George Bush versus U.S. national security

by Edward S. Herman
October, 2003

One of the remarkable political phenomena in this crazy political environment has been the Republican administration’s success in getting President George Bush portrayed as the man who the citizenry can rely on to protect their security interests. This is amazing, given the Bush record and plans. I will argue here that he has been a calamitous failure on security issues up to now, and that he is busily engaged in sowing the seeds for security disasters in the future. In saying this I am using security in the narrow sense, concerned only with threats of terrorist and military attack--and this will be the focus of the present article. If we extend the concept to encompass the security of the U.S. citizenry from threats of unemployment, pension loss, lack of medical insurance, street crime, security state abuses of civil liberties, breakdowns in electrical, water, or transportation service, or damage to health resulting from environmental degradation, the Bush threat to security is truly overwhelming.

Bush has gotten away with this Orwellian image of security-savior by stoking fears, stirring up patriotic ardor, manufacturing wars—or rather invasions of small and virtually defenseless countries—and strutting about like a bantam rooster looking very grave, pronouncing momentous words attempting to evoke Churchillian grandeur (“I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people”), and acting his part in frequent photo-op stunts that portray the erstwhile draft-dodger as an active warrior chieftain (his jet-landing in Air Force garb on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln).

But he couldn’t have done this without an ultra-compliant media that have followed his agenda, featured virtually without comment his photo-ops, serial misrepresentations of fact, and scares, and simply refused to challenge their Leader, serving him much in the manner of the media of a totalitarian state. Professor Lance Bennett refers to this media performance as a “near-perfect journalistic participation in government propaganda operations.” The large rightwing segment of the media have functioned as literal press agents and cheer-leaders for the Bush administration, setting the tone and helping cow the “liberal” sector of the corporate media into similar if less vocal subservience to the government (although most of them didn’t need to be cowed).

At a deeper level, this reflects the fact that the corporate community is very pleased with the Bush administration, which has been brazenly aggressive in providing business tax breaks, resource giveaways, reductions in environmental controls, cutbacks in the welfare state, and impediments to labor organization. Such service to the needs of the powerful feeds into the performance of the corporate and advertiser-funded media, which treats a Bush much differently than a Clinton, Gore or any other politician who may try hard to placate business but is not prepared for 100 percent corporate service.

The 9/11 Security Failure

The Bush administration was directly responsible for the 9/11 security failure, one of the greatest and most inexcusable in U.S. history. The administration had been warned by the outgoing Clinton team of the al Qaeda threat, and essentially ignored that warning in its eight months in office before 9/11. The administration failed to take any action based on a host of subsequent warning signals, including information on the flight training of suspicious individuals and explicit advisories of a threatened “spectacular” terrorist action provided by the intelligence agencies of half-a-dozen allied countries. Bush’s August 6, 2001 intelligence briefing included an item “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US,” which noted the “FBI judgment about pattern of activity consistent with preparation for hijackings and other types of attack.” The Bush administration did nothing in response to these warnings in the way of checking out threatening “patterns of activity” like flight training or trying to strengthen airport security. One day before the big attack, on September 10, 2001, Attorney-General John Ashcroft submitted a Justice Department budget that reduced by $58 million FBI requests that would have provided for 149 counterterrorism field agents, 200 intelligence analysts, and 54 translators; and he proposed a $65 million cut for state and local governments for counterterrorism supplies, including radios and decontamination equipment. Ashcroft’s priorities did not include terrorism; they featured “securing the rights of victims of crimes,” immigration control, dealing with drug trafficking, and the threat of prostitutes in Louisiana.

The failure to deal with the al Qaeda terror threat may well have been connected to the relationships between the Bush family, friends and oil interests and the Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, some of whom were allowed to leave the country in the immediate wake of 9/11 with White House approval (while large numbers of Arabs with no known connections to bin Laden or al Qaeda were quickly rounded up for questioning, frequent mistreatment, and open-ended incarceration). The Bush administration went to great pains to impede and delay an investigation of the 9/11 security failure, refusing access to Condoleeza Rice and many CIA and other personnel as well as executive documents, and in the end insisting on keeping from public scrutiny the 28 pages of the long-delayed report on the reasons for the security failure that dealt with the Saudi connection..

It is an amazing testimony to the power of the rightwing that the Bush administration was able to get away with delaying and then successfully censoring the joint congressional committee’s 9/11 report, and without suffering any serious condemnation.
Clearly 9/11 has been considered an event of overwhelming importance, with almost 3,000 U.S. dead, generating vast publicity and expressions of grief and anger, and providing the basis for an open-ended “war on terror.” Recall also that some of the 19 plane hijackers had even trained in aircraft management in the United States, had coordinated this operation on U.S. soil without any interference from a security apparatus costing the taxpayers an estimated $30 billion a year. Then there is the record of warnings and evidence of Bush administration disinterest, possibly influenced by the Saudi-oil connection. Then there is the failure of the U.S. alert system to respond to the hijacking, and the evidence that leader George Bush became conspicuous by his absence following his hearing of the Twin Towers hits.

Many of the 9/11 victims’ families have been appalled at the security failure coverup, and some have even pursued the issue with a great deal of energy (Gail Sheehy, “Four 9/11 Moms Battle Bush,” New York Observer, Aug. 21, 2003). But the media have been exceedingly quiet, and from 9/11 to the present they have exerted little pressure on the administration to explain their failure, and they have not suggested that this dereliction of duty constitutes criminal and impeachable negligence. At the height of the disclosures of Bush’s intelligence failures, in May 2002, the New York Times editorial stress was on the inability to assemble data and to act as a “chronic” problem, and the need to focus on “what really matters, which is preventing another assault” by bin Laden, rather than blame assessment (ed., “Distractions and Diversions,” May 21, 2002). In fact, the media have hardly admitted 9/11 to be a Bush failure at all: the Philadelphia Inquirer even made 9/11 something that might taint Clinton’s legacy, without even mentioning any possible Bush responsibility (Dick Polman, “Sept. 11 may tarnish Clinton’s legacy,” Jan. 14, 2002).

I would submit that if Clinton had been in office and displayed the same record of non- and mal-performance the media would have been unrelenting, their investigative efforts would have been frenzied, and the security failure would have been pinned on Clinton along with his immediate subordinates. (Dick Cheney, for example, was presented as Bush’s “point man on domestic terrorism” in May 2001, but he hadn’t lifted a finger in dealing with this responsibility by 9/11.)
If Clinton was impeached for lies associated with the Lewinsky scandal, can there be any doubt that he would have been impeached—and convicted and removed from office—for this much more serious crime? But he was not protected by the rightwing and “liberal media” as is George Bush, the servant of the corporate community.

From Security Failure to Terrorism Inflation and Fear-Mongering

Having egregiously failed to protect U.S. national security on 9/11, the Bush team then rushed to the opposite extreme of inflating and manufacturing terrorist threats, stoking fear, and presenting themselves as the security-protectors that the U.S. citizenry could rely upon. This took the heat off their catastrophic failure--and the ongoing corporate and Bush administration’s conflict-of-interest scandals--and allowed them to use this new focus and diversion to carry out external and internal policies that they had wanted to pursue but found it difficult to implement without a cover.

This new effort to work the security-protector gambit began with an immediate rush of naval vessels to New York harbor and elsewhere, and continuous Air Force flights over New York and other major cities that continued for many months. This was extremely silly, as it should have been obvious even to the editors of the New York Times that bin Laden, and even Saddam Hussein, had no navy or air force that might attack New York City, that 9/11 was a long-planned once-off project, and that further terrorist attacks, if they took place, were going to be by low-tech methods. But the media didn’t laugh or criticize. They didn’t point out the contrast between the failure to deal with the real threat and the idiotic (and wasteful) new rush to convey the image of alert security-protectors. No, they fell in line with that high gullibility quotient they so frequently display when dealing with alleged “security” or foreign policy issues (as they have done in dealing with the Bush pre-invasion claims of Saddam Hussein’s threatening weapons of mass destruction).

Thereafter the Bush team made frequent announcements of terror threats and arrests of terror suspects, based on information far less compelling than that which they had completely ignored before 9/11 and often laughable.
Ashcroft’s claim that the FBI had disrupted a plan to launch a “dirty bomb” attack on Washington by its May 8, 2002 arrest of a former member of a Chicago street gang, soon collapsed when it was revealed that there was no bomb, no access to nuclear material, nor even a plan—only an alleged “intention.” But the media played this up heavily, and they regularly feature general claims of ominous threats even when timed to coincide with embarrassing political moments for the Bush terror fighters (e.g., “Cheney: New attacks ‘almost certain,’” Philadelphia. Inquirer, May 20, 2002, p. 1 big headline). The new Homeland Security Administration concocted a system of color alerts for terror threats of different levels of seriousness, and they were on frequently, dependably at politically convenient moments. These alerts were invariably false alarms, and despite all the fear propaganda, and barring the attacks via the anthrax mailings, there was not a single real terrorist act on U.S. soil for the two years following 9/11. Theoretically this could have been the result of the arrests, alerts, and heightened surveillance that had been put in place. The other possibility, which I believe to be the main reality, is that al Qaeda was poorly represented in the United States and had temporarily exhausted its capabilities here with its focused effort producing 9/11.

The Continuing Failure to Protect Against Terror

The Bush administration took advantage of the new fear environment and the stoked patriotism to push its National Missile Defense (NMD) and other military projects that had absolutely nothing to do with combating al Qaeda and terrorism, but which neither the media nor Democrats contested. A very large fraction of the new money allocated to “security” after 9/11 went to these non-terrorism-related projects and military attacks abroad that served the semi-hidden Bush agenda of projecting U.S. imperial power on a global basis, and which are reliable producers of more anti-U.S. terrorism.

But while big money was being spent by Bush on the NMD and other provocative and wasteful weapons systems, and wars, the Bush team was shortchanging programs that would actually help fend off and protect the public against terrorist acts. It wasted money and effort in putting up a huge Homeland Security bureaucracy, when even a relatively small bureaucracy like that of the FBI had not been able to coordinate information within its own ranks. It has put a great deal of money into increased surveillance, but short-changed the security needs of airports, ports, and other vulnerable infrastructure such as electric power and nuclear facilities, and water pumping stations.

Although the front lines of defense against terrorist attacks are the local police, firefighters and emergency workers, and although many new homeland security duties were placed upon them, U.S. cities have received “only a relative pittance” to fund these activities, and because of congress’s combining new homeland security funds with existing federal monies for crime prevention, public safety and emergency preparedness, “America’s cities and towns actually experienced a net loss in federal support” (Joe Moore, “War Effort Impedes Security At Home,” Moore is an Alderman, City of Chicago.

The Department of Homeland Security alerts call for action by local emergency providers, although ordinary citizens are free to ignore them. These alerts therefore regularly require overtime payments for local police and others, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that cities have been spending an additional $70 million per week on personnel costs alone to keep up with Orange Alert demands. David Morris points out that “Bush’s strategy of distinguishing between local and national security has led to a truly bizarre situation. Whenever the likelihood of a terrorist attack goes up, the capacity of our communities to cope goes down” (“Homeland Security Doesn’t Help Communities Cope,” Alternet, August 20, 2003). Add to this the fiscal crisis now besetting states and local governments, with virtually no aid from the Bush administration, busily pumping federal resources into military and occupation expenditures and tax cuts for Bush cronies and business support base, and the local capacity to respond to terrorism is being weakened further.

Manufacturing Terrorists

During the Vietnam War the U.S. military displayed its mastery of the art of creating enemies by its racist contempt for the little “yellow dwarves” (Lyndon Johnson) and the lavish use of firepower on “suspected Vietcong villages.” This country also used chemicals on a large scale to destroy peasant rice crops (Operation Ranch Hand). The U.S. military succeeded in producing two enemy soldiers for every one they killed, but never quite grasped where these new replacement soldiers were coming from. But not everybody in the military was confused: as U.S. Army Master Sergeant Donald Duncan testified back in 1966: “One day I asked one of our Vietnamese helicopter pilots what he thought of the last bomb raid. [He answered] ‘I think maybe today we make many Vietcong.’ ”

George Bush and his cabal have built on this great tradition. The United States is using chemical and biological agents against drug-related crops, with spillover to other crops, in Colombia. This is a superb hate- and terrorist-producing operation.

The Bush administration has entered into a close alliance with “man of peace” Ariel Sharon and has given virtually unconditional support to Israel’s ethnic cleansing, and it is completely unconcerned with Israel’s nuclear (and chemical-biological) arsenal and threats while aggressively threatening any Israeli neighbor daring to pursue similar arms.
Bush declared an open-ended “war on terror,” first announced as a “crusade,” with a very obvious anti-Islam bias, but open to support of any government willing to align with the Bush team in its global projection of power. Many authoritarian governments have been happy to join the war as it has provided them with aid and protection in their own campaigns to attack and crush dissident movements.
These are all beautifully designed to produce anti-U.S. feelings and terrorist responses on a global basis.

The serial wars, first Afghanistan, then Iraq, with others openly threatened, have also been extremely well designed to produce terrorists: in both cases, as in Vietnam, by the lavish use of firepower that killed and injured large numbers of civilians, and in both cases by the ground behavior of U.S. troops (beating, handcuffing and blindfolding men, women and children, and shooting to kill at the slightest provocation), taking numerous prisoners in blind sweeps, treating them badly, and holding them for long periods without charge or ability to communicate with their families.
In Afghanistan, large numbers of Taliban prisoners were murdered in prison and in transit to other locations, mainly by U.S. allies but with obvious U.S. acquiescence. There are thousands of prisoners in Iraq whose status and treatment are unclear but whose treatment is in clear violation of international law.

Bush justified the attack on Iraq on the basis of Iraq’s alleged providing “training and safe haven to terrorists…who would willingly use weapons of mass destruction against America and other peace-loving countries.” But as Jonathan Freedland has pointed out “With astonishing speed, the United States and Britain are making their nightmares come true. Iraq is fast becoming the land that they warned about…” So while the Bush claim was a lie, “events have taken care of that little lacuna in the US argument” (“The Blind Prophet,” The Guardian, Sept. 3, 2003).

But it would be a mistake to think that the Bush cabal regrets this wee mistake. They wanted an excuse to invade and occupy, and used many lies as justification. Furthermore, I don’t believe they are all that upset over the fact that their policies have produced more terrorism, although the difficulty and costs of pacifying Iraq is definitely a setback. But just as 9/11 itself was a Bush windfall, so further terrorist acts will give him and the cabal the further fear and “security” cover for the further projection of power abroad and service to the corporate community and military-industrial complex at home. This works because the mainstream media get on each terrorist gambit bandwagon and refuse to point out the self-fulfilling character of the Bush policies in which wholesale terror elicits retail terror. The hope is that the costs of these cruel and dangerous policies, feeding back on ordinary citizens and making them steadily poorer and more insecure, will produce a public enlightenment and outcry that will affect the media and have political consequences.

First published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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