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Marjorie Cohn: Spinning Fear

Spinning Fear

By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 13 February 2006

The terror's in the room.
-CBS Journalist Edward R. Murrow, "Good Night and Good Luck," 1954
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

During the 1950s, our government succumbed to the fear of Communism hyped by Senator Joseph McCarthy. People lost their jobs, lives were ruined, and many committed suicide in response to the "red scare." Fear pervaded every facet of life, leading neighbors to inform on one another. CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow was one of the few journalists who had the courage to stand up to the fear-mongering and bring the truth to the American people. Describing the omnipresent fear that the government was fostering, Murrow told his colleagues, "The terror's in the room."

It's dejá vu with the Bush administration ensuring that terror is always in the room. Since September 11, 2001, George W. Bush has successfully manipulated the memory of the terrorist attacks to maintain power and mute effective criticism of his dangerous and illegal policies.

Bush continues to exploit 9/11, and the media is complicit in the hype. Cable news stations keep us informed of an "elevated" terror alert level.

The month after the 9/11 attacks, former Attorney General John Ashcroft rammed the USA Patriot Act through a Congress terrified of looking soft on terror. That same Congress had rejected many of the act's provisions months earlier because they threatened civil liberties.

Ashcroft warned that criticism of the government's policies "only aids terrorists." His successor, Alberto Gonzales, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, "We remain a nation at war."

The war is in Iraq, created from whole cloth by George W. Bush. There were no terrorists in Iraq before Bush invaded that country, changed its regime and occupied its land. Now it is a breeding ground for terrorism.

Hundreds of men are being held like animals, tortured and abused in the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Only a handful of them have been charged with crimes. The despicable conditions there have caused many to participate in a hunger strike. Rather than suffer the embarrassment of dying prisoners, jailers have been violently force-feeding them. They tie the prisoners down and insert large, unsterilized tubes down their noses with no anesthesia. A new UN report calls it torture.

Reports from Guantánamo and pictures of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison have also fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment.

Bush calls his illegal domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency the "Terrorist Surveillance Program." Dick Cheney told PBS's Jim Lehrer that "this program has saved thousands of American lives." Yet there's no way to prove - or disprove - Cheney's claim.

The Washington Post reported that, of the thousands of calls Bush's NSA program has intercepted, almost none relate to anything approximating terrorism.

The hallmark of the Bush administration is secrecy. CIA Director Porter Goss wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, "Disclosure of classified intelligence inhibits our ability to carry out our mission and protect the nation."

Yet, as whistleblower Sibel Edmonds pointed out yesterday (See "Porter Goss's op-ed: Ignoturn per Ignotius!"), the 9/11 Commission concluded that only "publicity" could have prevented the attacks. Had Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed known the so-called 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui had been arrested, they would have called off the attacks. The 9/11 Commission sharply criticized the government for classifying too much information.

In 2003, the Bush administration rescinded Clinton's rule that information should not be classified "if there is significant doubt" that releasing it would harm national security.

The deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security testified at a March 2005 Congressional hearing that 50 percent of the Pentagon's information was over-classified; the head of the Information Security Oversight Office said it was "even beyond 50 percent."

When whistleblowers and leakers reveal information critical of Bush policies, the administration mounts an attack on the messenger. In response to the New York Times report on the NSA spying program, the government launched an investigation to determine who leaked the information to the Times. When Gonzales tried to turn criticism of the program into an assault on the leakers, Senator Patrick Leahy declared, "Thank god we have press that tell us what you're doing because you're not telling us."

After the Times carried its report of the NSA program, some senators refused to vote to renew provisions of the Patriot Act that were due to expire on December 31, 2005. A last-minute compromise was cobbled together to extend those provisions for five weeks.

Just as the five week period was about to run out, Bush announced with great fanfare that an October 2001 al Qaeda plan to attack the tallest building on the West Coast had been thwarted by an unnamed Southeast Asian country. Once again, we have no corroboration of the accuracy of Bush's claim. His past lies lead many to question the truthfulness of his report.

Bush gave no credit to the NSA spying program. He most certainly would have if it had foiled the plot. The day after Bush's "revelation," Congress announced it had reached an agreement to make the Patriot Act permanent. Once again, the manipulation of fear succeeded in neutering the Congress.

Another example of the Bush administration's selective revelations of its own secret information is the leaking of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to journalists. The leak was strategically designed to punish Plame's husband Joseph Wilson for blowing the whistle on the lies Bush used to bolster support for his impending invasion of Iraq. (See Jason Leopold's "Cheney Spearheaded Effort to Discredit Wilson.")

The most famous leaker in United States history is Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. Those documents revealed the lies and hypocrisy of US policy in Southeast Asia. In 2003, Ellsberg told Salon writer Michelle Goldberg, "We're now in an aggressive, costly war. The White House had to lie about those policies to make them viable, and when you lie you have to keep the lies secret, you have to intimidate people who might be inclined to tell the truth, all that goes together. Why do they do it?" he asked rhetorically. "Wilson and I have no trouble knowing why they did it. They don't want people to act the way we do."

Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the mantle of President at the height of the Great Depression. People were broke, out of work, and afraid there might not be a next meal. Roosevelt told them, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." The people jumped on board with his New Deal, and pulled themselves out of the depression. FDR didn't exploit people's real fears. He courageously challenged them to face their fears and overcome them.

The Bush administration continues to perfect the art of terrifying. Many in Congress live in fear of losing their seats if they appear soft on terrorism.

But most Americans oppose Bush's illegal Iraq war and his secret spying program. The power to stop this war and the assault on our civil liberties rests in the hands of the people. Congress is reactive. It reacts to Bush's tactics of manipulation. But it will not be able to avoid reacting to an overwhelming call by the people to check the imperial executive.


Marjorie Cohn, a contributing editor to t r u t h o u t, is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.

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