Home | Politics | Off the Books: The Outsourcing of American Foreign Policy, Part II -- Operation Blowback

Off the Books: The Outsourcing of American Foreign Policy, Part II -- Operation Blowback

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A very slippery slope, or how George W. Bush harnessed 9/11 to propose the erosion of long-standing limits on military intervention in local disasters.

Part I of “Off the Books” followed the chain of events that led to the birth of al Qaeda in 1988, beginning with Jimmy Carter’s decision to fund guerrilla attacks on the Russian client government in Afghanistan, the Russian invasion that followed, and Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the conflict with the assistance of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  Part I also dealt with the Reagan Administration’s secret Continuity of Government (COG) plans to greatly expand the circumstances under which the president could call the military in to take over local governments, and the powers the government would have over its citizens in such circumstances.  

Among the most explosive revelations in The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America is a chapter on the al-Kifah Center, an al Qaeda recruitment locus within the Al Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn, New York.  All through the effort to force the Russians out of Afghanistan, the United States worked with extremists from countries outside of Afghanistan ("Arab Afghans"), many of them recruited by Osama bin Laden, rather than the more moderate Sufi forces indigenous to Afghanistan.  The war effort succeeded in getting the Russians to withdraw from  Afghanistan,  but once the Russians were gone the U.S. turned its back, leaving a power vacuum from which the Taliban eventually emerged in 1996.  Meanwhile, though American aims had seemingly been met with the Russian departure in 1989, the U.S. government continued to secretly extend visas to a number of Arab Afghans on terrorist watchlists.  Benazir Bhutto (then-Prime Minister of Pakistan) presciently told President George Bush Sr. "You are creating a Frankenstein."

Many of the visas went to jihadis that passed through the al-Kifah Center. In 1993, al-Kifah trainees figured prominently in the first World Trade Center bombing.  According to The Road to 9/11, these trainees were led by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the recipient of three different visas courtesy of CIA officers), who took over al-Kifah in 1990, and tutored by FBI informant Ali Mohamed, who had been a U.S. Army sergeant from 1986-1989 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. In 1994 Mohamed was named as a co-conspirator in a plot to bomb New York City landmarks, but he got off without a scratch; Peter Dale Scott posits that Mohamed’s status as an FBI informant may have made him untouchable.  Mohamed would go on to lead the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya in 1998 and be the lead trainer of the 9/11 hijackers. 

During the Clinton presidency Continuity of Government planning for nuclear disasters officially ended, but emergency planning continued, with responsibilities parceled out among different government agencies.  The Road to 9/11 cites Andrew Cockburn (author of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy), who reported that during this period Cheney, Rumsfeld and others in their exclusive circle continued to have Continuity of Government meetings through the Pentagon in which they bitterly lambasted Clinton.  However, unlike the COG meetings of the 80s that Rumsfeld and Cheney had been a part of, these meetings in the 90s were reported to have been largely free of dissenting opinion, or Democrats, exposing a potential hunger for one-party dictatorial rule.   

Like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton took office with the idea of re-directing a portion of government funds away from the military to more productive uses in our starved infrastructure, especially in lieu of the recent end of the Cold War, which had long served as the official justification for astronomical defense spending.  However, when Republicans took Congress back from the Democrats in 1994, Clinton changed course and agreed to increased defense budgets that outpaced inflation.  Even so, disappointed with Bill Clinton’s lack of aggression in the Middle East, elements on the right claimed that Clinton was “weakening” the U.S. military, and in 1997 created the Progress for a New American Century (PNAC), a group of foreign policy hawks formed with financial assistance from the Bradley, Olin and Scaife Foundations, who had so successfully contorted the public dialogue for two decades running with millions of dollars in donations to right-wing causes. 

Among the members of the PNAC were Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and a host of media manipulators who would assume important roles in the Bush Administration’s press for war on Iraq. The PNAC paralleled the 70s version of the Committee on the Present Danger in its single-minded focus on scaring the public into aggressive and unapologetic unilateralism. The PNAC’s mission statement was “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” which argued for steep increases in defense spending and regime change in Iraq, and ominously said that “The process of transformation [to public support for a preemptive foreign policy]…is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.”

In 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush told a prime time television audience that he was in favor of a “humble” foreign policy and averse to "nation-building,” but once he was in office, Bush immediately made a 180 degree turn by putting several top PNAC members in key positions, including Donald Rumsfeld, Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton and Dick Cheney, who wasted no time sizing up Iraq’s oil fields, helped along by Saddam’s decision to open up oil sales to the euro (a policy that would be reversed by Bush immediately after the invasion). In the months to come, Cheney reunited with FEMA, with power over the Office of National Preparedness, while the Pentagon issued a Joint Chiefs of Staff memo which stated that any request to intercept an off-course plane had to be approved by the Secretary of Defense, which added an extra layer of bureaucracy to what had been a routine practice.

In August of 2001, Dick Cheney was in Teton Pines, Wyoming, where he had gone for COG planning during the 80s, and George W. Bush was in Crawford, Texas on the first of many extended vacations, both seemingly unconcerned with the rash of intelligence chatter coming in that suggested the U.S. could be attacked imminently, but they became monumentally busy after 9/11.  Cheney vanished into a bunker as the administration rammed the Patriot Act through Congress (The Road to 9/11 suggests that the Patriot Act may’ve been written prior to 9/11) and employed previously unthinkable elements of Continuity of Government such as roundups of illegal aliens, warrantless detention and suspension of Habeus Corpus, and wiretapping. As reported in the Washington Post in March, 2002, the administration also sent 100 “civilian managers” from strictly within its ranks out to various safe areas around the country as a practice for future disaster, without cooperation or consultation with Congress.

Early in 2002, as the United States military and its allies occupied Afghanistan, the Bush Administration began planning an invasion of Iraq, though Vice President Dick Cheney had portended a laundry list of reasons this would be a bad idea in 1994.  Condoleezza Rice’s former aide Philip Zelikow wrote a national security memo (NSS 2002) justifying preemptive war (after an earlier national security memo from a less bellicose aide to Colin Powell was rejected), and the Pentagon “submitted a proposal for deploying troops on American streets,” potentially crossing a line into military control of civilian government which had been outlawed since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Around the same time the Pentagon created NORTHCOM, a rapid deployment military force to cover the continental U.S. in case of a presidential declaration of disaster. 

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In the fall of 2002, irritated by a Democratic-controlled Senate that wasn’t sufficiently obedient, the Bush Administration put out a full-court media press on the urgent need to invade Iraq, as a way of steering close Senate races in the GOP-friendly direction of fear. The pounding of the war drums swung the Senate to the Republicans, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq sucked most of the major media oxygen in the second half of 2002 and the first few months of 2003, but the public hearings of an independent commission – created only after months of opposition by the Bush Administration -- brought 9/11 back into the public square.  Perhaps The Road to 9/11’s most novel contribution is a highly detailed, rhetoric-free analysis of the commission’s work, which was hobbled from moment one by underfunding, strict timelines and Bush Administration stonewalling on document requests, and the refusal of Bush and Cheney to publicly testify. 

The long list of war games scheduled for 9/11 (which distracted America ’s air defenses) and the gross negligence of the Bush Administration prior to 9/11, combined with the easily-foreseen political payoff Bush received from 9/11, have led some people to conclude that 9/11 was an inside job.  Others tend toward the "LIHOP" theory, that the administration let 9/11 happen for political gain, or that the inaction amid terror threat overloads was of a piece with the consistent incompetence of the administration.  Peter Dale Scott does not wade into this argument, but simply takes a microscope to the work of the 9/11 commission to expose the contradictions in the official story.  Though one would assume memories would be crystal clear during an event of such magnitude, the testimony of Rumsfeld and Cheney as to their whereabouts from 9:20 EST until around 10:00 the morning of 9/11 are entirely incompatible with the testimony of Norman Mineta (Secretary of Transportation), and are also contradicted by National Security Adviser Richard Clarke and White House photographer David Bohrer.  Adding further concern is the fact that the account of Cheney’s movements accepted by the commission is at odds with his telling of his actions on 9/11 to moderator Tim Russert on Meet the Press just five days after the events.  

Of course none of these holes or inconsistencies were explored by the 9/11 commission because its findings had to have unanimous support, and half of its members were Republicans, at least some of whom were intent on protecting the Bush administration before the 2004 election. The Democrats on the commission were establishment choices known to play nice.  Lee Hamilton, the top Democrat on the committee, had previously had prominent roles on the similarly impotent congressional investigations of the Reagan Administration’s October Surprise and the Iran-Contra affair.  To top it off, the commission’s executive director, and the chief author of the 9/11 Commission report, was Philip Zelikow, who had previously written the Bush Administration’s memo in support of preemptive war. 

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“It is customary in America to speak of Al Qaeda as an example of a non-state supported terrorism…the truth is far more complex.” 

-The Road to 9/11, page 143

One of the central ironies drawn in The Road to 9/11 is that George W. Bush misused his political leverage to attack Iraq and buck for war with Iran, neither of whom had any connection to 9/11, while allying with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries with the strongest connections to al Qaeda.  Without tossing off loose speculation about any direct planning or coordination, Peter Dale Scott lasers in on the fact that many of the major players in 9/11 on all sides are a disturbingly slight degrees of separation, and all (other than the hijackers) benefited from 9/11, giving at least the appearance that their relationships could be symbiotic. 

Both Bushes, father and son, have multiple-decade relations with Saudi Arabian investors with proximity to terror, including the bin Laden family, and in the days immediately following 9/11 members of the bin Laden family (and other Saudi nationals) were quietly allowed to leave the U.S., when all commercial flights were grounded.  George W. Bush’s good friend from his National Guard days, James Bath, handled Texas investments for Osama bin Laden’s family, and extended Bush Jr. a $50,000 loan in 1979 for his first business (Arbusto) which could potentially have come from Salem bin Laden, Osama's half-brother.  George Bush Sr.’s former Secretary of State James Baker’s law firm represented the Saudi Arabian government in a trillion dollar lawsuit filed against them by families of 9/11 victims.  Much of the 28 redacted pages of the 9/11 report issued by Congress (separate from the better-known independent 9/11 Commission) is said to have dealt with the Saudis, whose good fortune to be on top of the world’s biggest oil supply, and their support for dollar denomination, guarantee that the radical Wahhabism they inflict on the world - including fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers - is likely to go unpunished and uninvestigated. 

The second major U.S. ally with deep ties to extremists is Pakistan, a long-time friend of American covert services, and only one of three countries to recognize the sovereignty of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  A $100,000 payment to chief 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta came from Pakistan, which was not at all surprising considering the tight relations between Al Qaeda and radical elements in Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Interservices Intelligence Agency (ISI). In fact, as reported by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in early 2002, when the Northern Alliance (U.S. allies) captured thousands of al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Pakistan had secret negotiations to fly out an undisclosed number of ISI members who had been in cahoots with al Qaeda. Despite all of this, Pakistan received an increase in military aid and a reduction in their debts after 9/11.

Thanks in part to his allies’ concerted cover up on the independent 9/11 Commission, George W. Bush finagled a second presidential term by convincing many voters that he would keep us safe. The day after John Kerry conceded, Bush promised to use the political capital he had earned, and wasted no time keeping his word. Not eight months later, following Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove pushed Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco to declare martial law and give COG a whirl in New Orleans, but she refused.  Unbowed, the Bush administration continued on, and in January of 2006 gave Kellogg, Brown & Root (the parent of Dick Cheney’s old company Halliburton) a $385,000,000 contract through the Department of Homeland Security to build detention facilities.  In the fall of 2006, knowing many Democrats would cave in lest they be accused of being weak on national defense, Bush-Cheney got their congressional allies to pass the 2007 Defense Authorization bill, which gave legal ballast to George W. Bush’s desire to “deploy troops within the United States during a natural disaster, epidemic, serious public health emergency, terrorist attack, or other condition…”  The clear implication of the bill is that the sustainability of American democracy could hinge on future presidents’ subjective reading of what constitutes a natural disaster, serious public health emergency, or “other condition.”

In the short time I read The Road to 9/11, conducted the interview, and researched and wrote this introduction, the book’s narrative has continued to unspool in real time. Days before the interview the front page of the New York Times read Foreign Fighters of Harsher Bent Bolster Taliban,” and told of extremist “foreign fighters” from outside Afghanistan who had come to destabilize the Western occupation there (as the heroin market boomed.) While the U.S. bled in Central Asia, our man in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, suspended his country's constitution and fired supreme court justices who didn’t do his bidding.  Musharraf’s political opponent Benazir Bhutto, who had warned George Bush Sr. nearly two decades earlier that U.S. alliances with jihadis were “creating a Frankenstein,” died in a suicide bombing.  Three weeks later Reagan appointee Mark Siljander received a 42-count indictment for lobbying on behalf of Muslim charities connected to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now our enemy, while on February 5th, as Part I of this series hit the worldwide web, a book came out which reported that Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, was in direct contact with Bush’s top advisor Karl Rove just prior to the 2004 election, with the aim of blunting criticism of Bush’s inaction prior to 9/11 (Zelikow claims that he spoke with Rove and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice during the 9/11 investigation, but that he “didn’t talk about politics”). Conveniently for the next Republican presidential candidate, who is certain to obscure his positions on social and economic issues behind a fog bank of fear, any original 9/11 Commission research which could clear the record won’t be released until 2009, just after the next election. 

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Below is Part II of my interview with The Road to 9/11’s author Peter Dale Scott, as edited for time, space and flow.

Get Underground: You talk a lot in your book about Continuity of Government planning, but don’t talk so much about the Clinton Administration.

Peter Dale Scott: Well, that was the idea, it was the end of the Cold War; the idea of a nuclear threat to America had vanished. What I know is what I quote from Andrew Cockburn’s book, but it looks pretty clearly that it [Continuity of Government planning] was in the Pentagon and a Pentagon observer who was in on these meetings said that one of the changes from the 1980s was that in the 80s both parties were represented. But in the 1990s, even though you had a Democratic administration, they were all Republicans complaining about Clinton. And there’s a lot more we need to know about this -- Clinton knew something of what was going on because Richard Clarke [ Clinton ’s national counterterrorism director] was nominally in charge of all of this and gave him this Presidential directive PSD 67 which dealt with continuity of government and Clinton signed it. And that’s what, by the way, Bush overrode with his new declaration, giving himself power in the White House to declare an emergency in effect. 

G.U.: You mentioned in your book that Rumsfeld and Cheney were involved in continuity of government plans in the 80s and even in the 90s…

P.D.S.: And neither of them were in the government. Neither of them were in the government, and [yet they] were continuing a plan under a very early authorization from Reagan back in 1982 when, according to [Andrew] Cockburn, the people at the top in the Clinton administration didn’t even know the planning was going on.

I find that hard to reconcile. The budget is supposed to be more than $100 million a year, so they must have known something. But this is – I say there has to be a proper investigation, and this is the main focus, we have to find out what COG planning was under Reagan, under Bush I, under Clinton and particularly, in the early months of Bush II administration.

G.U.: Right. And that’s a tie-in with Cheney being reunited with FEMA in 2001, under the Office of National Preparedness, and –

P.D.S.: The Office of National Preparedness was under Cheney. A newspaper called it a task force. And I believe, though I say it tentatively, that he and his group may have created this absurd rule on June the 1st of 2001 which made it so much more difficult to intercept a plane.

G.U.: This is the JCSS memo mentioned in The Road to 9/11, which “erased an earlier distinction between an intercept decision in an emergency and a shoot-down order.” What is the import of the memo as it relates to air defenses on 9/11?

P.D.S.: Well, it was a fairly routine thing to intercept a plane.  There’s no force involved in an intercept.  The military planes go up to find out what’s happening, see if they can get in contact, get it back on course.  They fly on the wing-tips, if necessary, to try to steer the plane.  It’s not a decision to use force but it was equated in effect with a decision to use force by this June 1st memo.  [So on 9/11, for an intercept order] you had to get authorization from the national command which would be either Rumsfeld or the president, when the president was fleeing to Fort Barksdale and Rumsfeld, was, according to his own account, putting people on stretchers, you know. Here we are, we’re under attack and the head of the – I mean it, it’s so ridiculous that I can’t even talk about it without laughing, but that’s the outrageous conspiracy theory that we’re governed by here. No one in the [9/11] commission, as far as we know, raised the question “Where did that new rule come from?” Because that would have meant looking at the behavior of the Bush administration, which, of course, though they were even willing to look at what [Jamie] Gorelick did back in 1995 when she was with Clinton, they were not going to look at the constructive things that the Bush administration did to make the situation possible. 

G.U.: The circumstances were perfect for the hijackings because there were a number of military training exercises going on on 9-11, and of course there is a long list of examples of how inattentive the Bush administration was, all of which make it look like they weren’t that concerned with public safety before 9-11 – on the morning of 9/11 Condoleeza was going to give a speech on the urgency of a missile defense system. The second thing that has sown a lot of public distrust is that 9-11 has really been a Global Empowerment Act for a lot of extremists. Bin Laden was able to get his war with the American Satan. Bush got political capital that he had never earned at the ballot box…

P.D.S.: Bush and Bin Laden shared the publicity from all of this. And it probably has been even more helpful to Bin Laden. Everyone wants to be Al Qaeda in the Muslin world.

G.U.: And the poppy growers in Afghanistan are back in business

P.D.S.: Yeah.

G.U.: You state on page 179 of The Road to 9/11 that “much of the debate over 9-11 has been focused on what I have called a false dilemma: whether it was Islamists or the U.S. government who are responsible for the disaster. We should at least contemplate the possibility that it was a global meta-group…that had the various resources and the far-reaching connections necessary for the successful plot.” And at a different point you mention “the personal financial involvement of both George Bushes, father and son, in a cluster of BCCI-connected Saudi investors who had been accused of funding Osama bin Laden.” How many degrees of separation is there between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden? 

P.D.S.: Well, the connections that have traditionally been shown are between the Bush family and the bin Laden family and then that leaves open the question of to what extent? Salem bin Laden [Osama bin Laden’s half-brother] was in Texas so it is not a stretch at all. 

The circles who give money to foundations in Saudi Arabia who have been financing Islamists in Bosnia and Kashmir, and other places, are the people who also financed George Bush’s little Arbusto oil company. Whether this is of real importance – I don’t know that the Arbusto connection is terribly important – but I think that there’s a floating milieu of Saudi wealth mingling with, particularly, Texas wealth, but we know very little about that milieu. History in the 21st century is being written on the level of transnational global wealth, and we have no records of that history. And it just – I think that people are still thinking in, you know, almost 19th-century terms: “Was it our government or was it those revolutionaries?” There are other players in the world now, and we have to expand our horizons to recognize this.

G.U.: Do the 28 pages that were redacted from the [congressional] 9/11 Commission report tie in with the connections between the Bushes and the Saudis?

P.D.S.:  I  do think I know what was excised there:  the help given to two of the hijackers in San Diego [Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi] by three individuals linked to the Saudi Embassy in Washington.  One of the three, Osama Bassnan, had channeled thousands of dollars from the wife of the Saudi Ambassador [Prince Bandar.]  And this was of course extremely important.

G.U.: The Warren Commission, the Iran-Contra Committee, the 9/11 Committee…they all seem ineffectual. Are they basically worthless?

P.D.S.: Well, of course, I was very keen to have the 9/11 Commission report. I didn’t expect to get the truth, but I expected to get a clear, coherent statement of what the government says happened, and then we can see what they’re covering up. And that’s why I don’t say it’s a pack of lies as some of my co-9/11 people say; I say a lot of it’s true, and in certain areas it is conspicuously not true, and that’s what is the basis of my case against Cheney.

G.U.: What are the contradictions between different Bush Administration members’ testimony, and what could they be trying to hide?

P.D.S.: It’s [Transportation Secretary Norman] Mineta versus all these other people. And Cheney of course is self-contradictory on the question of when he reached the bunker. What’s important about all this is that the Commission says nobody was in charge, there was chaos, everybody was out of touch. I say no, Cheney was in charge, and he was in touch with everybody that he needed to be in touch with.

The first thing we have to establish is that he, by his own account, initially said that he was in the bunker before the Pentagon was hit. And then he changed his account later on to a new version, where he said that he didn’t get to the bunker until shortly before 10. And the Commission report accepts the 2nd version as if it was unchallenged.

G.U.: Because it fits their storyline.

P.D.S.: Yes, and totally ignores Cheney’s original account, which did challenge it. 

The question was how to cut himself off from the shoot-down order [of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania according to the 9/11 Commission] or any side of the decision. I think that between September 16th when Cheney spoke to Russert and said he got in[to the bunker] before the Pentagon was hit, and mid-November when he told Newsweek that he got in shortly before 10, Mineta had already gone public with his story, that Cheney was in there, roughly around 9:20, 9:25.  I don’t take Mineta’s times as being firm, they’re rough, I think, but they’re much earlier [than the times given in Cheney’s testimony].

This was obviously very embarrassing to the administration, because they changed that story. First of all, they had a version that [Cheney’s orders were in reference to] Flight 93, sometime after the Pentagon was hit, and that Mineta – by implication, they don’t say this – was wrong in his time, and then the next version of the story, which is the one in the 9/11 report, is that it [Cheney’s shootdown orders] happened after flight 93 went down, probably around 10:15, even though there were no more planes in the air at this time. I think Mineta was roughly right as to when this happened, and I suspect – in my book, I try not to write my suspicions, I try only to write the hard facts - but when you look at all the evidence, the most likely account is Mineta’s, given under oath - and the least likely is the 9/11 Commission’s. 

What’s really at stake here, is something that the Commission says they don’t know: when was the order given – they’re very focused on the order to “shoot down a plane” and a lot of 9/11 researchers are very focused on this because they suspect that flight 93 may have been shot down. I’m not going into that area, because I don’t know. But what is tied to the shoot-down order is the COG [Continuity of Government] order. And I’m very interested in that. I think, from my reconstruction, it almost certainly was given around, well, before the President’s plane took off [around 9:54 a.m., from an airport tarmac]. This is where I believe Richard Clarke. That – and this probably is the president talking to Cheney while Cheney is in the tunnel. Now why would he be in the tunnel and not in the bunker?

G.U.: Lack of transparency…

P.D.S.: I think it was because the people in the bunker were not cleared for COG. And we of course don’t know what COG involved, we don’t know the decision that flowed from invoking it, other than that, for the next few weeks, Cheney was mostly out of Washington. And that is one of the COG thoughts, you don’t have them [Bush adnd Cheney] in the same place. But a lot more happened than that, and we know because from the Washington Post story, I think it was March 1st [of 2002], a hundred senior bureaucrats went out of Washington with him. You’re getting a parallel government, or what the Post called a “shadow government.” That’s why I have a whole chapter about when you had a parallel government in Italy and they started blowing up people…

G.U.:  How did Continuity of Government (COG) plans evolve?

P.D.S.: Originally this was planning for what they call decapitation of the government in a nuclear disaster. With Reagan’s executive order there no longer had to be a nuclear aspect, there no longer had to be decapitation of the government. It’s just emergency planning. And I summed up some of the key things that were talked about in the 80s and we have now had, since 2001:  warrantless detention, and what goes with that is warrantless surveillance, because who are you going to detain? And on a large scale level that is why I attach importance to this item in the Homeland Security budget for building detention camps over a 10-year period.

They referred in their [detention camp] document – after I wrote about it they took it off their website – to the problem of illegal immigrants in this country. That was the same fig leaf that Oliver North was talking about [with Rex 84] but it wasn’t really immigrants that North had in mind and I don’t think it’s immigrants that the government has in mind now.  But to be talking on a scale of detention camps to deal with illegal immigrants – and we have almost 12 million illegal immigrants – they’re thinking big. 

And on this military thing [giving the military control of local governments in time of disaster], a little update, we just had these California fires down in San Diego County.  Did you notice who came with President Bush? General Renuart, the head of NORTHCOM [national homeland defense military operation]. And I do say in Chapter 14 that there were people that thought that maybe the Bush people were happy to see FEMA make a total fiasco out of Katrina in order to increase the case for having the military do it.  Because one of the big issues – I didn’t mention it with the planning in the 80s – was “how do we get the American people to accept military government when we have the Posse Comitatus Act? How do we get around the Posse Comitatus Act?” And, well, you soften them up by using emergencies like hurricane Katrina and now these fires. We have created for the first time in history a military command for the United States – NORTHCOM. To correspond to the military command of South America is SOUTHCOM. And for Central Asia – CENTCOM.  America is now a war field in the planning of the Pentagon and General Renuart turned up in San Diego without any comment from the press as if “Why not? You know the Army is good people.” But we’ve had very strict ideas about keeping the army out of the United States that go back to the anger over Reconstruction after the Civil War when the Army was used to try and force legislation in the South and that – though the Posse Comitatus acts had kind of a racist, right-wing origin to them, I think they’re good acts and I do not believe that this country should calmly accept [military control of local government.] There have always been emergencies; when you had people being killed by the dozens in Detroit in 1967, the Army went in to restore order, and it was probably a good thing because the Army was less racist than the Detroit police. So there was a liberal argument for sending in the Army but that was to deal, in a very limited way, with a short-term crisis, and soon as it was over they left. But NORTHCOM is permanent and nobody is complaining about it. 

G.U.: Tying into this, you talk in your book about how Karl Rove tried to get Governor Blanco [of Louisiana , during Hurricane Katrina]–

P.D.S.: To accept the federalization of the National Guard, yes. 

G.U.: That didn’t happen [Blanco refused], but in September of ’06 Bush signed the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill, which changed a section of the Insurrection Act to increase the president’s ability to employ troops during a national disaster, epidemic, serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or “other condition.” I’m wondering what the “other condition” is, and does anyone outside the Bush Administration know what this official plan is? Could we potentially be a suicide bombing away from martial law and not even know it?

P.D.S.: I think that it [military takeover of government] will be mission creep rather than a disaster. I don’t expect them to just take over the country overnight with the Army. The Army, for example, is one of the more restive elements of the bureaucracy under Bush – the Army is not happy with the role they have been given in Iraq, and even less happy about the idea that we would go into Iran when they’re up to their eyeballs in the muck of Iraq, so I think COG planners want to do it progressively rather than catastrophically and instantly, but they do want to move us in that direction. They certainly want to get around the Posse Comitatus Act. They’ve wanted to do that since the 80s. 

G.U.: Since the catastrophic occupation of Iraq the U.S. has frequently been compared to Rome as a major power in imperial decline. Do you think this is a sound comparison or simply the most obvious and readily available?

P.D.S.: I’ve thought a great deal about this and written about it actually as far back as Deep Politics [released in 1993]. The great analogy with Rome is that when Caesar took over, and then Augustus, they didn’t abolish the senate, didn’t abolish the consuls - everything kept on going. All the institutions of the Roman civic republic were still there, they just didn’t have any power. But there was a whole class, a Senatorial class, who continued to take their positions in the Senate very seriously. Imperator, which we now translate “emperor”…the original meaning was “general.” The generals of the army were now running things. To some extent, that’s already happened in this country. Except it’s not really the generals, it’s the people in the White House picking the generals they want, and kicking out the generals who very sensibly say we would be idiots to go into Iraq – or are now saying we would be idiots to go into Iran. 

But as to the main force of this imperial analogy, as we’ll call it, is the way it’s drawn by Kevin Phillips - it’s not just Rome. Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain, in Europe successively – it’s almost like they handed power on to one another - those are empires which, unlike Rome, rose quite quickly, and then became very belligerent, started foolish wars, idiotic wars, which whether they won them or they lost them, were disastrous to the whole country. And they all lost their power quite quickly. And that’s Kevin Phillips’ point. Now Britain technically won World War I and won World War II, but World War II was largely of Britain’s making because of the absurd conditions imposed on Germany in World War I, which were bound to create a reaction.  And the collapse of British imperial power is something that America should think about, about the danger of getting overextended.  You could throw in Athens too, you know.  Athens was a progressive democracy, and like America, its progressive democracy made it expand outwards, and then they got involved in this crazy mission to Sicily, and 10 years later, no more independent Athenian republic.

That’s the kind of collapse that I mean. Because in the case of Rome, there were very deep structural problems, and it was the collapse of a civilization as well as of a government, in the West of Europe, not in the East.  And we’re not going to see that kind of collapse of civilization, I’m confident about that. I think that Americans should be less worried about the Roman analogy, although I think there are some parts of it they should take very seriously. How you can lose your democracy and not be aware of it, that’s the important thing. Or how you can lose the republic and not be aware of it. The really frightening analogy are these empires, first of all overextended, and secondly, more seriously, becoming quite wanton in the use of warfare, because you build up this huge army, and everyone’s going to be pressured to use it. And with disastrous effects for the whole country.

G.U.: Your overarching prescription for getting the United States back on its feet involves striking a better balance between the public state and the covert state, through forming public coalitions and creating what you call a prevailing will. My question is, absent full public funding - which of course the right would fight that to the death, because it would level the playing field between the public interest and vested interests – how can a prevailing will form in a country that is so polarized? Would it take a cataclysm like the Great Depression? You mention the Internet [as a great organizing, liberating tool].

P.D.S.: Or the loss of our Constitution, that would be a cataclysm. That’s what I think could be the unifying force.  First of all what I say, I realize, is a long shot.  I’m not saying we’re on the brink of it happening or anything like that - we’re a long way from a political solution.  What we need to do is build a more unified civil society in this country.  And the obstacles are obvious, you know: the left and the right are passionately opposing each other on issues like abortion or homosexuality, or even sexuality sometimes. 

But the interesting thing is, is in Poland, where what I’m talking about actually happened - the left and the right were bitterly opposed there too on issues like abortion and homosexuality, which might have seemed like insuperable issues - but because they could agree that the subordination to the power of the Soviet army was such an insult to Polish independence, they had to unite, they did unite. Once they got rid of the Soviets they then disunited and Poland is now – the left and the right are now fighting back and forth. So it’s not a clean arrival at the New Jerusalem. But it shows that people can unite if they see the threat of tyranny. 

Openness is the key, and – a new word I’m going to use, empathy. We’re not as strong on empathy as we are on openness, but we have more of it than, say, the British. And what we have now is a prescription to end the openness and particularly to start having empathy for other people, and not just go and bomb them, which is no way to rule the world.  But we don’t seem to care if anyone wants us or not. I mean we went in because [Ahmed] Chalabi wanted us in Iraq, but Chalabi represented nobody except rich foreigners, exiles.

G.U.: And Iran.

P.D.S.: And the Iran thing - there’s a whole clique down in L.A. who are around the son of the [former CIA-installed leader of Iran ] Shah. The Iranians don’t want these people.

The United States doesn’t know the first thing about how to create an empire, and that’s what’s good about America.  I don’t want America to learn.  I want America to just accept the fact that the military solutions it’s trying to impose, first on Vietnam, now on Iraq, they don’t work, they can’t work.  I wrote a piece in 2004 “Why the U.S. Must Withdraw from  Iraq .”  It’s clear they don’t work, and we have to end this madness.  But the answer is not to get better at making an empire, but it’s to go back to the traditional American notion that it is a force working for multinational government through the U.N., and international treaties, and that we observe treaties instead of violating them as we’re doing now. 

G.U.: Through a lifetime of studying so many grim international developments, how do you maintain your faith in mankind’s future?

P.D.S.: (Laughs)  I get asked that question a lot.  I don’t always maintain it.  It has the strength it has by taking holidays.

I was very depressed, as you know from the beginning of the book, in the weeks before we invaded Iraq .  And actually, you know, I’m a poet.  And I didn’t put this in this book but I was reminded of T. S. Eliot’s great moment of self-doubt as a banker in London, a while before he was publishing.  Was there really any goodness in the British Empire at all?  Or was it just united in faith in the importance of maintaining stock dividends?  That’s why I went to Thailand; I was so happy to go to Thailand, which restored my faith in human nature, as did the glorious good luck that I had for two months in the state of Texas.  Texans were decent human beings, so Berserkely wasn’t an island of sanity surrounded by dark forces.  People anywhere are going to be much the same.  And there are always going to be some crooks and criminals and psychopaths, sociopaths, because there are some very deforming forces at work in the world.  But the problem’s not people.  The problem is when you get larger and larger agglomerations of power and there is less and less tradition of how to operate sanely at that level.  Berkeley was stirring up problems just at the level of the City Council.  And – everybody in California knows that we can’t get the South and the North to agree on anything significant. 

But there has never been, in America, a united civil society.  What led to the Civil War was more than a century in the making, and the winding down of the Civil War, we’re still feeling the feedback from.  My hope for a solution is not that we have a totally unified civil side, just that they unite on the idea of the importance of getting the Constitution back.  We could aim at that goal and achieve it.  So, yeah, my faith in human nature is balanced by my pessimism about human nature, and any optimism that isn’t grounded in a fundamental pessimism is artificial. 

© Dan Benbow, 2008

[This article was originally published at www.getunderground.com in March of 2008]

 

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