Creeping Fascism: Lessons From
by Ray McGovern
www.antiwar.com/, December 28,
"There are few things as odd as the
calm, superior indifference with which I and those like me watched
the beginnings of the Nazi revolution in Germany, as if from a
box at the theater...Perhaps the only comparably odd thing is
the way that now, years later...."
These are the words of Sebastian Haffner
(pen name for Raimund Pretzel), who as a young lawyer in Berlin
during the 1930s experienced the Nazi takeover and wrote a first-hand
account. His children found the manuscript when he died in 1999
and published it the following year as Geschichte eines Deutschen
(The Story of a German). The book became an immediate bestseller
and has been translated into 20 languages - in English as Defying
I recently learned from his daughter Sarah,
an artist in Berlin, that today is the 100th anniversary of Haffner's
birth. She had seen an earlier article in which I quoted her father
and emailed to ask me to "write some more about the book
and the comparison to Bush's America...this is almost unbelievable."
More about Haffner below. Let's set the
stage first by recapping some of what has been going on that may
have resonance for readers familiar with the Nazi ascendancy,
noting how "odd" it is that the frontal attack on our
Constitutional rights is met with such "calm, superior indifference."
Goebbels Would be Proud
It has been two years since top New York
Times officials decided to let the rest of us in on the fact that
the George W. Bush administration had been eavesdropping on American
citizens without the court warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. The Times had learned of this
well before the election in 2004 and acquiesced to White House
entreaties to suppress the damaging information.
In late fall 2005 when Times correspondent
James Risen's book, State of War: the Secret History of the CIA
and the Bush Administration, revealing the warrantless eavesdropping
was being printed, Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., recognized
that he could procrastinate no longer. It would simply be too
embarrassing to have Risen's book on the street, with Sulzberger
and his associates pretending that this explosive eavesdropping
story did not fit Adolph Ochs' trademark criterion: "All
The News That's Fit To Print." (The Times' own ombudsman,
Public Editor Byron Calame, branded the newspaper's explanation
for the long delay in publishing this story "woefully inadequate.")
When Sulzberger told his friends in the
White House that he could no longer hold off on publishing in
the newspaper, he was summoned to the Oval Office for a counseling
session with the president on Dec. 5, 2005. Bush tried in vain
to talk him out of putting the story in the Times. The truth would
come out; part of it, at least.
There were some embarrassing glitches.
For example, unfortunately for National Security Agency Director
Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the White House neglected to tell him
that the cat would soon be out of the bag. So on Dec. 6, Alexander
spoke from the old talking points in assuring visiting House intelligence
committee member Rush Holt (D-N.J.) that the NSA did not eavesdrop
on Americans without a court order.
Still possessed of the quaint notion that
generals and other senior officials are not supposed to lie to
congressional oversight committees, Holt wrote a blistering letter
to Gen. Alexander after the Times, on Dec. 16, front-paged a feature
by Risen and Eric Lichtblau, "Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers
Without Courts." But House Intelligence Committee chair Pete
Hoekstra (R-Michigan) apparently found Holt's scruples benighted;
Hoekstra did nothing to hold Alexander accountable for misleading
Holt, his most experienced committee member, who had served as
an intelligence analyst at the State Department.
What followed struck me as bizarre. The
day after the Dec. 16 Times feature article, the president of
the United States publicly admitted to a demonstrably impeachable
offense. Authorizing illegal electronic surveillance was a key
provision of the second article of impeachment against President
Richard Nixon. On July 27, 1974, this and two other articles of
impeachment were approved by bipartisan votes in the House Committee
on the Judiciary.
Bush Takes Frontal Approach
Far from expressing regret, the president
bragged about having authorized the surveillance "more than
30 times since the September the 11th attacks," and said
he would continue to do so. The president also said:
"Leaders in Congress have been briefed
more than a dozen times on this authorization and the activities
conducted under it."
On Dec. 19, 2005 then-Attorney General
Alberto Gonzales and then-NSA Director Michael Hayden held a press
conference to answer questions about the as yet unnamed surveillance
program. Gonzales was asked why the White House decided to flout
FISA rather than attempt to amend it, choosing instead a "backdoor
approach." He answered:
"We have had discussions with Congress...as
to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately
deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would
be difficult, if not impossible."
Hmm. Impossible? It strains credulity
that a program of the limited scope described would be unable
to win ready approval from a Congress that had just passed the
"PATRIOT Act" in record time. James Risen has made the
following quip about the prevailing mood: "In October 2001
you could have set up guillotines on the public streets of America."
It was not difficult to infer that the surveillance program must
have been of such scope and intrusiveness that, even amid highly
stoked fear, it didn't have a prayer for passage.
It turns out we didn't know the half of
What To Call These Activities
"Illegal Surveillance Program"
didn't seem quite right for White House purposes, and the PR machine
was unusually slow off the blocks. It took six weeks to settle
on "Terrorist Surveillance Program," with FOX News leading
the way followed by the president himself. This labeling would
dovetail nicely with the president's rhetoric on Dec. 17:
"In the weeks following the terrorist
attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency,
consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the
international communications of people with known links to al-Qaeda
and related terrorist organizations.... The authorization I gave
the National Security Agency after September 11 helped address
that problem..."[emphasis added]
And Gen. Michael Hayden, who headed NSA
from 1999 to 2005, was of course on the same page, dissembling
as convincingly as the president. At his May 2006 confirmation
hearings to become CIA director, he told of his soul-searching
when, as director of NSA, he was asked to eavesdrop on Americans
without a court warrant. "I had to make this personal decision
in early Oct. 2001," said Hayden, "it was a personal
decision...I could not not do this."
Like so much else, it was all because
of 9/11. But we now know...
It Started Seven Months Before 9/11
How many times have you heard it? The
mantra "after 9/11 everything changed" has given absolution
to all manner of sin.
We are understandably reluctant to believe
the worst of our leaders, and this tends to make us negligent.
After all, we learned from former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill
that drastic changes were made in U.S. foreign policy toward the
Israeli-Palestinian issue and toward Iraq at the first National
Security Council meeting on Jan. 30, 2001. Should we not have
anticipated far-reaching changes at home, as well?
Reporting by the Rocky Mountain News and
court documents and testimony in a case involving Qwest Communications
strongly suggest that in February 2001 Hayden saluted smartly
when the Bush administration instructed NSA to suborn AT&T,
Verizon, and Qwest to spy illegally on you, me, and other Americans.
Bear in mind that this would have had nothing to do with terrorism,
which did not really appear on the new administration's radar
screen until a week before 9/11, despite the pleading of Clinton
aides that the issue deserved extremely high priority.
So this until-recently-unknown pre-9/11
facet of the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" was not
related to Osama bin Laden or to whomever he and his associates
might be speaking. It had to do with us. We know that the Democrats
who were briefed on the "Terrorist Surveillance Program"
include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (the one with the longest
tenure on the House Intelligence Committee), Congresswoman Jane
Harman (D-CA) and former and current chairmen of the Senate Intelligence
Committee, Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). May one
interpret their lack of public comment on the news that the snooping
began well before 9/11 as a sign they were co-opted and then sworn
It is an important question. Were the
appropriate leaders in Congress informed that within days of George
W. Bush's first inauguration the NSA electronic vacuum cleaner
began to suck up information on you and me, despite the FISA law
and the Fourth Amendment?
Are They All Complicit?
And are Democratic leaders about to cave
in and grant retroactive immunity to those telecommunications
corporations - AT&T and Verizon - who made millions by winking
at the law and the Constitution? (Qwest, to it's credit, heeded
the advice of its general counsel who said that what NSA wanted
done was clearly illegal.)
What's going on here? Have congressional
leaders no sense for what is at stake? Lately the adjective "spineless"
has come into vogue in describing congressional Democrats - no
offense to invertebrates.
Nazis and Those Who Enable Them
You don't have to be a Nazi. You can just
be, well, a sheep.
In his journal Sebastian Haffner decries
what he calls the "sheepish submissiveness" with which
the German people reacted to a 9/11-like event, the burning of
the German Parliament (Reichstag) on Feb. 27, 1933. Haffner finds
it quite telling that none of his acquaintances "saw anything
out of the ordinary in the fact that, from then on, one's telephone
would be tapped, one's letters opened, and one's desk might be
But it is for the cowardly politicians
that Haffner reserves his most vehement condemnation. Do you see
any contemporary parallels here?
In the elections of March 4, 1933, shortly
after the Reichstag fire, the Nazi party garnered only 44 percent
of the vote. Only the "cowardly treachery" of the Social
Democrats and other parties to whom 56 percent of the German people
had entrusted their votes made it possible for the Nazis to seize
full power. Haffner adds:
"It is in the final analysis only
that betrayal that explains the almost inexplicable fact that
a great nation, which cannot have consisted entirely of cowards,
fell into ignominy without a fight."
The Social Democratic leaders betrayed
their followers - "for the most part decent, unimportant
individuals." In May they sang the Nazi anthem; in June the
Social Democratic party was dissolved.
The middle-class Catholic party Zentrum
folded in less than a month, and in the end supplied the votes
necessary for the two-thirds majority that "legalized"
As for the right-wing conservatives and
German nationalists: "Oh God," writes Haffner, "what
an infinitely dishonorable and cowardly spectacle their leaders
made in 1933 and continued to make afterward.... They went along
with everything: the terror, the persecution of Jews.... They
were not even bothered when their own party was banned and their
own members arrested." In sum:
"There was not a single example of
energetic defense, of courage or principle. There was only panic,
flight, and desertion. In March 1933 millions were ready to fight
the Nazis. Overnight they found themselves without leaders...At
the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to
the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed. They
yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown....
The result is today the nightmare of the rest of the world."
This is what can happen when virtually
all are intimidated.
Our Founding Fathers were not oblivious
to this; thus, James Madison:
"I believe there are more instances
of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent
encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations....
The means of defense against foreign danger historically have
become the instruments of tyranny at home."
We cannot say we weren't warned.