This Can't Be Happening

Resisting the Disintegration of American Democracy

by Dave Lindorff

Common Courage Press, 2004, paper


The Clinton administration over two four-year terms slashed welfare supports, casting the poor onto the streets, it weakened environmental protections, subverted the Bill of Rights with passage of the so-called Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, it undermined American workers with the passage of the North America Free Trade Act, it sabotaged Social Security, promoting the idea of opening up the fund to private investment and letting inflation eat into the benefit amount, it intentionally threw away a chance to pass some kind of national healthcare by handing the whole process over to the insurance industry, and even undermined the Bill of Rights, endorsing a weakening of habeas corpus, a right to a fair trial that dates back to ancient British Common Law.


Under the Bush Administration

* Democrats in Congress acquiesced in the passage of $1.3 trillion tax cuts, massively skewed to favor the very rich-and this was in 2001, coming right out of the starting gate for the administration.

* Democrats did nothing to block horrific appointments to the cabinet-most infamously the naming of a bible-thumping, Confederacy-praising racist and proto-fascist, John Ashcroft, to the post of Attorney General-a man so demonstrably unpopular that voters in his home state of Missouri had only recently spurned him in favor of a dead Democrat (and here I'm talking about an actually dead guy, Democrat Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash during the campaign, not Gore or someone like him who only appeared or acted dead). More recently, even Ashcroft's own pancreas tried to dump him.

* Democrats caved in and passed a Bush education bill that placed huge burdens on local schools while providing them with no new funds, and that implicitly blamed teachers for educational failures that in large part are really the result of defunding of schools in poorer districts.

* On the environment, Democrats largely failed to block Bush rollbacks in air and water quality regulation. Ditto for the area of women's rights, which have seen a series of successful attacks, particularly undermining the right to a safe, legal abortion.

* Meanwhile, on the international stage, Democrats stood by silently while Bush withdrew U.S. support for such international treaties and institutions as the World Court, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the ABM treaty with Russia, etc. And remember, all this was happening before the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That truly unbelievable day then provided the Bush Administration, much as the Reichstag Fire did for Hitler s National Socialists in Weimar Germany, with an opportunity to push its long-planned right-wing agenda of constitutional demolition harder and faster. Hyping the threat of terrorists and deliberately frightening the public by claiming (on the basis of no real evidence) that there were horrible weapons of mass destruction-nuclear, biological and chemical-poised and ready to be used, the Bush Administration introduced, in the coming days and months, the cynically named USA PATRIOT Act and the even more cynical War on Terror, and finally, the unprovoked "pre-emptive" War on Iraq. In all these cases, the Democrats in Congress rolled over and voted massively in support of these profoundly anti-democratic measures and actions.

The U.S. is currently being led by a blueblood Connecticut Yankee who, after barely graduating from a prestigious private New England prep school where he made a name for himself as a male cheerleader, barely graduated from Yale University, where he had been admitted thanks to his familial connections (his grandfather had been a U.S. Senator from Connecticut), and where he spent his time drinking and, allegedly, snorting.

But wait. I'm not done. It gets worse.

This is also a man who escaped the Vietnam War by joining the Texas Air National Guard (again thanks to political pull-his daddy was a congressman at the time), from which service he proceeded to go AWOL for a year without punishment. This ne'er-do-well East Coast scion, who shamelessly poses as a Texan, barely reads, indeed can barely talk intelligibly without cue cards or a teleprompter, and who claims that he not only speaks with God but that God speaks back to him, has-without having been supported by a majority of the electorate, which voted for his opponent-become president of the most powerful nation in the world. Worse yet, as president, he has started not just one but two full-scale, bloody wars, neither of which is likely to end for years, and at least one of which will require upwards of 135,000 American occupation forces to remain in hostile territory indefinitely. He has declared a third war-the so-called War on Terror-which, while not a real war, or really even anything approximating a war, is being used to justify an indefinite suspension of American democratic principles and laws such as habeas corpus (the common law right to bring any case before a federal judge) and the right to a fair trial, a lawyer, and to be charged and to face one's accuser...

Mainstream media has increasingly become an unwitting, or sometimes (certainly in the case of Fox News or the New York Times) even a willing accomplice or publicist for the state. In part this is a matter of professional cowardice, but there is another reason for the problem too. As they have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few powerful corporate conglomerates, the media have turned the long-held American press tradition of "objectivity" into a kind of straitjacket that prevents journalists from pursuing truth even when they might want to. Forced to "give both sides of the story," and thus to treat official liars with the same or even, because of their high positions, undeserved and greater respect than their critics, the media have forsaken their role as a Fourth Estate. Power is no longer suspect. It is revered.


The Iraq Moneypot

A little money goes a long way in the war-profiteering business

And war profiteering is the name of the game in post-war Iraq.

Long before the bombs started dropping in Baghdad, some well connected companies that wanted a piece of the reconstruction action were dropping bundles of cash on the Republican Party and on George W. Bush's campaign committee.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks such things, five big winners in the rigged game of getting contracts in Iraq, between 1999 and 2002, gave a total of $3.6 million in campaign donations. Two-thirds of that money went to Republicans, with the rest going to the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council crowd.

According to the center's website (, the biggest donor among that group-and the biggest winner so far in the Iraq "reconstruction" contracts business-is the Bechtel Group, Inc. This San Francisco-based company, which has close ties to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush family, as well as many other revolving-door connections to the White House and the Pentagon (US Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios, who oversees the awarding of post-war contracts, earlier oversaw the "Big Dig" tunnel project in Boston, for which Bechtel was the prime contractor), has already won an Iraq reconstruction contract worth up to $680 million. Even if Bechtel didn't win more of the estimated $20 billion per year in reconstruction contracts still to be awarded, $680 million in return for Bechtel's campaign contribution of $1.3 million (59 percent, or $770,000 of which, went to the Republican Party and G.W. Bush) represents a remarkable 52000% return on investment!

It's hard to know what the rate of return will be on Halliburton's contracts in Iraq. That's because the contract awarded to this uniquely well-connected Dallas-based oil-services and construction company to rebuild Iraq's war and sanctions-devastated oil industry is open-ended. Halliburton, besides donating $709,000, 95 percent of it to Republicans, between 1999 and 2002, was run by Vice President Dick Cheney until his election, and the secretive VP still collects some $1 million a year form the company while hiding out at his undisclosed locations (his not-so-blind trust still includes a big chunk of Halliburton stock, too). While Halliburton discretely removed itself from the bidding for Iraq reconstruction contracts because of the firm's prominent connection to the Bush Administration, the huge oil industry contract was awarded to a Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root.

Halliburton will be in Iraq in another hidden guise, too. That's because Halliburton will be a principal subcontractor of Parsons, another major contractor in the running for Iraq rebuilding contracts. Parsons gave $249,000 in campaign contributions over the pre-war period examined by the Center for Responsive Politics, 63 percent of it to Republicans.

Another big winner in the Iraq rebuilding sweepstakes is the Fluor Corp., another California-based company which gave a whopping $483,000 in campaign contributions, 43 percent of that amount to Republicans.

The other big winner which was also a big contributor to the GOP and the Bush campaign was Stevedore Services of America, which won a $4.8 million initial contract to start rebuilding the Umm Qasr port facilities in Iraq, and which gave $28,000 in campaign contributions, 80 percent to Republicans.

The Bush Administration has conceded that the bidding for the first round of Iraq reconstruction contracts, worth a total of some $1 billion, was "restricted" to certain few firms (all foreign-owned companies were excluded, even including British firms), ostensibly for reasons of "national security." So far, despite protests from Britain and other countries, these restrictive bidding rules are expected to continue in place.

But particularly with the war largely over, the national security argument rings increasingly hollow. The close alignment between campaign contributions and contract awards offers a much more convincing explanation for the tightly controlled bidding process, however.

It also raises disturbing questions about the level of damage caused by American bombs, To what extent was damage to Iraqi infrastructure a payback for campaign contributions made by firms eager for the contracts to rebuild that same damage?

... consider the similarity between this administration's power grab, its war-mongering, its nativist, anti-foreign flag-waving, and its domestic assault on civil liberties, and what German democracy experienced at the hands of Hitler's National Socialists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Nor does drawing such parallels mean that we should expect to see African-Americans being herded off to concentration camps in the Nevada desert a few years hence ...

The point of drawing the controversial analogy between the Nazi rise to power and the Bush II rise to power is that both groups resorted to war, the Big Lie, xenophobic scare tactics and increased police-state powers to gain control. And in both cases, the media, the mainstream opposition, and the public at large were slow in realizing the democratic coup d'etat that was slowly taking place around them, until it was too late.

... It's worth recalling that during Hitler's rise to power, far from being considered a racist madman and a scourge to humanity, he was praised not just within Germany, but abroad in France, the U.K. and the United States, as a man of principle and as a strong leader for troubled times.

[excerpt of my letter to the Nation magazine]

No doubt the leftist fringe critics who in the 1930s were writing alarmist pieces drawing comparisons of Hitler to Attila the Hun or Ivan the Terrible were, like today's Bush critics, being disavowed by more "responsible" editors. I suspect that the fear engendered by the kinds of analogies drawn by Alex and me is that they might offend those who want to hold the Holocaust out as a singular evil in history, and Hitler as a uniquely evil leader. Sadly, he is not unique, except in the scale of his crimes. Recall that in the early days of the massacre of two million Cambodians by Pol Pot and his gang of mad Communists, those who began referring to that genocide as a holocaust were criticized by the guardians of the Holocaust. Eventually, as the numbers of dead soared past the first million mark, the atrocity that devoured a third of a nation was permitted to bear that badge of distinction.

... There are very troubling goings-on in Washington-a campaign of war without end, the termination of the sanctity of citizenship, a return to Cointelpro, corruption of the very process of counting votes, the equating of political opposition with support for terrorism.

... the Bush Administration has tacitly admitted that increased terrorism will be the result of an attack on Iraq: it has had the State Department issue a warning to Americans overseas and to Americans planning to travel that they should be prepared to be terrorist targets.

The point, however, is that this is precisely what the Bush Administration wants to happen.

A permanent state of American panic, fortified by regular doses of terror attacks, hijackings and building demolitions by crazed Muslim fanatics, is exactly what Bush needs to stay in power, win re-election in 2004, stack the federal courts, gut the Bill of Rights, and enrich its corporate sponsors.

The sad thing is that Americans, fattened up and soft of muscle from their diet of McDonald's Whoppers and dim-witted from an overdose of "reality" TV shows and entertainment programs posing as news, suck up this kind of fear-mongering (all of which is eagerly played up by ratings-hungry media executives). If one plane gets hijacked, plane travel plummets. If a few letters are found to be contaminated with anthrax spores, people across the land stop opening their mail, or start zapping it first in their microwaves.

It's going a bit far to compare the Bush of 2003 to the Hitler of 1933. Bush simply is not the orator that Hitler was. But comparisons of the 9/11 attack to the Reichstag Fire, or of the Bush Administration's fear-mongering tactics to those practiced so successfully and with such terrible results by Hitler and Goebbels on the German people and their Weimar Republic, are not at all out of line.


What are some of the Nazi-like tactics of the Bush administration.

Let's start with war mongering. The American Heritage Dictionary, no bastion of leftism, defines fascism as "a system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism."

... in 1930s Germany ... the newspapers of the day were awash in apologists for Chancellor Hitler's gradual assumption of dictatorial power. These pundits ... failed or were unwilling to see where things were heading, and justified the obvious erosion of freedom and democracy in the name of combating the scourge of terrorism and revolution, as well as the threat of the "other" posed by such undesirables as the Jews and the Gypsies. Today's American counterparts of these apologists ... justify the setting-aside of long-standing civil liberties in the name iof combating terror and dealing with such undesirables as the Middle Eastern immigrants in our midst.

Calling attention to the parallels with the demise of Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler is hardly out of line.

It is what we should be seeing more of in the "respectable" media.


Keeping Dissent Invisible: How the Secret Service and the White House keep protesters safely out of Bush's sight-and off TV

When Bill Neel learned that President George W. Bush was making a Labor Day campaign visit to Pittsburgh back in 2002 to support local congressional candidates, the retired Pittsburgh steelworker decided that he would be on hand to protest the president's economic policies. Neel and his sister made a hand-lettered sign reading "The Bushes must love the poor-they've made so many of us," and headed for a road where the motorcade would pass on the way from the airport to a Carpenters' Union training center.

He never got to display his sign for President Bush to see, though. As he stood among milling groups of Bush supporters, he was approached by a local police detective, who told him and his sister that because they were protesting, they had to move to a "free speech area," on orders of the U.S. Secret Service.

"He pointed out a relatively remote baseball diamond that was enclosed in a chain-link fence," Neel recalled in an interview with Salon, "I could see these people behind the fence, with their faces up against it, and their hands on the wire." (The ACLU posted photos of the demonstrators and supporters at that event on its web site.) "It looked more like a concentration camp than a free speech area to me, so I said, 'I'm not going in there. I thought the whole country was a free speech area." The detective asked Neel, 66, to go to the area six or eight times, and when he politely refused, he handcuffed and arrested the retired steelworker on a charge of disorderly conduct. When N eel's sister argued against his arrest, she was cuffed and hauled off as well. The two spent the president's visit in a firehouse that was serving as Secret Service and police headquarters for the event.

It appears that the Neels' experience is not unique. Late last month, on Sept. 23, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Philadelphia against the Secret Service, alleging that the agency, a unit of the new Homeland Security Department charged with protecting the president, vice president and other key government officials, instituted a policy in the months even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of instructing local police to cordon off protesters from the president and vice president. Plaintiffs include the National Organization for Women, ACORN, USA Action and United for Justice, and groups and individuals who have been penned up during presidential visits, or arrested for refusing to go into a "free speech area," in places ranging from California to New Mexico, Missouri, Connecticut, New Jersey, South Carolina and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

The ACLU, which began investigating Secret Service practices following Neel's arrest, has identified 17 separate incidents where protesters were segregated or removed during presidential or vice-presidential events, and Pittsburgh ACLU legal director Witold Walczak says, "I wouldn't be surprised if this is just the tip of the iceberg. We don't have the resources to follow Bush and Cheney everywhere they go." The suit also comes at a time of mounting charges by many civil libertarians on both the left and the right that the Bush Administration and Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department are trampling on civil liberties.

"There is some history supporting the notion that all presidents dislike people who don't like them," says Stefan Presser, head of the ACLU of Philadelphia ACLU chapter and another lead attorney in the suit the Secret Service. "But this approach of fencing protesters in and removing them from view is unprecedented, and it's gotten worse over the past two years."

Well, maybe not exactly unprecedented. Pittsburgh's Walczak notes that during Nixon administration, especially during his second term, police "made quite a practice" of tearing up protest signs and confining protesters, and at least in one case that went to court, the Secret Service admitted being behind the actions. He says there were some isolated instances of interference with protesters during the Reagan administration, and even at President Clinton's inauguration, an attempt was made (unsuccessfully, thanks to ACLU intervention) to bar anti-abortion protesters from the inaugural march.

In its complaint, the ACLU cites nine cases since March 2001 in which protesters were quarantined. And it alleges that the Secret Service, with the assistance of state and local police, is systematically violating protesters' First Amendment rights via two methods. "Under the first form," the suit says, " the protesters are moved further away from the location of the official and/or the event, allowing people who express views that support the government to remain closer. Under the second form, everyone expressing a view-either critical or supportive of the government-is moved further away, leaving people who merely observe, but publicly express no view, to remain closer."

In either case, the complaint adds, "protesters are typically segregated into what are commonly referred to as 'protest zones."

In the ACLU's view, the strategy, besides violating a fundamental right of free speech and assembly, is damaging in two ways. "It insulates the government officials from seeing or hearing the protesters and vice-versa, and it gives to the media and the American public the appearance that there exists less dissent than there really is."

Certainly, as television cameras follow a presidential motorcade lined with cheering supporters, the image on the tube will be distorted if protesters have all been spirited away around a corner somewhere, fenced in for the duration.

Contacted by Salon, the Secret Service denied that it discriminates against protesters. "The Secret Service is message-neutral," said spokesman John Gill. "We make no distinction on the basis of the purposes or intent of any group or the content of signs."

Further, Gill insisted that the establishment and oversight of local viewing areas during a presidential or vice presidential visit "is the responsibility of state and local law enforcement." In practice, it's apparently not that simple, though. Nor is the Secret Service's carefully worded denial of responsibility as definitive as it might appear. The "establishment of viewing areas" is indeed a local law enforcement responsibility, but local law enforcement officials say that the Secret Service has in some cases all but ordered them to pen in protesters. And it appears that the Secret Service is making recommendations about how that should be done.

Paul Wolf is an assistant supervisor in charge of operations at the Allegheny County Police Department and was involved in planning for the presidential visit to Pittsburgh last fall. He told Salon that the decision to pen in Bush critics like Neel originated with the Secret Service. "Generally, we don't put protesters inside enclosures," he said. "The only time I remember us doing that was a Ku Klux Klan rally, where there was an opposing rally, and we had to put up a fence to separate them.

"What the Secret Service does," he explained, "is they come in and do a site survey, and say, 'Here's a place where the people can be, and we'd like to have any protesters be put in a place that is able to be secured.' Someone, say our police chief, may have suggested the place, but the request to fence them in comes from the Secret Service. They run the show."

The statement by Wolf, who ranks just below the Allegheny County police chief, is backed up by the sworn testimony of the detective who arrested Neel. At a hearing in county court, Det. John Janachione, testifying under oath, said that the Secret Service had instructed local police to herd into the enclosed so-called free-speech area "people that were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views." Explaining further, he added: "If they were exhibiting themselves as a protester, they were to go in that area."

Asked to respond to the accounts of Wolf and lanachione about the Secret Service's role in handling of protesters, spokesman Gill said only, "No comment." Asked pointedly whether Wolf's account was incorrect, Gill again said, "No comment."

Wolf also raises the possibility that White House operatives may be behind the moves to isolate and remove protesters from presidential events. He cannot recall specifically whether they were present with the Secret Service advance team before last year presidential Labor Day visit, but says "I think they are sometimes part of' the planning process. The Secret Service declined to comment on this assertion, saying it would not discuss "security arrangements." The White House declined to comment on what role the White House staff plays in deciding how protesters at presidential events should be handled, referring all calls to the Secret Service.

Asked specifically whether White House officials have been behind requests to have protesters segregated and removed from the vicinity of presidential events, White House spokesman Allen Abney said, "No comment." But he added, "The White House staff and the Secret Service work together on a lot of things." (While the Secret Service won't confirm that it is behind the pattern of tight constraints placed on protesters at public appearances by Bush and Cheney, the ACLU claims that mounting evidence suggests that this is exactly what is going on.)

In its lawsuit the ACLU makes this charge. A number of individual plaintiffs in the suit say that when they were directed into remote "freespeech areas," or arrested for refusing to go to such sites, they were informed that the local police were acting "on orders from the Secret Service."

That's the story Bill Ramsey got when he was arrested last Nov. 4 by police in St. Charles, Mo., while attempting to unfurl an antiwar banner amid a group of pro-Bush people during a presidential visit to a local airport. "The police told us if we wanted to show the banner, we'd have to go to a parking lot four-tenths of a mile away and out of sight of the president's motorcade," says Ramsey. "When we attempted to put it up anyway, they arrested us, and said they'd been ordered to by the Secret Service."

But Ramsey says that when his organization, the Instead of War Coalition, has sought to obtain permission to hold its demonstrations during presidential visits, they are told by the Secret Service that such matters are the responsibility of local police. "When we go to the local police, though, they say it's up to the Secret Service."

Efforts to obtain a comment from the St. Charles Police Department were unsuccessful.

Andrew Wimmer, another member of the Instead of War Coalition, says he was offered a similar explanation last January in St. Louis when he attempted to unfurl a sign reading "Instead of War, Invest in People" on a street full of Bush supporters. According to Wimmer, St. Louis police officers told him he'd have to leave a street full of Bush supporters and go to a protest area two blocks from the presidential motorcade route because of his protest sign. He recalls that as crowds of people walked down a thoroughfare toward the trading company that President Bush was slated to visit, "local police were pulling out people carrying protest signs and directing them to the protest area." The 48-year-old IT worker says, "When they got to me, I said no, I'd just as soon stand with the people here. But they said the Secret Service wanted protesters in the protest area."

In the end, Wimmer, like Ramsey and others who have refused to be caged during protests, was arrested. "They charged me with obstructing passage with my sign, which was a 2.5-foot-by-2-foot lawn sign," he says, noting that a woman standing nearby with a similar-size sign saying "We love you Mr. President," was left alone.

"The Secret Service keeps saying that the decision to separate protesters and remove them from view is a local police matter," says Denise Lieberman, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, who is representing both Ramsey and Wimmer in their arrest cases. "But these kinds of things only happen when the Secret Service is involved. We've had many visits to St. Louis-by the pope, by candidates, by dignitaries-and it's only when the president or the vice president come to town that this kind of thing happens."

"We expect to see a lot more of this heading into a campaign season," says Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney at the ACLU and one of the lead attorneys handling the suit against the Secret Service.

Presser, the Philadelphia ACLU attorney, traces the tactic to the last Republican National Convention, which nominated Bush for the presidency in August 2000. "The GOP tried to reserve every possible space where a protest group might rally," Presser recalls. "Part of the party's contract with the city of Philadelphia for the convention was that they were given an omnibus permit to use 'all available space' for the two weeks of the convention. They basically privatized the city to block all legal protest."

During that convention, the city attempted to require that all groups seeking to protest during the convention apply for permits to get a l5-minute protest time slot, during which they would be allowed to assemble and make their statement in a sunken "protest pit," remote from the Convention Center. Many groups refused, and the result was a series of conflicts with local police and many arrests, most of which were later tossed out by the courts.

Since then, Presser charges, the Bush administration has continued the strategy of using the Secret Service and cooperative local police departments to keep protesters at bay, and not incidentally, out of easy range of the media. "People used to say that Ronald Reagan's was the most scripted administration we ever had," the attorney says, "but this Bush administration has gone way beyond that." Presser adds that he was told by William Fisher, a senior Philadelphia police captain and head of the department's Civil Affairs Unit, that the tight restrictions and decision to cordon off protesters during presidential visits have come "at the Secret Service's direction." Fisher declined to be interviewed for this article, but when asked, did not deny Presser's account of their conversation.

Presser and the ACLU don't question the Secret Service's responsibility to protect the president and other key government officials. Even plaintiffs in the case agree that the president must be protected. But "putting protesters behind a fence isn't going to help," says Neel, the former Pittsburgh steelworker, "I mean, somebody who was going to attempt an assassination wouldn't be carrying a protest sign. He'd be carrying a sign saying 'I love George!"

The ACLU' Presser agrees. "Just as the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were careful to blend in and stayed away from mosques," he says, "anyone who had ill will towards the president could just put on a pro-Bush T-shirt and, under this policy, he'd be allowed to move closer to the president by the Secret Service."

He adds, "It seems that these 'security zones' for protesters have very little to do with the president's physical security, and a whole lot to do with his political security." Asked how many times in history an attack had been made on a president or other official under Secret Service protection by someone clearly identifiable as a protester, agency spokesman Gill said, "I'm not going to comment on that." Interestingly, Gill at no point claimed that protesters posed a special threat to the president or vice president.

Whatever the real motives behind it, the Secret Service policy of fencing off protests and protesters during presidential events may be in for a tough challenge. The judge assigned to the case, John Fullam, is an appointee of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, and back in the late 1980s issued a permanent injunction in Philadelphia-still in effect-that bars both the city of Philadelphia and the National Parks Department (the agency in charge of the city's many federal monuments), from treating protesters or people wearing protest paraphernalia any differently from other citizens.

The ACLU, which is seeking an injunction barring the Secret Service and local police from treating protesters differently from other spectators at administration events, is hopeful that the court will act "before the presidential campaign gets into full swing next summer," says Walczak. Meanwhile, Presser says he is optimistic that the lawsuit, simply by being filed, could make things easier for protesters during the coming campaign season." I suspect that this suit may give the Secret Service and local police some pause in how they treat protests," he says., Oct. 13, 2003


Reaping What Has Been Sown: Prisoners, Torture and Hypocrisy

When I was a journalist working in China back in the early 1990s, I was furious when two administrations in the U.S.-those of both the first Bush and Clinton-condoned executions of American death row prisoners from foreign countries who had been arrested and tried without their home countries' embassies being notified. The current Bush Administration has taken the same cavalier approach to international law also, which clearly requires that an embassy be notified when one of its nationals is arrested in a country, and further, that that embassy be permitted to have access to the detained individual and to provide a lawyer.

I was furious because America's willful and repeated violation of this basic international agreement was a direct threat to my personal health and safety. I was going out into the Chinese countryside as a journalist-often without the benefit of a journalist's visa, which can take weeks to obtain and which often is denied-and was at risk of being arrested by Chinese security forces. In fact, I was brought in and interrogated by the Public Security Bureau twice during such journalistic forays, once to a relatively remote area of Anhui Province and a second time to a rural part of Jiangsu Province, and I can report that the experience was harrowing each time.

How could I hope to have the protection and help of my embassy in China if my own country was thumbing its nose at international law?

Now we see the same thing happening during the war on Iraq, where the implications are even more serious as-predictably, American soldiers begin to be captured by Iraqi forces.

The Bush administration is loudly decrying their use by Iraq as propaganda on Arab television, where they have been shown being questioned about what they were doing in Iraq. It's good domestic PR. After all, their treatment, while so far thankfully not brutal, is in violation of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs. But nobody outside the U.S. is going to take the American protests seriously.

The sad truth is that the U.S. is in no position to make a complaint, for America, too, has been in gross violation of that convention. Iraqi soldiers taken prisoner during this war have been marched before American television cameras, they have been blindfolded and terrorized by U.S. soldiers taking them into custody, and their faces have been displayed on American television-all clear violations of international law.*

But the U.S. is doing even worse with regard to other POWs it has captured in Afghanistan. Along with most international legal scholars, I would argue that anyone fighting U.S. forces in that country is a soldier in a war. Once captured, they should have been held in accordance with the Geneva Convention. They have not been so treated, however. In fact, the Bush administration expressly exempted them from Geneva Convention standards.

Certain of those captured have been either turned over to other countries' security forces-for example those of Egypt or Pakistan where they reportedly have been subjected to torture, or they have been held at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, and also subjected to conditions that can only be described as torture, or in some cases-well over 600-they have been transported, bound and hooded, to a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they are caged in individual pens and held in a legal limbo-not prisoners and not prisoners of war.

Arguably the non-Afghan members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan might be termed "unlawful combatants" by the U.S., and denied POW status, though this is making a rather fine distinction. Al Qaeda fighters, while they might have originally been in Afghanistan as terrorist trainees, seem to have been acting as a legitimate ally of the government of Afghanistan at the time of their capture, fighting alongside government forces. But even granting that distinction, the U.S. also has taken captured Afghan Taliban fighters, who clearly were the official army of the government of Afghanistan, off to Guantanamo, denying them too, any POW status.

The whole world sees this treatment of captured Afghan fighters as the most outrageous violation of international law and the Geneva Convention, yet the U.S., even knowing it was about to become involved in a war in the Middle East, went ahead with this outlaw behavior.

All it has done in the process is open the door to similar abuse of captured Americans. After all, if the U.S. is seen as fighting an illegal war of aggression, might not Iraq decide that any soldiers it catches are not POWs at all, but rather "unlawful combatants"?

One has to wonder at the hubris of Bush Administration policymakers, who seem to think that they can trample over any international rules and agreements they want, without suffering any consequences.

The same might be said of the charge that Fedayeen irregulars are violating international law by dressing up in civilian clothes and attacking American and British troops in Iraq by deceit. While this standard guerrilla war tactic is a violation of the international rules of war, which are designed to minimize civilian casualties, we know that U.S. special forces, such as the Delta Force troops, have also been dressing as local civilians in the Afghanistan conflict (they were shown doing this in the American media), and it strains belief to think that they are not doing the same thing now in Iraq.

The Bush Administration is counting on the jingoistic American media to ignore its own blatant violations of international law in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, while it loudly condemns Iraq's violations as evidence of the evil of the enemy. So far their hopes have been largely rewarded domestically. But the rest of the world is seeing this twofaced policy on POWs for what it is.

So we have the pathetic picture of President Bush, with a straight if chronically besmirked face, condemning first Iraq for violating the Geneva Convention on POW treatment and then Russia for "violating U.N. sanctions" against Iraqi This from a commander-in-chief who has condoned and continues to condone the most egregious violations of prisoner of war rules, and who has violated the most basic part of the U.N. charter by initiating an unprovoked war of aggression against a member state without the sanction of the Security Council.

An old adage about war has long been: the winner makes the rules. But a more venerable adage should be on both the mind of this chickenhawk administration and the minds of the soldiers who are being asked to put their lives on the line for its ill-conceived aggressive policies: As ye sow, so shall ye reap.


Memorializing a President Who Could Really Lie: Ronald Reagan

The gushy praise of the late Ronald Reagan as a "great communicator"-which is polluting the airwaves from Fox TV to NPR-is enough to make anyone not suffering from political Alzheimer's retch. Still, all the public fanfare makes it clear we have to do something to acknowledge the guy.

My suggestion: let's put his face on a special limited-edition three dollar bill.

So much of the Reagan patter that so endeared him to the racist and reactionary public that was his target audience was fraud and mirrors. Just consider his vicious anecdote about an alleged "welfare queen" driving a Cadillac-a blatant fabrication. What he really ought to get credit for is being a very congenial and convincing liar, which was just what his pro-corporate handlers wanted and needed. The trademark winning smile and the charming bob of the head were great devices for deceiving his viewers and listeners.

Truth is that the two terms of the Reagan administration, far from being an era of good communication between the government and the governed, were an era of government based upon secrecy, fraud and deceit.

It was the Reagan administration that pardoned FBI agents who had been convicted of Cointelpro abuses committed under President Nixon.

It was also the Reagan administration that effectively gutted the Freedom of Information Act, one of the more profound open government reforms to result from the Nixon scandals. That undermining of FOIA-an essential first step that allowed Reagan's government of lies to operate-was never fully repaired during the Clinton years, and has been carried further under the current Bush administration.

The Reagan administration also began shutting down crucial information about government-for example eliminating much important information gathering about medical costs and outcomes that used to be collected and disseminated by the Department of Health (then the Department of Health and Welfare). The idea behind these measures was to make it harder to monitor the impact of Reagan-era budget cutting of human services.

Reagan lied too about U.S. foreign policy, which began to rely, perhaps more heavily than ever, and certainly more heavily than in the Carter years, on secret wars and secret destabilization actions-the Contra war against the government of Nicaragua being the most blatant of these, but hardly the only example. Military backing of the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala were two other particularly ugly cases.

Reagan's entire government budget policy was a humongous lie, as budget director David Stockman belatedly admitted-a lie which was secretly designed to simply bankrupt the country to force an end to the welfare state.

It's hard to imagine a bigger fraud being perpetrated upon the public than this deliberate wrecking of a nation's finances to achieve a public policy result that was not supported by the majority of the public.

Democracy in America

Index of Website

Home Page