Jerry Bremer’s forgotten role in U.S. spy plot against its citizens
Finally, we have a presidency that really listens to Americans.
The New York Times is unfolding this story after sitting on it for at least a year. (See my colleagues Syd Schanberg and Nat Hentoff for recent riffs on the subject.)
But here’s something you may have forgotten: This scary threat to our civil liberties — domestic eavesdropping without warrants — is directly descended from the work of Jerry Bremer, later the Bush regime’s preposterous pasha of Iraq.
You have to go back to the Clinton era, when Congress took time out from examining the president’s semen stains to authorize a National Commission on Terrorism. Its chair was Jerry Bremer. Its final report, “Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism,” was released in June 2000, long before 9/11.
Bremer urged the unleashing of our spy agencies. That happened. To his credit, he warned that unless there was “contingency planning,” there would be a conflict with civil liberties. But he delivered that warning only verbally. To his discredit, there was no mention of civil liberties in the commission’s final report.
In case you’re wondering, the report warned of terrorist threats to the U.S. from Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria and even cautioned about Pakistan and Greece. But the words “Iraq” or “Saddam Hussein” are never mentioned once. At all. Never.
However, the National Security Agency, current focus of the unconstitutional spying on Americans, is mentioned. The report urged that we unshackle our spy agencies to gather more and more intelligence. Nowhere in the document is there a specific recommendation to authorize the NSA to spy on Americans.
But in a June 2000 hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bremer himself raised the issue of how spying and other reactions to our country’s being attacked might conflict with the civil liberties of Americans.
He’s on a book tour now, pushing his lame memoir of his disastrous reign over Iraq, but his words from 2000 make for far more interesting reading.
In his formal statement to the Senate panel about the National Commission on Terrorism report, Bremer said:
“The motives of terrorists seem to be changing, and we have to be concerned about the possibility that terrorist groups will resort to what we call catastrophic terrorism, acts which are designed to kill not hundreds but perhaps tens of thousands of Americans.”
Prescient, yes. And here’s what the commission recommended, according to Bremer:
“We feel that there are restrictions which are addressed more fully in the report against collection of terrorist information by the CIA abroad and by the FBI at home.
“And we’ve recommended that some of those restrictions be eased.”
Bremer called for more sharing of info by U.S. spy agencies and said:
“I should add, finally, in the area of intelligence we think that there — the intelligence agencies, particularly CIA, FBI and most especially NSA, need more money. They need more resources to fight this fight.”
The report itself urged this:
Priority one is to prevent terrorist attacks. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities must use the full scope of their authority to collect intelligence regarding terrorist plans and methods.
Funding for counterterrorism efforts by CIA, NSA, and FBI must be given higher priority to ensure continuation of important operational activity and to close the technology gap that threatens their ability to collect and exploit terrorist communications.
And what about civil liberties? That phrase doesn’t make the report. But Bremer talked about it when he delivered the report. Here’s what he said:
“We think, Mr. Chairman, that it is important to think about the unthinkable, to think about the possibility that either a single catastrophic attack or several, or attacks taking place in the American soil while we are in hostilities abroad, that such an attack or series could go beyond the capability of local, state and federal officials to deal with — and that the president should have available to him contingency plans to use the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense to respond to such an attack. That’s what we’ve recommended, that contingency planning should be done.”
And here’s where Bremer got down to brass tacks:
“Mr. Chairman, sometimes people have criticized this as a potential infringement on civil liberties. We take exactly the contrary view.
“Our view is that in the event of a catastrophic event, such as we’re talking about, where you have tens of thousands of people dead, the pressures will be very great on the president and the leadership of this country to impinge on civil liberties unless they’ve done some contingency planning and thought it through ahead of time.
“And so we strongly recommend that such contingency planning be undertaken, be exercised, and that those plans be put on the shelf, hopefully to remain there forever. We think it is the height of irresponsibility not to at least think about the possibility of that happening.”
And here’s my point: That planning wasn’t done. When the Bush regime took office six months later, as I’ve pointed out, it didn’t do things like fill the key post of Pentagon counterintelligence chief, the job that Brian Sheridan had held in the Clinton era. The 9/11 Commission later pointed out that Don Rumsfeld not only didn’t get briefed by Sheridan before Sheridan left his job in January 2001 but Rumsfeld also never even hired a replacement for Sheridan until after 9/11. Instead, the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal focused on Iraq.
So much for “thinking it through,” for the “contingency planning” about terrorism that Bremer talked about in June 2000. In fact, it’s no wonder that the Bush regime went ahead and unconstitutionally spied on Americans. All bets were off after 9/11, which was the perfect excuse to go ahead and try to make the world safe for Halliburton and other U.S. corporations. After all, the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal made no plans for the aftermath of its Iraq-invasion plot, as the Downing Street Memo and other documents have confirmed.
Bremer, unfortunately, took only some of his own advice when he was sent to Iraq in the spring of 2003. He did unleash himself and the full power of the U.S. to try to rule Iraq like an autocrat: He disbanded the Iraqi army, paid no attention to looting, stifled the press, tried to turn Iraq into a corporate-welfare state, mishandled billions of dollars, and ignored warnings of an insurgency. But he didn’t think it through and consider the circumstances. Contingency planning? Forget about it.
And when he finally returned to the U.S. in late 2004, George W. Bush, who believes in spying on his own citizens, gave Bremer a Medal of Freedom.