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Richard Milhous W. Bush

By Nat Parry
December 1, 2002

George 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 Nixon.

Bush’s executive powers are already so sweeping they may be unprecedented in U.S. history. While some of Bush’s supporters cite prior suspensions of constitutional rights during the Civil War and World War II, those eras lacked today’s 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 information.

By contrast, today’s modern technology can let Bush’s 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.

Bush’s 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 won’t 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 Pentagon’s 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 DARPA’s 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.”

Masonic Eye

The Information Awareness Office even boasts a logo that looks like some kind of clip art from George Orwell’s 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 Watching."

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.

Fewer Safeguards

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 authority.

The Plumbers

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. Nixon’s Plumbers broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s 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 weren’t 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 Nixon’s spying, see J. Anthony Lukas’s Nightmare, Angus Mackenzie's Secrets, or Seymour Hersh's Price of Power.]

Different Men

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 father’s 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 fall’s 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 power.

When asked by author Bob Woodward if he ever explained his positions, Bush answered, “Of course not. I’m the commander – see, I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” [Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2002]

`Fifth Columnists'

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 Nixon’s 1973 inauguration.

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 legitimate leader.

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 the planet.

Sympathy for America

Those European attitudes changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Disgust with Bush’s 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 Grim Vision."]

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 Bush’s plans to attack Iraq and the British government’s cooperation in those plans. On Oct. 5, in Italy, 1.5 million protested across the country in opposition to Bush’s war plans and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s alliance with Bush. On Nov. 9, 450,000 marched through the Renaissance city of Florence.

U.S. Protests

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 over his 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 protesters.

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 hadn’t 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 greet him.

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.

The Future

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 since.

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 won't.

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 the future.

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 enemies."

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.

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