W. Bush is fast building a political system of secrecy and snooping
that Richard Milhous Nixon would have died for. Since the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks, Bush has asserted broad powers to wiretap, spy on and
imprison indefinitely people he deems a threat to national security
authority far beyond what was available to the famously paranoid
Bushs executive powers are already so sweeping
they may be unprecedented in U.S. history. While some of Bushs
supporters cite prior suspensions of constitutional rights during the
Civil War and World War II, those eras lacked todays technology to
pry into the most personal details of the lives of Americans.
Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, President
Nixon and his allies were forced to adopt relatively crude means for
invading the privacy of Americans. Bugs were placed on phones; agents
were infiltrated into political organizations; and burglars were sent
into homes and offices searching for embarrassing or incriminating
By contrast, todays modern technology can let
Bushs team collect and analyze trillions of bytes of data on
transactions and communications, the electronic footprints left in the
course of everyday life: books borrowed from a library, fertilizer
bought at a farm-supply outlet, X-rated movies rented at a video
store, prescriptions filled at a pharmacy, sites visited on the
Internet, tickets reserved for a plane, borders crossed while
traveling, rooms rented at a motel, and hundreds of other examples.
Bushs aides argue that their unrestricted
access to this electronic data may help detect terrorists, but the
data could prove even more useful in building dossiers on anti-war
activists or blackmailing political opponents. Despite assurances that
such abuses wont happen again, the capability will be a huge
temptation for Bush, who has made clear his view that anyone not
supporting his war on terror is siding with the terrorists.
The technological blueprint for an Orwellian-style
thought police is already on the drawing board at the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagons top research and
development arm. DARPA has commissioned a comprehensive plan for
electronic spying that would track everyone in the world who is part
of the modern economy.
Transactional data will be gleaned from
electronic data on every kind of activity financial, education,
travel, medical, veterinary, country entry, place/event entry,
transportation, housing, critical resources, government,
communications, according to the Web site for DARPAs Information
Awareness Office. The program will then cross-reference this data
with the biometric signatures of humans, data collected on
individuals faces, fingerprints, gaits and irises. The project
seeks what it calls total information awareness.
The Information Awareness Office even boasts a
logo that looks like some kind of clip art from George Orwells 1984. The logo shows the Masonic symbol of an all-seeing eye atop a
pyramid peering over the globe, with the slogan, scientia est
potentia, Latin for knowledge is power.
Though apparently unintentional, DARPA's choice
of a giant white pyramid eerily recalls Orwell's Ministry of Truth,
"an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete,
soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air." The
all-seeing Masonic eye could be read as "Big Brother Is
Former Vice President Al Gore and others have
noted these strange similarities both in style and substance with
Orwell's totalitarian world. "We have always held out the
shibboleth of Big Brother as a nightmare vision of the future that
we're going to avoid at all costs," Gore said. "They have
now taken the most fateful step in the direction of that Big Brother
nightmare that any president has ever allowed to occur."
[Times/UK, Nov. 22, 2002]
Besides the parallels to 1984,
the assurances about respecting constitutional boundaries have been
undercut by the administration's provocative choice of director for
the Information Awareness Office.
The project is headed by President Reagan's former national security
adviser John Poindexter, who was caught flouting other constitutional
safeguards in the Iran-contra scandal of the mid-1980s. Poindexter
approved the sale of missiles to the Islamic fundamentalist government
of Iran and the transfer of profits to Nicaraguan contra rebels for
the purchase of weapons, thus circumventing the Constitution's grant
of war-making power to Congress. Under U.S. law at the time, military
aid was banned to both Iran and the contras.
Noteworthy, too, the Iranian government - then as now - was listed by the
U.S. government as a sponsor of international terrorism, and the contras
were widely regarded by human rights monitors as a terrorist organization
responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguan civilians. One former contra
director, Edgar Chamorro, described the practice of seizing towns and
staging public executions of Nicaraguan government officials. [For details,
see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
In 1990, in federal court in Washington, Poindexter was convicted of five
felonies in connection with the Iran-contra scheme and the cover-up. But
his case was overturned by a conservative-dominated three-judge appeals
court panel, which voted 2-1 that the conviction was tainted by
congressional immunity given to Poindexter to compel his testimony to
Congress in 1987.
Though Poindexter's Iran-contra excesses in the 1980s might be viewed by
some as disqualifying for a sensitive job overseeing the collection of
information about everyone on earth, DARPA says it seeks out such
committed characters to run its projects. "The best DARPA program
managers have always been freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their
goals," the agency's Web site says.
While the Bush administration has promised that this time there won't be
violations of constitutional protections, a marked difference between the
Nixon era and now is that there are actually fewer institutional
safeguards protecting the American people today.
When Nixon was president, opposition Democrats held the congressional
levers that permitted investigations into Nixon's domestic spying. The
national news media also approached its duties with far more
professionalism. The federal courts, too, were less partisan and less
likely to rubber-stamp White House assertions of national security.
Now, with all those institutional checks and balances either gone or substantially
weakened, there is little to interfere with Bush's return to Nixon-style
abuses or worse.
"Under authority it already has or is asserting
in court cases, the administration, with approval of the special Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court, could order a clandestine search of a
U.S. citizen's home and, based on the information gathered, secretly
declare the citizen an enemy combatant, to be held indefinitely at a U.S.
military base," Washington Post legal affairs reporter Charles Lane
wrote. "Courts would have very limited authority to second-guess the
detention, to the extent that they were aware of it." [Washington
Post, Dec. 1, 2002]
Even with the political constraints that existed
three decades ago, Nixon mounted a systematic campaign to spy on and
neutralize people he considered threats to his Vietnam War policies.
Some of the domestic espionage against anti-war and black militant
groups started in previous administrations, though Nixon intensified
many of the operations out of a personal fury over challenges to his
When the FBI and the CIA drew lines on how far
they were willing to go, Nixon turned to a private organization of
ex-spooks dubbed the Plumbers, whose name came from their job of
clamping down on leaks of information. They included G. Gordon Liddy
and E. Howard Hunt.
One of their assignments was to destroy the
reputation of former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg, who
leaked the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War, which
chronicled the lies and deceptions that led the American people into
the conflict. Nixons Plumbers broke into Ellsbergs
psychiatrists office searching for derogatory information about
him. [For a just-published account of the Pentagon Papers affair, see
Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets.]
Nixon operatives also tailed Sen. Ted Kennedy and
undertook other political espionage. The Plumbers most notorious
and ill-fated caper was breaking into the Watergate complex in
Washington to put bugs on phones at the Democratic National Committee.
On June 17, 1972, the operatives returned to fix bugs that werent
working and were caught.
Nixon denied a connection to the burglars, but
aggressive investigative reporting at the Washington Post and other
news organizations exposed the secret White House links and the
cover-up. On Aug. 9, 1974, his lies exposed by tape recorders he had
placed in his own offices, Nixon resigned.
In retrospect, it is clear that Nixon was driven
to order widespread domestic espionage by his rage over the Vietnam
War protests as well as his personal paranoia. Nixon came to see
public opposition to his policies as tantamount to aiding and abetting
the enemy. [For detailed accounts of Nixons spying, see J. Anthony
Lukass Nightmare, Angus
Mackenzie's Secrets, or
Seymour Hersh's Price of Power.]
In many ways, Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush
are different historical figures. Nixon came from a humble background
and rose on the strength of his intelligence, hard work and
ruthlessness. Bush has lived a life of privilege, a playboy in his
youth, a heavy drinker, a failed businessman who was repeatedly bailed
out by his fathers friends, a politician who in author Frank
Bruni's phrase was "ambling into history."
Like Nixon, however, Bush has demonstrated a
taste for the imperial powers of the presidency, including the
authority to surround his actions with secrecy. Immediately after
taking office in January 2001, Bush stopped the legally required
release of documents from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George
H.W. Bush. Then, the new Bush White House engaged in secret meetings
with Enron Corp. and other energy companies in developing a national
energy policy, the records of which are still being kept secret.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Bush claimed unchecked
power to jail American citizens and others deemed enemy
combatants indefinitely without charges. They are denied their
constitutional rights to a lawyer, to court review and to an
opportunity for confronting an accuser. American citizen Jose Padilla
was arrested in Chicago and locked away in a Navy brig after Attorney
General John Ashcroft accused him of plotting to detonate a
radioactive bomb. No physical evidence has been presented to support
the charge, which is apparently based on a secret interview with a
captured al-Qaeda operative.
During this falls campaign, Bush also
demonstrated a readiness to question the patriotism of Democrats, even
though they supported the vast majority of his military actions in
response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
In one ploy, Bush turned a Democratic plan for a
homeland security department against them. After first resisting
creation of the department, Bush embraced the plan in June. He then
transformed a difference over civil service rules into an accusation
that the Democratic-controlled Senate was not interested in the
security of the American people.
Republicans successfully portrayed Sen. Max
Cleland, D-Ga., as lacking patriotism although Cleland lost both legs
and an arm fighting in the Vietnam War. Bush urged voters to send him
congressional allies who would stand shoulder to shoulder with him in
the war on terror -- and Republicans swept to victory in key race
after key race.
Amid his political successes, Bush has begun
viewing himself as the infallible leader whose judgments is beyond
questioning. Like Nixon, Bush has tasted the nectar of presidential
When asked by author Bob Woodward if he ever
explained his positions, Bush answered, Of course not. Im the
commander see, I dont need to explain why I say things.
Thats the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe
somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I dont
feel like I owe anybody an explanation. [Washington Post, Nov. 19,
Yet, like Nixon, Bush has faced protesters whom
his supporters have begun to call "fifth columnists."
Since Bush's inauguration, after stopping the
counting of votes in Florida, protesters have gone into the streets to
challenge his legitimacy and his international policies. Tens of
thousands turned out in the freezing rain on Jan. 20, 2001,
representing the largest inaugural protests since Nixons 1973
Anti-Bush demonstrators shouted at Bush's
inaugural procession, "Selected, not elected!," "Shame!,"
"Hail to the thief!," and "Go back to Texas!"
Other favorite chants included, "Oh, no! Gore's ahead! Better
call my brother Jeb!," and, simply, "Gore got more!"
When the newly anointed president's motorcade drove past the area
around 14th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., where most
protesters had congregated, the booing and hollering were deafening.
After Bush took office, Americans still outraged
over Election 2000 launched grassroots anti-Bush Web sites, which grew
in popularity. Beyond showing the simmering anger over Bush's
bare-knuckled tactics during the Florida recount, the Web sites marked
a growing disillusionment with the professionalism of the national
news media, which was going out of its way to build Bush up as a
Web sites -- such as democraticunderground.com,
smirkingchimp.com, mediawhoresonline.com, buzzflash.com and
truthout.org -- provided a daily alternative source of information as
well as communities of like-minded people to chat on message boards.
The anti-Bush sentiment also was strong across
the world, and notably among U.S. allies in
Europe. Across the continent, most Europeans had rooted for Al Gore,
out of sympathy with the policies of the Clinton-Gore years and an
aversion to the right-wing ideology represented by Bush. Europeans
found his enthusiasm for capital punishment, for instance, to be
appalling and barbaric.
Many Europeans I spoke to while I lived in
Denmark from February 2001 until July 2002 expressed bewilderment over
the fact that Al Gore could have won the American popular vote but
still lost the presidency.
Bush also offended Europeans by disengaging from
Clinton-Gore efforts to resolve international conflicts and address
environmental concerns. Bush turned his back on peace talks in the
Middle East, spurned the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and withdrew
the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Many Europeans
feared that the U.S. president was a serious threat to the future of
Sympathy for America
Those European attitudes changed on Sept. 11,
2001. Disgust with Bushs foreign policies gave way to sympathy for
and solidarity with the American people. I joined a pilgrimage to the
U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen where Danes spontaneously covered the
sidewalk with flowers and a New York Yankees cap. The French paper Le
Monde ran a cover story after the Sept. 11 attacks, with the banner
headline, We Are All Americans.
There was also hope across Europe that Bush would
abandon his go-it-alone strategies and finally see the value in
working multilaterally with allies. But Bush showed no sign of
changing the direction of U.S. foreign policy. He squandered much of
the international goodwill with heavy-handed tactics in Afghanistan.
U.S. aircraft bombed the headquarters of the International Red Cross
twice. Bush authorized the dropping of devastating Daisy Cutters and
cluster bombs in a sometimes-indiscriminate air war that killed large
numbers of civilians as well as Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.
In Copenhagen, the pro-American gestures were
replaced by demonstrations against the bombing in Afghanistan.
Further alienating allies, Bush showed a renewed
contempt for multilateral cooperation. He disregarded international
law in the treatment of prisoners of war and went after respected
international leaders, such as United Nations High Commissioner for
Human Rights Mary Robinson. With stunning speed, the sympathy over
Sept. 11 lost out to even more profound disillusionment with U.S.
policies. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's
Bush's shift from targeting al-Qaeda to going
after Iraq added new impetus to protests in Europe. On Sept. 28, in
what was called one of the largest demonstrations England has ever
seen, about 400,000 marched through London protesting Bushs plans
to attack Iraq and the British governments cooperation in those
plans. On Oct. 5, in Italy, 1.5 million protested across the country
in opposition to Bushs war plans and Italian Premier Silvio
Berlusconis alliance with Bush. On Nov. 9, 450,000 marched through
the Renaissance city of Florence.
A parallel situation was unfolding in the United
States. Under the radar of the national media, anti-Bush
demonstrations have been spreading across the country.
Even as Bush has sustained high popularity
ratings since Sept. 11, 2001, millions of Americans remain angered
theft of Election 2000 and his squandering of the trillions of
dollars of budget surplus in only a few months. But his plans for war in
Iraq, which are widely seen as plans to expand U.S. power and secure
new sources for oil, have been the main impetus to spark widespread protests.
On Aug. 22, thousands of people took to the
streets in Portland, Oregon, in response to Bush's visit to that city.
The protesters were greeted by hundreds of police, many in full riot
gear. Although the protest was peaceful, the police declared a state
of emergency and used pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse the
In late September in Washington, 600 peaceful
protesters were arrested "pre-emptively" to prevent them
from causing possible trouble later. D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey
said the arrests "took the wind out of their sails" for the
next two days of protests. Despite the arrests, over 10,000 turned out
two days later to protest Bush's plans for war in Iraq.
On Oct. 26, in the largest anti-war street
protest on American soil since the Vietnam War era, tens of thousands
of people flooded the streets of Washington to oppose Bush's plans to
attack Iraq. Estimates of the size ranged from 100,000 to more than
200,000, setting a record for the largest U.S. protest ever for a war
that hadnt started.
The Oct. 26 march in Washington was accompanied
by a joint protest in San Francisco that drew an estimated 50,000
people. The New York Times reported that the demonstrations may have
marked the rebirth of the American peace movement and could foreshadow
larger protests if war breaks out. [NYT, Oct. 30, 2002]
In less than two years in office, Bush has become
one of the most protested presidents in American history. This is true
not only in the United States, but all over the world. Wherever Bush
goes, from South Korea to Germany to Mexico, angry street protesters
Another large-scale national anti-war protest is
planned in Washington on Jan. 18, coinciding with Martin Luther King's
birthday. The protest is being organized by International ANSWER,
which is launching a "People's Peace Congress" the day after
the national march.
A troubling question about Bush and his
hard-right supporters will be how they react to street protests and
other dissent if opposition to a war in Iraq grows.
Bush and many of his advisers were young men
during the Vietnam War and favored the U.S. intervention while
avoiding military service there. Some of today's key hawks seem to
have been nursing personal grudges against the anti-war movement ever
Now that they have total control of the
government, they may react to a renewed era of protests in the same
way Nixon did. Indeed, with the technological advances and rollbacks
of civil liberties in recent years, it's hard to imagine that they
Attorney General Ashcroft testified to Congress
last December that those who object to "phantoms of lost
liberty" only serve to "aid terrorists for they erode
our national unity and diminish our resolve." According to
Ashcroft, those who question the administration's policies "give
ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends."
Some peace activists already find themselves
blacklisted by federal agencies from flying on commercial airlines.
Others say they are singled out for special searches and delays. [For
details, see Salon.com "Grounded."]
Bush aides say they also are considering
establishing a new domestic spy agency that would take over
intelligence-gathering responsibilities from the FBI. This new agency
would be more directly under the control of the Bush White House.
[Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2002]
Along similar lines, Bush is integrating the U.S.
military more into domestic law enforcement, again waiving
time-honored safeguards established to prevent the transformation of
the U.S. into a police state. One effort seeks to repeal the posse
comitatus act, which keeps the military out of police functions.
A military spy plane was put into the skies over
Washington during the hunt this fall for a serial sniper. Though
seemingly a reasonable precaution at the time, the precedent will make
it easier for the military to be called on for other police duties in
After the Republican sweep on Nov. 5, Bush is
clearly in possession of the means, motive and opportunity to clamp
down on traditional American civil liberties. In the months ahead,
especially if he faces widespread opposition to a war with Iraq, Bush
will be tempted to take a page from Nixon's play book and use the
Presidency's extraordinary powers to neutralize a new generation of
protesters who might in some sense "give ammunition to America's
The machinery is quickly being moved into place
for a crackdown on those Americans whom Bush may judge to be not with
him and thus with the terrorists.