Democratic Underground

The Velvet Banana, Part Three: An Attack on Freedom
November 24, 2001
by Jack Rabbit

Part One: The Coup d'etat of 2000
Part Two: The Era of Good Stealings
Part Four: The Velvet Dictator

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Mr. Bush's first statement concerning the September 11 attacks called the events "an attack on freedom." When a man no brighter than Bush uses a word imbued so many different meanings as "freedom," the tendency is to dismiss it as rhetorical. What, if anything, does freedom mean to him. Lately, we may have come to wonder whether the word means anything in particular to him. In recent days and weeks, many of the acts of the administration could be characterized by the same term: an attack on freedom.

Since a banana republic dictator would probably be defeated if he allowed free and fair elections, he cannot allow them. Rigging the election isn't always enough. Repressing the opposition is also in order. In a banana republic, there are no guarantees of civil liberties.

If one were to have been asked on September 10 to give one word to describe the Bush administration, a good answer would have been: crooked. Bush has stolen an election, used the power of his office to turn over a vast budget surplus to his wealthy and powerful supporters, turned a blind eye while some of these same friends of his fleeced California with outrageous acts of market manipulation, has allowed and encouraged his subordinates to conduct policy meetings in secret with only industry leaders who stand to benefit attending, allowed his communications staff to spread lies and slander about those who served in the previous administration and abrogated several international agreements without regard to public opinion at home or abroad.

On September 10, the only thing that distinguished Mr. Bush from a banana republic tyrant was his inability to repress the opposition.

Many said the world changed on September 11. In many ways, they are wrong. The theft of the election is still theft, the looting of the budget surplus is still looting and a spoiled frat boy did not become a wartime leader with a Churchill-like stature. But he came closer to possessing an ability to repress the opposition and discard the Bill of Rights.

However, America cherishes its tradition of individual liberty; therefore, this descent into banana republic-style tyranny must be handled with a velvet glove, not an iron fist.

To date, there have been two areas that have been of concern to civil libertarians: freedom of the press and criminal justice. Let us examine this attack on freedom.

The area of press censorship should be of particular concern to Americans. It should be of greater concern that this aspect of Bush's present assault on the Bill of Rights has been handled with particularly smooth velvet. It's easy when multinational corporations own both the media and the administration. The TV network news outlets on October 8 ran a videotaped message by Osama bin Laden. This would seem proper; when Osama speaks, it's news. However, Mr. Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, called five network executives in a conference call on October 10 and requested that they not broadcast Osama messages. The executive represented ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC. After 20 minutes, they agreed to Dr. Rice's request. To quote from the story in the BBC Online: "[The executives] denied that they had come under pressure from Ms Rice or that the White House intervention amounted to censorship."

The reasons given for this request was that the messages might contain incitements to do harm against Americans or coded messages. We don't need Dr. Rice to tell us about the incitement to do harm to Americans. Osama bin Laden issued a fatwah in 1997 urging all Muslims to kill Americans and their allies - civilian and military - wherever they can be found. It's hardly a secret that Osama urges the killing of Americans. An English translation of the fatwah can be found here. There's nothing coded in that message. It's quite blunt.

As for the other point, it is so ridiculous that one should be surprised that a woman of Dr. Rice's intellect would insult herself by repeating it. Those who handle sensitive intelligence, as is Dr. Rice or any past White House National Security Advisor, are trained to say nothing about sensitive intelligence. Therefore, if she had any reason to think that bin Laden is passing coded messages and she said something about it, she would be guilty of a security violation. Any of her subordinates could be fired for that. The more likely possibility is that she made this up.

The networks may refrain from calling it censorship if they like. A White House advisor requested that they not broadcast news and they consented. They have voluntarily submitted to a self-censorship. It's a velvet censorship, but censorship nevertheless.

During this time the administration was attempting to export its brand of press censorship. On October 4, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Emir of Qatar to "rein in" al-Jazeera, the editorially independent television news station that broadcasts from Qatar. Although al-Jazeera has granted interviews to administration figures, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Dr. Rice, Powell expressed his displeasure at al-Jazeera giving airtime to anti-American points of view. The Emir refused. However, the US might have had the last word on al-Jazeera's habit of providing balanced journalism by dropping a 500-pound bomb on the station's bureau in Kabul. The Pentagon, of course, denies al-Jazeera was a target. If it were a target, then that would be a rather brutal attack on the freedom of the press.

The threat to individual rights the criminal justice system began almost immediately. In this case, the difference between the velvet glove and the iron fist is simply that the administration is denying rights to non-citizens, not citizens. At least for the time being.

Since the September 11 attacks, the federal government has taken into custody about 1200 foreign nationals, mostly of Middle Eastern of South Asian origin. It's hard to say exactly how many, since the Justice Department is no longer saying. We don't know exactly who they are or with what they are charged or to be charged. On October 29, the Center for National Securities Studies requested information about the detainees from the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, Attorney General John Ashcroft has instructed agencies to be less co-operative with freedom of information requests, assuring them that he will support denials. The Justice Department formally reject the Center of National Securities Studies request November 13.

In banana republics, there is a word for those who detained by the government in this way: desaparecidos, those who have disappeared. Our desaparecidos are lucky; at least, we assume that they are alive. The Justice Department has also determined that it has the right to listen in on conversations between the detainees and their attorneys, a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

The most ominous development to date has been an executive order signed by Mr. Bush on November 13 providing for the trial of anyone suspected of terrorist activity before a military tribunal. This document specifies that the defendant shall have no right of appeal before any other court of international tribunal.

However, the record of the proceedings shall be submitted to Mr. Bush for review and final decision. This is the same George W. Bush who, as Governor of Texas, oversaw 150 executions; this is the same George W. Bush who said that it is wrong to execute the mentally retarded and then had to do so equivocal acrobatics when it was pointed out that six of his capital punishment victims had IQ's under 70; this is the same George W. Bush who allowed the execution of Gary Graham, stating that just because Graham's attorney slept during key prosecution testimony was no reason to say Graham was denied a fair trial.

A press release from Amnesty International says the organization is "deeply troubled" over the institution of these tribunals. Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is "deeply disturbed." Ms. Murphy further states that the Administration has failed to show that the constitutional jury trial system does not allow for the prosecution of those accused of terrorist activities and that the decision is "further evidence that the Administration is totally unwilling to abide by the checks and balances that are so central to our democracy."

Not all of the criticism is coming from the left. "We are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo courts," said New York Times columnist and former Nixon White House speechwriter William Safire.

Of course, this is directed at non-citizens, so the rest of us should have nothing to worry about, right? Even if that were only true, it would still be unacceptable. Unfortunately, the administration may have more in mind. Folk singer Ronnie Gilbert, formerly of the Weavers, the same group that also featured Pete Seeger, wrote in the November issue of The Progessive that for the second time in her life, a group to which she belongs is under investigation. The first time it was the Weavers during the McCarthy era; now it is a group called Women in Black, a peace organization that protests violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

Also in The Progressive, former nun and anti-war activist from the Vietnam War Elizabeth McAlister reports that her husband, former priest Philip Berrigan, was placed in solitary confinement and denied visitation privileges recently for no apparent reason. Berrigan is serving a short sentence in a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio for hammering on a military aircraft. Senator Barbara Mulkuski investigated the situation on behalf of Ms. McAlister and got several different answers from different bureaucrats.

Finally, on November 1, Green Party activist Nancy Oden was at the airport in Bangor, Maine for a flight to a Green Party conference in Chicago. She was picked to have her bags searched; this was apparently in the computer as she checked in. She was told the selection was not random. This led to an encounter with a rude national guardsman who seemed to know exactly who she was, although how he knew is not clear. When the encounter was over, Ms. Oden was denied her seat on her flight on the grounds that see was uncooperative.

These stories suggest a disturbing pattern. We can hope there's nothing to them, but nothing is beyond this administration. Perhaps this is the real beginning of an attack on freedom.

Congressional oversight of the administration's recent activities is in order. In fact, it is desperately needed. Senator Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee has expressed concern about the administration's "unilateral" approach Congressman Conyers of Michigan has called for hearings on a number of concerns raised by the administration's moves. While Congress may be seen as attempting to hamper the administration during a national emergency, we should not forget that this is not a legitimate administration. Mr. Bush is not owed more deference than past occupants of the White House; indeed, given the manner in which he seized power, he is owed less. It was a grave mistake for Congress to have granted extraordinary powers to an unelected president, even in this emergency. Bush may be the commander-in-chief by default, but that does mean that this one should not be kept on a short leash.

As for Mr. Ashcroft, if the Attorney General cannot find a way to fight a war on terrorism and respect the rights of all Americans, then he should resign.

Somewhere down the road, civil disobedience may be in order over this issue. The administration has attacked freedom, and we must defend it.

On to Part Four: The Velvet Dictator »