviews of their requests for wiretapping phones and entering anyone’s computer. Instead of a “request” that requires agents to show some reason for snooping, the new law allows agents merely to “certify” that the intrusion is relevant to an ongoing investigation. The judge must issue the order, even if the certification appears to be nonsense.
The FBI is empowered to force libraries and bookstores to cough up lists of the books we have borrowed or bought if the agency simply certifies that the list is part of one of its sweeping terrorism investigations.
“Domestic terrorism” is defined as “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws” if they merely “appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Hello? Anti-war protests, anti-WTO demonstrations, assorted marches on Washington, pro-life and pro-choice rallies all fit within this vague catchall, allowing the government to designate, say, Greenpeace as a terrorist outfit and subject it to invasive surveillance, harassment, and criminal penalties for legitimate political advocacy.
Even prior to this act, the Justice Department has been notorious for labeling garden-variety crimes as “terrorism”—including cases of a man who got drunk and rowdy on an airplane, a babbling man who entered an FBI office, and a tenant fighting eviction by his landlord.
In a sop to the few who objected to such extremism, a widely ballyhooed “sunset” provision was added to the act, but it’s merely a fig leaf. It applies only to a few of the eavesdropping provisions in only one section of Ashcroft’s 10-section bill. We’ll be trying for a long time to rid ourselves of the repressive yoke of USA PATRIOT.
Ashcroft knows no bounds
After that little shop of horrors was enacted, Ashcroft spokeswoman Mindy Tucker ominously declared: “This is just the first step. There will be additional items to come.” It was no idle threat. In the past year, the Bush Gang have issued an alarming array of orders, memos, rulings, and “announcements” that suppress our freedoms by executive fiat, effectively changing long-established laws, processes, and principles without even consulting Congress.
There have been stunning assertions of presidential supremacy in which Bush has attempted to enthrone himself as the arbiter of who gets constitutional rights and who doesn’t. These include a presidential order that anyone suspected of either being, aiding, harboring, or, in effect, merely knowing a terrorist must be tried in a military tribunal rather than in our courts. This was followed by a Rumsfeld order that these tribunals can be held in secret, that evidence can be withheld from the defendant, and that no civilian court can review the military proceedings and decisions.
But it’s Ashcroft who has been Bush’s point man, strutting around like a tin-horn generalissimo. First came his unilateral decision to sweep some 8,000 U.S. immigrants into a federal dragnet without any particular cause, arresting about 1,200 of them without charges, then claiming that he can hold them in secret locations, incommunicado, without bail, and with no access to legal representation for as long as he chooses. King George III’s redcoats would’ve loved this guy! Maybe General John missed the history class that discussed why we fought the Revolutionary War and wrote a Bill of Rights.
In some cases, Ashcroft has simply gone insane, including his bizarre performance over the June arrest of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who the AG claimed was a “significant” and “dangerous” terrorist tied to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
Ashcroft, who was in Moscow at the time of the arrest, rushed to a local television studio to do a live satellite feed to all U.S. networks. He breathlessly declared to an astonished nation: “We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb.” The weird announcement was made weirder yet by bad lighting in the Russian studio, which gave John what the New York Times described as “an eerie, Armageddon-like red glow.”
Weirdest of all is the fact that it was all hokum. Two months after Ashcroft’s alarm, the FBI had to concede that Padilla is just a Chicago street thug, a “small fish” with no ties to al Qaeda and no involvement in a dirty-bomb plot. Yet Bush declared Padilla to be an enemy combatant and removed him from civilian jail to a military compound. He is still being held there incommunicado, without charges, without any evidence being presented, with no access to a lawyer, and with no plans to bring him to trial. Bush officials argue that he can be held until the government declares an end to its War on Terrorism. Padilla should live so long.
Following on this cockeyed precedent, Ashcroft and his inner circle produced a new plan in August that is an Orwellian nightmare: detention camps for U.S. citizens. Anyone that he and “a high-level committee” decides are “enemy combatants” would be incarcerated in these camps by executive order and stripped of their constitutional rights.
To complement this totalitarian twist, Ashcroft’s lawyers told a federal judge last month that citizens designated as enemy combatants not only lose their right to a lawyer, but also that the courts themselves have no jurisdiction over these cases. The government declared that deciding what to do with these hapless people is “a role that belongs more fully to the President.”
Ashcroft’s arrogance abounds. He has issued a regulation authorizing federal authorities to listen in on conversations between detainees and their lawyers, doing so in secret and without getting a court order; he has told Congress that he will not answer Judiciary Committee questions about his use of the new anti-terrorism powers, and that he has the sole authority to choose which members of Congress get such information; and, in May, he issued new guidelines to allow the FBI to resume its infamous practice (prohibited since the 1970s) of infiltrating and spying on American church groups and political organizations, allowing agents to do so without evidence of a crime and without a court order or even a go-ahead from headquarters.
Rummy Got His Gun
If Ashcroft doesn’t get us, Rumsfeld will. The Pentagon chief, at the urging of the White House, is “reviewing” the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. This bedrock law of civilian supremacy says that while the military is necessary to wage war against foreign enemies, it is not allowed to roam our country to enforce domestic laws and arrest U.S. citizens.
This separation of civilian and military functions has been violated a few times with ill results (Waco, for example), yet the White House now wants to rethink the separation and consider a permanent domestic role for the armed forces. “We think a review is necessary to streamline interpretations of existing law,” says an administration official. Beware of all streamliners who want more power for the military.
Rumsfeld also is pushing the limits of U.S. military action abroad by urging that secret “Special Operations forces” be dropped covertly into any country to capture or kill people the administration declares to be connected to terrorism. The Pentagon refers to this as destroying “enemy assets,” and it theorizes that the president could order this “on his own,” without congressional approval. It effectively would create a secret presidential army.
Add to this another Rumsfeld plan to solidify and expand military control of America’s spy agencies by creating a new undersecretary of defense for intelligence who would direct a secret $25 billion spook operation run by the Pentagon and report directly to Rummy. Suddenly, we’re looking at a vastly enlarged and unbridled military monster loose on the land and looking for trouble.
If only that were the end of it—but now comes Bush’s gargantuan Homeland Security Department, with 170,000 employees, thousands of armed agents, a mishmash of laws, a sweeping mandate, bales of money, a bureaucratic propensity to meddle, and the weakest accountability rules of any federal department.
The two-page White House plan for this behemoth was written in secret with no public input, and it is riddled with little nasties, including: corporate exemptions from the right-to-know laws, allowing corporations to escape telling the public how much of which toxins they are pouring into our air and water; preemption of all state and local open-records laws, allowing corporations to hide from the public, the media, regulators, courts, and all others anything they want to keep secret simply by designating it as “critical infrastructure information”; a plan to integrate and computerize all state drivers’ license data to create a de facto “national ID” card; and the much-lampooned Terrorism Information and Prevention System—TIPS—to enlist a million Americans in a volunteer snitch squad “for reporting suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity” in and around their neighborhoods.
This last scheme is such a wacko, un-American idea that even the odious right-wing Republican leader Dick Armey has moved to kill it. But, like belching gas in a toxic-waste dump, TIPS keeps bubbling to the surface. Ashcroft says the administration will go ahead with the program, Congress be damned.
These people are downright dangerous. Even when extraordinary presidential powers were invoked in WWII, they only lasted for the five-year duration of the war and then were revoked. The Bushites are making permanent changes, using their undeclared perpetual war against an undefined enemy to usurp democratic power.
A few gutsy federal judges are beginning to battle this power grab, as are some members of Congress and, surprisingly, some Republican insiders such as Paul Weyrich and the religious right wing. But the Democratic leadership in Congress is timid to the point of irrelevance, and it’s time for grassroots progressives to take the lead, joining voices and forces to stop Bush’s authoritarian transformation of our democratic society.