While our President’s favorite word is “freedom,” his administration has disempowered judges from releasing those who have been jailed without charge, refused Congressional oversight, impounded private communications, secretly searched private dwellings, and lowered “an iron curtain of secrecy around all federal agencies.” Sept. 11 “supposedly proved that the federal government needed more power over Americans and practically everyone else in the world,” writes James Bovard, whose theme is that we have undergone a post-9/11 coup d’état.
The president “exerted maximum pressure on Congress to enact the [Patriot Act] with no questions asked. At the same time, the administration issued warning after warning of imminent attack.” Government officials took advantage of the post-9/11 panic to impose their regime of conformity and secrecy with frightening suddenness. A May 2003 terrorist advisory “warned local law enforcement agencies to keep an eye on anyone who ‘expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government.’” An ominous development at any time, but particularly when, as Bovard explains, “the Justice Department is advocating the nullification of almost all federal, state, and local consent decrees restricting the power of local and state police to spy on Americans.”
No one is spared in Bovard’s merciless review of our spectacularly unsuccessful war on terrorism. The chapter on the first such war—the one announced and conducted by Ronald Reagan, that ended in the smoking ruins of a Marine compound in Beirut—is a history of disasters. Bovard chronicles the refusal of politicians to be held accountable for terrorist successes. No heads rolled after the Beirut disaster. The commander was exonerated, as were his civilian overseers—just as not a single high official was fired, or held in any way accountable for the intelligence failures that preceded 9/11.
Having failed to learn the lesson of the first war on terrorism, we stumbled into a second more serious and wide-ranging conflict. Its roots, however, are not in abstractions, such as the terrorists’ alleged hatred of our way of life, but in blood-and-flesh realities such as the March 8, 1985 car bomb that went off in a Beirut suburb. The intended target, a radical Muslim leader, was shaken but left alive. Eighty others, mostly women and children, were killed, and 200 were wounded. The bombing, according to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, was the work of CIA director William Casey, who had enlisted the co-operation of the Saudis. Retribution was not long in coming.
A few months later, Arab terrorists took over a TWA flight from Athens and executed a U.S. Navy seaman on board, as they railed that it was payback time for the Beirut bombing. One hijacker kept yelling “New Jersey! New Jersey!” as terrified passengers cowered in their seats. He was talking about the battleship New Jersey, which had rained down death and, yes, terror in the form of 2000-pound shells on Beirut the previous year.
Bovard’s chronicle of the whole sad history of the war on terrorism, from Reagan to Bush I and through the Clinton years, is a tale of appalling incompetence. From early on a recurring pattern was established: endless prior warnings are accompanied by total denial, swiftly followed by total disaster and the refusal to take responsibility—always ending in an official cover-up. In our ongoing war on terrorism, no one is ever responsible for failures, neither military leaders nor policymakers. In the wake of the attack on the USS Cole, the Navy report concluded that “no senior officer was to blame, instead,” reports Bovard, “there were only ‘lessons to be learned.’”
The sheer number—and absurdity—of the incidents described in detail by Bovard—in which innocent individuals have been charged, jailed, and held incommunicado, their lives destroyed by callous, downright stupid government bureaucrats—is a phenomenon that would have conservatives up in arms if carried out by the Clinton administration, past or future. That people were being rounded up arbitrarily to jack up the numbers of “apprehended terrorists” recalls the Soviet style of rule, where “it didn’t matter how many bushels of potatoes were rotten,” as long as the Five Year Plan was fulfilled. “In the same way,” writes Bovard, “the success of the investigation after 9/11 was gauged largely by the number of people rounded up, regardless of their guilt or innocence.”
The major complaint of Ashcroft and his defenders is that, prior to 9/11, the intelligence and domestic law-enforcement agencies couldn’t pool their knowledge in tracking down terrorists. Bovard effectively exposes this lie and points out that the secret FISA courts, whose judges deliberate in a sealed chamber, have approved over 12,000 wiretap applications since 1978: not a single one has been rejected. After 9/11, Ashcroft went to Congress and demanded the right to treat all American citizens as potential foreign agents—without having to show any evidence of wrongdoing.
Congress caved, and, in so doing, surrendered practically all the historic gains won by our forefathers. “Give us the tools” to fight terrorism, pleaded the attorney general. The irony is that the FBI had failed to use the legal means at their disposal to go after Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected “twentieth hijacker,” as the Senate Judiciary Committee pointed out, because “key FBI personnel responsible for protecting our country against terrorism did not understand the law.”
The administration’s assault on the rights of immigrants was soon extended to an all-out attack on the rights of Americans. Under the “Patriot” legislation, our e-mails may be read and our homes searched without a warrant and without telling us. A scuffle at a rally can result in an official designation of “terrorist” activity. And soon we will have Patriot Act II, which contains provisions stripping Americans of their citizenship and nullifying their Fourth Amendment rights by labeling them “foreign powers.” Section 106 would permit the leaking of dossiers compiled on Americans provided government agents were just following orders. Section 201 would permit mass arrests carried out in secret. Section 402 would allow charges to be brought against individuals for contributing to groups that have not been designated as terrorist organizations.
Dictators by the dozen cheered as the Bush administration declared a “war on terrorism”: former Liberian President Charles Taylor, for one, took to calling his critics “terrorists.” When opposition leaders and journalists were arrested and tortured, after being designated “unlawful combatants,” Liberian Minister of Information Reginald Goodridge replied to questions from American reporters: “It was you guys [the U.S. government] who coined the phrase. We are using the phrase you coined.”
This book raises a key point: what is the difference between state terrorism and the kind of privatized terrorism embodied by Osama bin Laden? The answer is that the former has taken a far greater human toll. Even as the “ex”-Communist leader of Uzbekistan boiled his critics alive, the U.S. doled out $160 million. In Turkmenistan, the U.S. is “bankrolling one of the most repressive regimes in the world,” according to Bovard, where “the government banned opera, ballet, the circus, and the philharmonic, and closed the Academy of Sciences,” while seeking to impose a bizarre cult of personality centered around President-for-life Niazov. The American taxpayers contributed more than $11 million to subsidizing Niazov, the Nero of Central Asia. Turkey, Indonesia, Tajikistan, Georgia, the Arab Muslim states of the Middle East: the only dictators not on the American dole are those few full-fledged members of the Axis of Evil. The rest we more than tolerate: we make their rule possible through military and economic aid that keeps their repressive regimes afloat.
Bovard’s chapter on U.S.-ally Israel’s model for fighting terrorism is a searing indictment of a nation-state that was founded, after all, by a terrorist organization, the Irgun, one that did not distinguish between civilian and military targets. While unequivocally condemning Palestinian terrorism, the author traces the long history of Israeli oppression that was more intense and effective than the Palestinian counter-offensive. Bovard documents the consequences of the disastrous policy of encouraging—and funding—the growth of Islamist radicalism as a means to split the Palestinians and subvert the PLO. The sort of “blowback” that followed was named Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
War is the engine of expanding state power, and fear is its fuel: the forces that are driving our policy of perpetual war and galloping tyranny are one and the same. As federal judge Michael Mukasey said in rebuking the administration for locking up José Padilla, an American citizen, without charging him and without evidence, if such things go unchallenged “dictatorship will be upon us, the tanks will have rolled.”
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.