The 9-11 attacks provided the rationale for what amounts to a Bush family coup against the Constitution. From the outset, President George Bush used 9-11 to reorganize the federal government and increase its reach far beyond any existing law to delve into the lives of innocent, ordinary people. The new powers allowed the government to arrest them at will and to subject them to endless incarceration without judicial review. Some people were sent abroad to be tortured for crimes they had nothing to do with. Who knows how many people have been tortured in American jails? When government employees within the intelligence community sought to protest, the government fired them and made sure they could never get another job in their areas of expertise. This extraordinary program of spying on Americans, much of which was carried out in fishing expeditions under the Patriot Act, has the makings of a consistent and long-range policy to wreck constitutional government.
It is little wonder both left and right have come together to fight Bush and may yet jettison the Patriot Act. Revelations of the domestic spy operation, with its secret wiretaps, ought to supply sufficient evidence to impeach Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and launch criminal prosecutions of the top federal officials involved in carrying out the program. After all, these people are directly engaged in overthrowing constitutional government. How did this all come about?
Get the commies
In opening a conference on counterintelligence in March 2005, former president George H.W. Bush, who headed the CIA from 1975 to 1977, said, “It burns me up to see the agency under fire.” Recent criticism, Bush said, reminded him of the 1970s, when Congress “unleashed a bunch of untutored little jerks out there” to investigate the CIA’s involvement in domestic spying, assassinations, and other illegal activities, and subsequently passed laws to prevent abuses.
Bush was referring to the activities of the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, commonly known as the Church Committee after its chair, Idaho Democratic senator Frank Church. Among other things, the committee’s 1976 report detailed the workings of the infamous COINTELPRO, an FBI domestic spying program on civil rights leaders, anti-war groups, and anyone else who rubbed J. Edgar Hoover the wrong way. The report also detailed illegal domestic activities by the CIA and military intelligence. A simultaneous— and even more contentious—investigation was carried out in the House by the Select Committee on Intelligence, which also came to bear the name of its chair, New York Democratic congressman Otis Pike. The Pike Committee focused on the CIA covert actions, as well as on the CIA’s overall effectiveness and its budget.
Within days of the 9-11 attacks, officials of Bush the younger’s administration and former intelligence chiefs were on the talk shows denouncing the “chilling effect” of the congressional investigations of the 1970s, and of subsequent halfhearted efforts to regulate the work of the intelligence agencies. Paul Bremer, the future head of the Iraq occupation, who had chaired the National Commission on Terrorism from 1998 to 2000, said on CNN that the Church Committee did “a lot of damage to our intelligence services. . . . And the more recent problem was that the previous administration put into effect guidelines which restricted the ability of CIA agents to go after . . . terrorist spies.”
Congress lost no time in repealing these rather toothless earlier guidelines, along with a host of other restrictions, especially those safeguarding the privacy of electronic communications. The Senate passed the Combating Terrorism Act of 2001 on September 13, one of its first actions in response to the attacks.
Between 1960 and 1974, the FBI conducted half a million investigations of so-called subversives, without a single conviction, and maintained files on well over a million Americans. The FBI tapped phones, opened mail, planted bugs, and burglarized homes and offices. At least 26,000 individuals were at one point cataloged on an FBI list of persons to be rounded up in the event of a “national emergency.” Hoover was particularly obsessed with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, which he thought was influenced by Communists. The FBI proceeded to undermine the civil rights movement, planting agents among the Freedom Riders (and also the Ku Klux Klan). Hoover put spies into the ranks of labor activists and Democratic Party insurgents during the 1964 presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, the CIA began spying domestically. The agency planted informants of its own within the United States, especially on college campuses. Between 1953 and 1973, they opened and photographed nearly a quarter of a million first-class letters, producing an index of nearly 1.5 million names. Under something called Operation CHAOS, separate files were created on approximately 7,200 Americans and over 100 domestic groups. In 1964, the CIA even created a secret arm called the Domestic Operations Division, the very name of which flew in the face of its legal charter. Back then, there were no “communications problems” between the two agencies.
Raise the wall
In documenting all this, the Church Committee concluded the intelligence community had engaged in actions that “had no conceivable rational relationship to either national security or violent activity.” The report of the House’s Pike Committee documented a history of CIA covert actions, as well as notable intelligence failures. As a result the CIA got out of domestic spying and the FBI supposedly pulled back from its orgy of homeland snooping. Some rather modest oversight was applied, the most important of which led to the creation of “the wall.” This refers to application of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA was enacted in 1978, in the wake of the congressional investigations, as a compromise that would allow the FBI and other domestic law enforcement to carry out counterintelligence operations while putting some sort of restraints on COINTELPRO-type abuses. Under FISA, the FBI could continue to do things like conduct searches and tap phones without traditional search warrants and without probable cause, as long as agents were targeting terrorists, spies, or other purported enemies of the United States, and as long as they got permission from a secret FISA court.
There was concern from the start that FISA would be used to circumvent the Fourth Amendment in routine criminal cases. So FISA dictated that these warrantless searches and surveillance could be conducted only for counterintelligence purposes, and not for regular criminal investigations. However, if a FISA search happened to turn up evidence of a crime, this information could be handed over to law enforcement. According to a joint inquiry conducted in 2002 by the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence, “the Intelligence Community agencies, perhaps overly ‘risk-averse’ in dealing with FISA-related matters, restricted the use of information far beyond what was required. The majority of FBI personnel interviewed . . . incorrectly believed that the FBI could not share FISA-derived information with criminal investigators at all or that an impossibly high standard had to be met before the information could be shared. Most did not know [it] could be shared with criminal investigators if it was simply relevant to the criminal investigation.”
And anyway, the FBI never stopped its domestic spying. During the ’80s and ’90s the FBI spied on and/or infiltrated peace and solidarity groups engaged in protesting U.S. involvement in the wars of Central America, put agents into Earth First, and went after the far right, again trying to plant agents and turn participants into informants. The shooting at Ruby Ridge and the raid in Waco galvanized not just the right but the heartland against the bureau. At Ruby Ridge, it was an FBI sniper killing a mother with a baby in her arms. At Waco it was a monstrous assault on a religious enclave. And the bureau’s handling of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995—with botched lab work and lost documents—to this day fuels the controversy over the government’s role in that catastrophe. Recent evidence suggests a federal agent may have penetrated the gang that conducted the bombing. The informant told her superior, who sat on the information until long
after the bombing.
Install Big Brother
The failures of the FBI and CIA in 9-11 were not because of any wall. These agencies failed because they weren’t doing their jobs right. The congressional investigation found the CIA couldn’t penetrate Al Qaeda—an especially odd claim since we had helped to create and finance Al Qaeda as an instrument to win the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. John Walker Lindh and other Americans walked right into Al Qaeda and were greeted by its high officials. How come the CIA couldn’t do the same? No wall kept the CIA from getting Osama bin Laden. They just couldn’t find him. As for how the hijackers got into the U.S., it’s hardly a mystery. An FBI informant among the Muslim community in San Diego socialized with two hijackers and rented a room to one of them. When Congress tried to figure out how this happened, the bureau covered it up, refusing to allow the informant to testify. Again, there was no wall here—just plain incompetence made worse by a deliberate cover-up. The FBI reportedly was informed in April 2001 by a longtime reliable asset of an impending attack using airliners as missiles. It did nothing. An operation known as Able Danger reportedly turned up information on and tracked hijacker Mohammed Atta as far back as 1998, but the Pentagon wouldn’t tell the FBI what it knew. Even now, the Bush administration is fighting to prevent the Able Danger officials from testifying before Congress about what they knew and when they knew it. When it comes to intelligence, the only thing worse than the FBI’s record is the CIA’s.
Given all that’s happened, the only explanation for the Bush domestic spying is that it’s political. There are no crimes involved here. But there is an overweening desire by this so-called conservative government to establish and institutionalize a Big Brother regime that tolerates no dissent and wrecks constitutional government.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 27, 2005