Skip to content

Keep Fear Alive

The bald-eagle boondoggle of the terror wars

“If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that ‘We won the war on terror and everything’s great,’ cuz the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’—it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive.”

—Thomas Fuentes, former assistant director, FBI Office of International Operations

Can we imagine a free and peaceful country? A civil society that recognizes rights and security as complementary forces, rather than polar opposites? Terrorist attacks frighten us, as they are designed to. But when terrorism strikes the United States, we’re never urged to ponder the most enduring fallout from any such attack: our own government’s prosecution of the Terror Wars.

This failure generates all sorts of accompanying moral confusion. We cast ourselves as good, but our actions show that we are not. We rack up a numbing litany of decidedly uncivil abuses of basic human rights: global kidnapping and torture operations, gulags in which teenagers have grown into adulthood under “indefinite detention,” the overthrow of the Iraqi and Libyan governments, borderless execution-by-drone campaigns, discriminatory domestic police practices, dragnet surveillance, and countless other acts of state impunity.

The way we process the potential cognitive dissonance between our professed ideals and our actual behavior under the banner of freedom’s supposed defense is simply to ignore things as they really are. They hate us for our freedom, screech the bald-eagle memes, and so we must solemnly fight on. But what, beneath the official rhetoric of permanent fear, explains the collective inability of the national security overlords to imagine a future of peace?

Incentives, for one thing. In a perverse but now familiar pattern, what we have come to call “intelligence failures” produce zero humility, and no promise of future remedies, among those charged with guarding us. Instead, a new array of national security demands circulate, which are always rapidly met. In America, the gray-haired representatives of the permanent security state say their number one responsibility is to protect us, but when they fail to do so, they go on television and growl. To take but one recent example, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared before the morally bankrupt pundit panel on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to explain that intractable ethnic, tribal, and religious conflict has riven the Middle East for more than a century—the United States, and the West at large, were mere hapless bystanders in this long-running saga of civilizational decay. This sniveling performance came, mind you, just days after Politico reported that, while choreographing the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld had quietly buried a report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicating that military intelligence officials had almost no persuasive evidence that Saddam Hussein was maintaining a serious WMD program. Even after being forced to resign in embarrassment over the botched Iraq invasion a decade ago, Rumsfeld continues to cast himself as an earnestly outmanned casualty of Oriental cunning and backbiting while an indulgent clutch of cable talking heads nods just as earnestly along.

Nearly fifteen years after the “Global War on Terror” began, the national security state is a trillion-dollar business.

And the same refrain echoes throughout the echelons of the national security state. Self-assured and aloof as the affluenza boy, the FBI, CIA, and NSA fuck up, and then immediately apply for a frenzied transfer of ever more money, power, and data in order to do more of what they’re already doing. Nearly fifteen years after the “Global War on Terror” began, the national security state is a trillion-dollar business. And with the latest, greatest, worst-ever terrorist threat always on the horizon, business is sure to keep booming.

The paradox produces a deep-state ouroboros: Successful terrorist attacks against the West do not provoke accountability reviews or congressional investigations designed to truly understand or correct the errors of the secret state. On the contrary, arrogant spies and fearful politicians exploit the attacks to cement and expand their authority. This permits them, in turn, to continue encroaching on the liberties they profess to defend. We hear solemn pledges to collect yet more information, to develop “back doors” to decrypt private communications, to keep better track of Muslims on visas, send more weapons to unnamed “rebel groups,” drop more cluster bombs. Habeas corpus, due process, equal protection, freedom of speech, and human rights be damned. And nearly all the leaders in both major political parties play along, like obliging extras on a Morning Joe panel. The only real disagreement between Republican and Democratic politicians on the national stage is how quickly we should dispose of our civil liberties. Do we torch the Bill of Rights à la Donald Trump and Dick Cheney, or apply a scalpel, Obama-style?

Safety Last

Both Democrats and Republicans justify Terror War abuses by telling the public, either directly or indirectly, that our national security hangs in the balance. But national security is not the same as public safety. And more: the things the government has done in the name of preserving national security—from invading Iraq to putting every man named Mohammed on a special list—actually undermine our public safety.

That’s because, as David Talbot demonstrates in The Devil’s Chessboard, his revelatory Allen Dulles biography and devastating portrait of a CIA run amok, national security centers on “national interests,” which translates, in the brand of Cold War realpolitik that Dulles pioneered, into the preferred policy agendas of powerful corporations.

Public safety, on the other hand, is concerned with whether you live or die, and how. Any serious effort at public safety requires a harm-reduction approach acknowledging straight out that no government program can foreclose the possibility of terroristic violence. The national security apparatus, by contrast, grows powerful in direct proportion to the perceived strength of the terrorist (or in yesterday’s language, the Communist) threat—and requires that you fear this threat so hysterically that you release your grip on reason. Reason tells you government cannot protect us from every bad thing that happens. But the endlessly repeated national security meme pretends otherwise, though the world consistently proves it wrong.

When it comes to state action, the most important distinction between what’s good for public safety (i.e., your health) and what’s good for national security (i.e., the health of the empire, markets, and prominent corporations) resides in the concept of the criminal predicate. This means, simply, that an agent of the government must have some reasonable cause to believe you are involved with a crime before launching an investigation into your life. When the criminal predicate forms the basis for state action, police and spies are required to focus on people they have reason to believe are up to no good. Without the criminal predicate, police and spies are free to monitor whomever they want. Police action that bypasses criminal predicates focuses on threats to people and communities that threaten power—regardless of whether those threats to power are fully legal and legitimate.

We can see the results of this neglect everywhere the national security state has set up shop. Across the United States right now, government actors and private contractors paid with public funds are monitoring the activities of dissidents organizing to end police brutality and the war on drugs, Israeli apartheid and colonization in Palestine, U.S. wars in the Middle East, and Big Oil’s assault on our physical environment. In the name of fighting terrorism, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, which gave state and local law enforcement billions of dollars to integrate police departments into the national intelligence architecture. As a result, we now have nearly a million cops acting as surrogates for the FBI. But as countless studies have shown, the “fusion centers” and intelligence operations that have metastasized under post-9/11 authorities do nothing to avert the terror threat. Instead, they’ve targeted dissidents for surveillance, obsessive documentation, and even covert infiltration. When government actors charged with protecting us use their substantial power and resources to track and disrupt Black Lives Matter and Earth First! activists, they are not securing our liberties; they’re putting them in mortal peril.

Things weren’t always like this. Once upon a time, America’s power structure was stripped naked. When the nation saw the grotesque security cancer that had besieged the body politic in the decades after World War II (just as Harry Truman had warned it would) the country’s elected leadership reasserted control, placing handcuffs on the wrists of the security agencies. This democratic counterattack on the national security state not only erected a set of explicit protocols to shield Americans from unconstitutional domestic political policing, but also advanced public safety.

Mission Creeps

As late as the 1970s, the FBI was still universally thought to be a reputable organization in mainstream America. The dominant narrative held that J. Edgar Hoover’s capable agents, who had to meet his strict height, weight, and dress code requirements, were clean-cut, straight-laced men who followed the rules. Of course, anyone involved with the social movements of that age—anti-war, Communist, Black Power, American Indian, Puerto Rican Independence—knew a very different FBI, but they had no evidence to prove what they could see and feel all around them. And since this was the madcap 1970s, the disparity between the FBI’s glossy reputation as honest crusaders and its actual dirty fixation on criminalizing the exercise of domestic liberties drove a Pennsylvania college physics professor and anti-war activist named William Davidon to take an extraordinary action. On the night of the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight of March 8, 1971, Davidon and some friends broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. They stole every paper file they could get their hands on. In communiqués to the press, to which they attached some of the most explosive of the Hoover files, they called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.

Not one of the costly post-9/11 surveillance programs based on suspicionless, warrantless monitoring stopped Tsarnaev from blowing up the marathon.

When Davidon and his merry band of robbers broke into the FBI office, they blew the lid off of decades of secret—and sometimes deadly—police activity that targeted Black and Brown liberation organizers in the name of fighting the Soviet red menace. According to Noam Chomsky, the Citizens’ Commission concluded that the vast majority of the files at the FBI’s Media, Pennsylvania, office concerned political spying rather than criminal matters. Of the investigative files, only 16 percent dealt with crimes. The rest described FBI surveillance of political organizations and activists—overwhelmingly of the left-leaning variety—and Vietnam War draft resisters. As Chomsky wrote, “in the case of a secret terrorist organization such as the FBI,” it was impossible to know whether these Pennsylvania figures were representative of the FBI’s national mandate. But for Bill Davidon and millions of Americans—including many in Congress who were none too pleased with the disclosures—these files shattered Hoover’s image as a just-the-facts G-man. They proved that the FBI was not a decent organization dedicated to upholding the rule of law and protecting the United States from foreign communist threats, but rather a domestic political police primarily concerned with preserving the racist, sexist, imperialist status quo.

In a cascade of subsequent transparency efforts, journalists, activists, and members of Congress all probed the darker areas of the national security state, uncovering assassination plots against foreign leaders, dragnet surveillance programs, and political espionage targeting American dissidents under the secret counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO. Not since the birth of the U.S. deep state, with the 1947 passage of the National Security Act, had the activities of the CIA, FBI, or NSA been so publicly or thoroughly examined and contested.

Subsequent reforms included the implementation of new attorney general’s guidelines for domestic investigations, which, for the first time in U.S. history, required FBI agents to suspect someone of a crime before investigating them. Under the 1976 Levi guidelines, named for their author, Nixon attorney general Edward Levi, the FBI could open a full domestic security investigation against someone only if its agents had “specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe that an individual or group is or may be engaged in activities which involve the use of force or violence.” The criminal predicate was now engraved in the foundations of the American security state—and the Levi rules prompted a democratic revolution in law enforcement and intelligence circles. It would take decades and three thousand dead Americans for the spies to win back their old Hoover-era sense of indomitable mission—and their investigative MO of boundless impunity.

False Flags

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began Hoovering up our private records in powerful, secret dragnets. When we finally learned about the warrantless wiretapping program in 2005, it was a national scandal. But just as important, and much less discussed, was the abolition of Levi’s assertion of the criminal predicate. So-called domestic terrorism investigations would be treated principally as intelligence or espionage cases—not criminal ones. This shift has had profound, if almost universally ignored, implications.

Michael German, an FBI agent for sixteen years working undercover in white supremacist organizations to identify and arrest terrorists, saw firsthand what the undoing of the 1970s intelligence reforms meant for the FBI. And German argues, persuasively, that the eradication of the criminal predicate didn’t just put Americans at risk of COINTELPRO 2.0. It also threatened public safety. The First and Fourth Amendments, which protect, respectively, our rights to speech and association and our right to privacy, don’t just create the conditions for political freedom; they also help law enforcement focus, laser-like, on people who have the intent, the means, and the plans to harm the rest of us.

Think of it like this, German told me: You’re an FBI agent tasked with infiltrating a radical organization that promotes violence as a means of achieving its political goals—the Ku Klux Klan, for example. KKK members say horrible and disgusting things. But saying disgusting things isn’t against the law; nor, as numerous studies have shown, is it a reliable predictor of whether the speaker will commit an act of political violence. When surrounded by white supremacists constantly spouting hate speech, a law enforcement officer has to block it out. If he investigates people based on their rhetoric, his investigations will lead nowhere. After all, almost no white supremacist seriously intending to carry out a terrorist attack is all that likely to broadcast that intent in public. (Besides, have you noticed how many Americans routinely say disgusting things?)

Today, more than a decade after it shrugged off the Levi guidelines, the FBI conducts mass surveillance directed at the domestic population. But dragnet surveillance, however much it protects “national security,” doesn’t increase public safety, as two blue-ribbon presidential studies have in recent years concluded. Indeed, the Boston bombings, the Paris attacks, and the San Bernardino and Planned Parenthood shootings have all made the same basic point in the cold language of death. The national security state has an eye on everyone, including the people FBI director James Comey refers to as “the bad guys.” But despite its seeming omniscience, the Bureau does not stop those people from killing the rest of us in places where we are vulnerable.

The curious case of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev demonstrates the strange consequences of sidelining criminal investigations for national security needs. In 2011, about eighteen months before the bombings, Tsarnaev’s best friend and two other men were murdered in a grisly suburban scene in Waltham, Massachusetts—their throats slashed, marijuana sprinkled on their mutilated corpses. These murders were never solved. But days after the marathon bombings, law enforcement leaked that they had forensic and cellphone location evidence tying Tamerlan Tsarnaev to those unsolved crimes. Not one of the costly post-9/11 surveillance programs based on suspicionless, warrantless monitoring stopped Tsarnaev from blowing up the marathon. But if the police leaks were correct in assigning him responsibility for the 2011 murders, plain old detective work likely would have.

If security agencies truly want to stop terrorism, they should eliminate all domestic monitoring that targets people who are not suspected of crimes. This would allow agents to redirect space and resources now devoted to targeting Muslims and dissidents into serious investigations of people actually known to be dangerous. It’s the only reasonable answer to the befuddling question: Why is it that so many of these terrorists succeed in killing people even though their names are on government lists of dangerous men?

After the terrorist attacks in November, the French government obtained greater emergency powers in the name of protecting a fearful public. Besides using those powers to round up hundreds of Muslims without evidence or judicial oversight, French authorities also put at least twenty-four climate activists on house arrest ahead of the Paris Climate Change Conference—an approach to squashing dissent that didn’t exactly scream liberté, and had nothing to do with political violence. As with the Boston Marathon and countless other attacks on Western targets, the men who attacked the Bataclan were known to intelligence agencies. In May 2015, months before the attacks in Paris, French authorities gained sweeping new surveillance powers authorizing them to monitor the private communications of suspected terrorists without judicial approval. The expanded surveillance didn’t protect the people of Paris. In France, as in the United States, the devolution of democratic law enforcement practice has opened up space that’s filled with political spying and methods of dragnet monitoring that enable social and political control. This is not only a boondoggle for unaccountable administrators of mass surveillance; it also obstructs the kind of painstaking detective work that might have prevented the attacks on the Bataclan and the marathon.

Our imperial government won’t ever admit this, but we must recognize that the best method for stopping terrorism before it strikes is to stop engaging in it on a grand scale. Terrorist attacks are the price we pay for maintaining a global empire—for killing a million Iraqis in a war based on lies, for which we have never apologized or made reparations, and for continuing to flood the Middle East with weapons. No biometrics program, no database, no algorithm, no airport security system will protect us from ourselves.