The Making of the Imperial Presidency, the National Security State, and the Transition to Authoritarianism, Part 1

This series of posts actually began with Preparing for Domestic War in the U.S.?. The focus here is on the ways that the “global war on terror” has been used as a front for a domestic war against democracy and personal liberty in the U.S. itself, with the main tools being legislative changes handing the president’s office greater power than ever before; spying on citizens’ emails, phone calls, and mail; and the overall training environment in which Americans are taught and conditioned to think in terms of fear, threats, plots, and conspiracies on a daily basis.

The irony is immense when George W. Bush proclaims that the main motivation of the “terrorists” to attack the U.S. is that “they hate our freedoms” and “they hate free nations.” Yet, it is not Al Qaida that has implemented sweeping national security measures and domestic surveillance in the U.S., nor is it Al Qaida that is preparing for martial law in the U.S. That assault on U.S. freedoms comes entirely from the White House. Given Bush’s designation of what motivates a terrorist, given his declaration that “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” he seems to have clearly placed himself in the terrorists’ corner. Is that just hyperbole? If not, one must answer the question of which agents are responsible for executing Al Qaida’s alleged assault on U.S. freedoms, because clearly Al Qaida has no power to dictate the terms of the American response to its actions.

Importing Empire

Time and again, one of the lessons of imperialism is that while at first the citizens of the imperial home country might be motivated by nationalism to cheer the actions of their state, they inevitably become subject to a state that “imports” the lessons of domination and oppression from abroad, having entered into a “national security” mode for governing all human affairs, of all humans, home and abroad. Imperial power does not easily bifurcate itself between home and away, especially not when the same agents of empire reside and work at home in the state. This is merely an observation: never has there been an imperialist state that was also a fully functioning democracy with the full range of liberties for its citizens that we come to expect today.

More recently in U.S. history, the administration of Richard M. Nixon imported imperial power struggle from its deployment abroad:

it is crucial to remember how deeply Watergate was rooted in the Nixon administration’s determination to interfere unilaterally and often secretly in the affairs of countries around the world. The administration’s profound addiction to domestic spying really took flight with the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia and the protests that erupted when that horrific campaign became public knowledge. Awful as the crimes of Watergate were, they were a pale domestic reflection of how an unrestrained presidency exercised power in Southeast Asia, Chile and elsewhere — parts of the world that are still recovering. Then as now, there was a continuity, all too easily overlooked, from an administration’s claims of executive privilege at home to unilateral action abroad. (source: Bruce Shapiro, “Restoring the Imperial Presidency,”, June 17, 2002. )

Interestingly, in the administration of Gerald Ford that immediately took over as Nixon resigned, two of Ford’s aides — one Dick Cheney and one Donald Rumsfeld — were active in opposing the Congressional passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which Ford indeed vetoed and was overridden by Congress.

Unilaterialism at Home

While some right wing commentators chose to make light of Bush’s international unilaterialism in pressing ahead with the invasion of Iraq, a country that had never attacked the U.S. but had only been attacked by it, what they missed is that Bush brought this unilaterialism home, and declared himself a “war president.” In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, these are some of the details we would have read:

George W. Bush has surpassed his predecessors in the assumption of imperial powers–most conspicuously, perhaps, in his tendency to conflate America’s war against terrorism with his own existential destiny. “I will not forget this wound to our country,” he told the nation shortly after September 11. “I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” In assuming this pivotal role, moreover, Bush has made it clear that he will allow no bounds on his exercise of national power.

From this, it’s a short step to other manifestations of imperial decision-making, such as the August 26 opinion by White House lawyers that Bush does not require Congressional approval for an attack on Iraq. Supposedly, the 1991 resolution secured by the elder Bush for Operation Desert Storm is sufficient. “We don’t want to be in the legal position of asking Congress to authorize the use of force when the President already has that full authority,” a senior White House official told the Washington Post. (source: The editors, “The Imperial Presidency,” The Nation, Sept. 16, 2002.)

Maintaining Empire at Home

Over the past year, and moreso in recent weeks, those who wished to inform themselves would have learned about increasingly alarming measure to enact martial law and use Pentagon troops at home, against American dissenters. This where the undoing of Posse Comitatus comes in, an act instituted in 1878 to prevent the U.S. Army from engaging in domestic law enforcement. The aim was to prevent the politicization of the military given growing concern that it was becoming an independent force in its own right in the American political landscape.

Writing in October of 2000, Major Craig T. Trebilcock, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the U.S. Army Reserve, wrote in “The Myth of Posse Comitatus“:

The Posse Comitatus Act has traditionally been viewed as a major barrier to the use of U.S. military forces in planning for homeland defense. In fact, many in uniform believe that the act precludes the use of U.S. military assets in domestic security operations in any but the most extraordinary situations. As is often the case, reality bears little resemblance to the myth for homeland defense planners. Through a gradual erosion of the act’s prohibitions over the past 20 years, posse comitatus today is more of a procedural formality than an actual impediment to the use of U.S. military forces in homeland defense.

In actuality, over the last 20 years the U.S. military has been used within the U.S. to deal with civil unrest, illegal immigration, and the aftermath of natural disasters. In 2007, with the introduction of the John Warner Defense Appropriation Act (H.R. 5122.ENR, see Section 1076), Posse Comitatus was further undermined, with troops given the right to:

1. …restore public order and enforce the laws of the United States when, as a result of a natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident, or other condition in any State or possession of the United States…where the President determines that…domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted authorities of the State or possession are incapable of maintaining public order;
2. suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy…

This Act was overwhelmingly passed by Congress on Sept. 29, 2006.

In addition to the state’s own domestic spying and indefinite detention powers, which have been applied to U.S. citizens and legal residents, the private sector has also committed itself to sharing information with the FBI in a project known as INFRAGUARD:

InfraGard is an association of businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States.

Business leaders who belong to InfraGuard have been briefed on what to do when martial law is declared:

All of a sudden we [in a meeting with the FBI and Homeland Security] were knee deep in what was expected of us when martial law is declared. . . Then they said when-not if-martial law is declared, it was our responsibility to protect our portion of the infrastructure, and if we had to use deadly force to protect it, we couldn’t be prosecuted,’ he says . . .

‘We were assured that if we were forced to kill someone to protect our infrastructure, there would be no repercussions,’ the whistleblower says. “‘It gave me goose bumps. It chilled me to the bone.

Final Steps Toward Martial Law?

“Helping ‘people at home’ may become a permanent part of the active army,” says a now notorious article from the Army Times (“Brigade Homeland Tours Begin Oct. 1,” Gina Cavallaro, Tues., Sept. 30, 2008):

The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys.

Now they’re training for the same mission – with a twist – at home.

Beginning Oct. 1 for 12 months, the 1st BCT will be under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command, as an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters, including terrorist attacks….

They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack….The brigade will not change its name, but the force will be known for the next year as a CBRNE Consequence Management Response Force, or CCMRF (pronounced “sea-smurf”).

“I can’t think of a more noble mission than this,” said Cloutier, who took command in July. “We’ve been all over the world during this time of conflict, but now our mission is to take care of citizens at home … and depending on where an event occurred, you’re going home to take care of your home town, your loved ones.”

While Posse Comitatus is effectively at an end, and U.S. military forces are deployed within the U.S., and an Imperial President who acts without congressional authorization presides over all of these instruments converging in his hands, and the private sector and large parts of the populace fall in line with national security ideology, then what to do with potential dissenters and resisters?

This is where detention centres, like the ones built to house arrested prostesters in Denver for the recent Democratic National Convention, come into play again:

KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary recently reprimanded for gross overcharging in its military contracts in Iraq, won a $385 million contract to build the centers. According to the Halliburton website––“the contract, which is effective immediately, provides for establishing temporary detention and processing capabilities to augment existing ICE Detention and Removal Operations Program facilities in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs.”

What new programs might those be? The web was abuzz with speculation after the contract was awarded on January 24. Pacific News Service gave the most detailed analysis. It connected the new “immigration emergency” plans with older plans that involved imposing martial law.

Certainly the detention centers raise the specter of WW II Japanese internment camps. The new facilities could be used for round-ups of Muslim Americans or other American citizens tagged as “enemy combatants.”

The use of military personnel and military contractors in the event of a Katrina-like disaster, which the Halliburton contract provides for, brings us closer to martial law, whether it is officially declared or not.

For more information and a roundup in video format of the topics covered in this post, please see the following two, relative short videos:

Vote for the bailout, or it’s time for martial law – Rep. Sherman of Ohio

U.S. Army prepares to invade the U.S.