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America's Slide to Totalitarianism

By Robert Parry
November 6, 2006

If some last-minute polling trends showing a powerful Republican comeback carry through the Nov. 7 elections, the end of America as we have known it for more than two centuries will be at hand.

In a political version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the country might look the same – people driving their SUVs to the mall or eating at fast-food restaurants – but it will have internally changed. Election 2006 will have been the ratification of George W. Bush’s grim vision of endless war abroad and the end of a constitutional Republic at home.

Though not understanding the full import of their actions, the American voters will have endorsed the elimination of the “unalienable” rights handed down to them by the Founders, instead allowing “plenary” – or unlimited – power to be invested in the President. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights will have been turned into irrelevant pieces of paper.

Bush will have the authority to send American young men and women to war wherever he chooses; he will have the power to spy on anyone he wants; he could imprison citizens and non-citizens alike under the Military Commissions Act while denying the detainees the right to file motions with civilian courts; he could order harsh interrogations which could then be used to convict defendants (assuming they are ever brought before one of his hand-picked tribunals for trial, conviction and execution); he could ignore or reinterpret any laws that he doesn’t like; he would have rubber-stamps in Congress and very soon in the U.S. Supreme Court; he and his potential successors would be, in effect, dictators.

While many Americans don’t want to believe that an American totalitarian state is possible, let alone an impending threat, Bush’s last-minute barnstorming, which has equated a Democratic congressional majority with a victory for terrorism, has put that dark reality within a day’s reach.

The American Right has thrown all its prodigious forces into the fray, particularly its powerful news media – from talk radio and Fox News to the Internet and print publications – making hay out of everything from John Kerry’s botched joke to the death sentence against Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, one reason this new America has the look of incipient totalitarianism is that the Right has created such a powerful media apparatus that it can virtually create its own reality. Most often, the cowed mainstream media tags along, as happened with the media frenzy over Kerry’s misinterpreted joke.

Assuming the Republican comeback trends continue through Election Day – and the GOP holds both houses of Congress – it will be hard to imagine how this right-wing juggernaut will ever be stopped. The only dissent that will be tolerated in the future is the ineffectual kind, the sort that doesn’t threaten the power structure.

Timid Protest

By the time, “respected” mainstream figures finally raise their hands in timid protest, it will be too late. An example of the tepid warnings from prominent insiders was the New York Times Op-Ed piece on Nov. 6 by former ABC news anchor Ted Koppel.

Koppel, who clambered aboard the Iraq War bandwagon in 2003, now sees some reason for concern in the way the Bush administration is waging the “war on terror” abroad by throttling liberties at home.

With mild alarm, Koppel noted that senior administration officials have framed the “war on terror” in “existential terms,” which means that they are claiming that the very existence of the United States is at risk. That, these officials argue, justifies extraordinary legal strategies for eliminating perceived enemies simply for associating with some suspect group.

“This practice falls into the category of what Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty calls ‘preventive prosecution,’” Koppel wrote. “It’s an interesting concept: a form of anticipatory justice. Faced with the possible convergence between terrorism and a weapon of mass destruction, the argument goes, the technicality of waiting for a crime to be committed before it can be punished must give way to pre-emption.”

Koppel described this “anticipatory justice” as “the somewhat jarring notion of recalibrating our constitutional protections.”

But Koppel then offers only the modest suggestion that “we should be building protective ramparts around our legal system, safeguarding our own freedoms, focusing on our own carefully constructed democracy and leading by example.” [NYT, Nov. 6, 2006]

To say that “respected” figures like Koppel don’t get the magnitude of the situation would be an understatement.

The Bush administration – and the Republican-controlled Congress – are driving the United States toward a new-age totalitarianism that can imprison people indefinitely without trial for what the government thinks they might do. Yet, instead of screaming from the rooftops, these cautious sages – not willing to risk their standing in polite Washington society – offer up only a few little safeguards as a reaction to these extraordinary developments.

If one combines the language of the Military Commissions Act with deputy attorney general McNulty’s vision of “preventive prosecution” – and then add in the possibility of another Republican victory on Nov. 7 – the United States is on the verge of being transformed into an Orwellian nightmare.

Election Stakes

But these stakes of this election are almost never explained.

The New York Times editorial page even continues to give the misleading impression that the Military Commissions Act only applies to non-citizens. The Times and other mainstream newspapers have yet to address the curious language deep inside the new law which would seem to throw U.S. citizens into the same draconian system with non-citizens.

While the Military Commissions Act does explicitly strip non-U.S. citizens of habeas corpus rights – the point that the Times has stayed focused on – the law also contains vague wording about detaining “any person” who allegedly aids terrorists.

“Any person is punishable as a principal under this chapter who commits an offense punishable by this chapter, or aids, abets, counsels, commands, or procures its commission,” according to the law, passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in September and signed by Bush on Oct. 17.

“Any person subject to this chapter who, in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States, knowingly and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States ... shall be punished as a military commission … may direct.” [Emphases added]

The references to “any person” and specifically to those with “an allegiance or duty to the United States” would seem to apply to American citizens, placing them inside the military commissions and outside the reach of regular civilian courts.

Another provision of the law states that once a person is detained, “no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever … relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission under this chapter, including challenges to the lawfulness of procedures of military commissions.”

That court-stripping provision – barring “any claim or cause of action whatsoever” – would seem to deny American citizens habeas corpus rights just as it does for non-citizens. If a person can’t file a motion with a court, he can’t assert any constitutional right, including habeas corpus.

Other constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights – such as a speedy trial, the right to reasonable bail and the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” – appear to be beyond an American detainee’s reach as well.

The new tribunal law also applies to alleged spies, defined as “any person” who “collects or attempts to collect information by clandestine means or while acting under false pretenses, for the purpose of conveying such information to an enemy of the United States.”

Since the Bush administration and its political allies often have accused American journalists of conveying information to terrorists via stories citing confidential sources, it’s conceivable that this provision could apply to such articles, either for journalists or their sources.

It’s also likely that Bush would execute these powers during a serious terrorist incident inside the United States. Amid public anger and fear, Bush or some future President could begin rounding up citizens and non-citizens alike with little thought about a narrow interpretation of the law.

It could take years before the U.S. Supreme Court even addresses these detentions and – given the increasingly right-wing make-up of the Court – there would be no assurance that the justices wouldn’t endorse the President’s extraordinary powers.

Bush now knows he has four solid Supreme Court votes for his reinterpretation of the U.S. system of government – John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. All Bush needs is one more vacancy among the five other justices to secure the court’s blessing for his all-powerful executive.

Padilla Case

Even without the new law, Bush has asserted his right to imprison American citizens indefinitely. In spring 2002, Bush ordered the military detention of American citizen Jose Padilla as an “enemy combatant.”

Administration officials deemed Padilla a “bad guy” who was contemplating a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack, though no such charges were ever filed and no evidence ever presented in court.

The point of the Padilla case was that Bush could assert his “plenary” powers to override habeas corpus rights of a fair trial and detain anyone he wanted indefinitely. Three-and-a-half years later – facing likely reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court – Bush turned Padilla over to the civilian courts to face unrelated charges of supporting a terrorist group.

But Bush never renounced his right to imprison American citizens simply on a presidential say-so.

Add in the Bush administration’s concept of “preventive prosecutions” based on predictions of a person’s behavior and the United States is rapidly approaching a futuristic totalitarianism, which will seek to silence and imprison anyone who is deemed a boon to terrorists.

While the U.S. news media again has failed to alert the American people of these stakes – much as it failed to question the administration’s case for war in Iraq in 2002-03 – President Bush keeps hitting the “war on terror” hot buttons of fear.

Bush’s stump speeches, which present the Democrats essentially as nutty cowards, are driving his supporters into frenzies and stampeding some Middle Americans back toward the perceived protection of Bush, the strongman.

Fresh Doubts

Ironically, however, Republican gains in some polls are coinciding with statements by more and more national security experts questioning Bush’s “war on terror” strategies.

For instance, Tyler Drumheller, former chief of CIA clandestine operations in Europe, wrote in a new book, On the Brink, that the Bush administration has resorted to scare tactics with the American public rather than addressing the terror issue responsibly.

“We have to be vigilant and keep track in communities where suicide bombers may be waiting to pounce,” Drumheller wrote. “But at the same time we have to be honest and accept that sometimes we cannot prevent such attacks from happening, instead of pretending that we can wipe terrorism out completely.

“September 11 was a freak attack, a perfect storm. The chances of another attack on the scale of 9/11 happening are extremely slim. The bloodshed should have prompted an honest review of how we run our foreign policy and law enforcement.

“Instead of taking a long, sober look at those issues, the Bush administration put the country in a state of prolonged panic.”

On the eve of Election 2006, Bush is exploiting that “prolonged panic” again, but the stakes are rising. On one level, Bush is seeking to consolidate one-party rule in Washington; on another, he is stripping the American people of the rights that have defined the nation for more than two centuries.

Whether the American people will understand what they’re doing or not, the Nov. 7 elections will either ratify or reject Bush’s plan for terminating the American Republic.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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