Bush's war at home:
a creeping coup d'état
World Socialist Web Site, November 7, 2001
In the period since the September 11 terrorist attacks on
New York and Washington, the United States has undergone a radical
transformation in the structure of the government, in the relationship
between the people and the police and armed forces, and in the
legal and constitutional framework.
The White House has assumed vast new powers for internal repression,
establishing by executive order an Office of Homeland Security
that is not subject to either congressional oversight or any vote
on the personnel appointed to run it. An all-encompassing political
police agency is coming into being, through the passage of an
"anti-terror" law that effectively amalgamates the FBI
and CIA and abolishes the longstanding separation between overseas
spying and domestic policing.
Side by side with the bombing of Afghanistan, the Bush administration
has declared that there is a second front in the war, the war
at home. The federal government issues vague and unsubstantiated
"terror alerts," which fuel anxiety while providing
no protection to the public. Government spokesmen urge the population
to get used to measures like random police searches and roadblocks
as a permanent feature of life. National Guard troops patrol the
airports, harbors, bridges, tunnels and even the US Capitol.
Fundamental constitutional safeguards-the right of habeas
corpus, the right of the accused to know the charges against them,
the right of arrested persons to see a lawyer, even the presumption
of innocence-have been set aside for millions of immigrants from
the Middle East and Central Asia. The right to privacy has been
all but abolished for the entire population, with government intelligence
agencies given the green light to plant bugs and wiretaps, monitor
financial transactions, and conduct other forms of spying, virtually
If the average American had been shown on September 10 a picture
of the United States as it is today, the response would likely
have been: "This is not the America I know. This looks more
like a police state."
The bitter irony is that such a sweeping attack on democratic
rights has been perpetrated in the name of a war to defend "freedom"
and "democracy" against terrorism. But neither the Bush
administration, nor its Democratic Party collaborators, nor a
compliant and complicit media bother to explain the following
contradiction: the United States government never secured powers
such as these at any point in the twentieth century. Not in World
War I, World War II or the Cold War, when the antagonists were
powerful and heavily armed states, was such a radical restructuring
of the governmental and legal framework carried out. Why is this
happening today, when the alleged enemy is a small band of terrorists
operating out of caves in one of the poorest countries in the
The anti-terrorism law
One of the key elements of the assault on civil liberties
is the new "anti-terrorism" act, which was rushed through
Congress and signed into law only five weeks after the terror
attacks. The law defines terrorism in such a way as to include
political activity and speech previously protected by the Bill
of Rights of the US Constitution. It provides wide-ranging authority
for police agencies to carry out secret searches, conduct expanded
electronic surveillance, and indefinitely detain terrorism suspects.
Non-citizens, including legal permanent residents, can be denied
reentry to the US for expressing political views, and can be deported
for having even the most incidental association with organizations
designated as "terrorist" by the government. Attorney
General John Ashcroft last week expanded the number of groups
so designated from 46 to 74.
Among the most ominous provisions of the law is the abolition
of the "firewall" between foreign and domestic intelligence
agencies. The Central Intelligence Agency now has the authority
to share information with the Federal Bureau of Investigation
and thereby collaborate with the FBI in conducting domestic surveillance
and preparing criminal prosecutions. The FBI is likewise authorized
to share with the CIA information collected during grand jury
proceedings, without a court order, giving the US spy agency access
to domestic intelligence it had been barred from receiving in
An article in the November 4 Washington Post carried the ominous
headline, "An Intelligence Giant in the Making: Anti-Terrorism
Law Likely to Bring Domestic Apparatus of Unprecedented Scope."
It noted that the media focus on the electronic surveillance and
wiretapping provisions of the new legislation deflected attention
from other provisions of the bill that will fundamentally alter
the operation of US intelligence-gathering agencies. According
to the Post, one of the most significant aspects of the law is
that it "empowers the government to shift the primary mission
of the FBI from solving crimes to gathering domestic intelligence."
The law reverses legal reforms enacted under the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act of 1978, which segregated the FBI's criminal
investigation function from its intelligence-gathering operations
against foreign spies and international terrorists. The Post comments,
"the bill effectively tears down legal fire walls erected
25 years ago during the Watergate era, when the nation was stunned
by disclosures about presidential abuses of domestic intelligence-gathering
against political activists."
These changes go beyond a mere quantitative expansion of certain
investigative powers. They constitute a basic restructuring of
the police and intelligence apparatus to vastly expand its scope
In recent days, federal officials have urged the lifting of
legal restraints on state and local police powers. Deputy Attorney
General Larry Thompson lamented that Justice Department agents
"don't have enough eyes and ears" to monitor terrorist
suspects, and said restrictions on local police departments "need
to be looked at."
Many local police departments are already scrapping rules
on intelligence-gathering that were established to protect First
Amendment rights. The Los Angeles Police Commission voted last
month to relax intelligence restrictions adopted in the early
1980s, following disclosures that police were monitoring anti-war
protesters, liberal politicians and other political dissidents.
Other big city police departments are moving to revive the surveillance
methods utilized by "Red Squad" operations of the past.
Terrorizing the public
On October 29, the government issued its second general terrorism
alert in less than three weeks. Declaring that major terrorist
attacks against the US or US interests around the world were in
the offing, Attorney General Ashcroft was utterly vague as to
the likely targets, methods or perpetrators. He provided no information
to support the claim of imminent danger. He gave no instructions
as to how the public was to respond to the alleged danger. However,
he issued an advisory to 18,000 state and local police agencies
to "continue on highest alert and to notify immediately the
FBI of any unusual or suspicious activity."
Instructing the public to accept extraordinary measures, such
as random stops or searches by police or National Guard troops,
or questioning by FBI agents, Ashcroft said, "We ask for
the patience and cooperation of the American people, if and when
they encounter additional measures undertaken by local law enforcement
or federal law enforcement authorities and others who are charged
with securing the safety of the public."
As an immediate consequence of the alert, National Guard troops
were deployed in a number of states at transportation centers,
water supplies and nuclear power plants. These are in addition
to the troops who have patrolled major airports since the September
At week's end, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt announced
that Congress, with bipartisan support, was authorizing the posting
of armed soldiers at the Capitol building. The Supreme Court subsequently
announced it would bar the public from its hearings.
The government claims that the "terror alerts" have
been issued in order to warn and protect the public. But with
no specific information provided about the imminent threat-when
and where the terrorists might strike-what is public expected
to do? Their vacuous character demonstrates that these alerts
are essentially fraudulent. Their real purpose is to accustom
the population to invasions of privacy, the dismantling of constitutional
safeguards, and a general militarization of society. The authorities
want people to accept as a normal state of affairs the deployment
of armed troops at airports, public buildings, bridges, border
checkpoints and in the streets.
The Bush administration has seized on the anthrax attacks
as an additional means of bludgeoning the public into accepting
such far-reaching restrictions on civil liberties. Although the
evidence so far made available suggests that extreme right-wing
elements of the Timothy McVeigh stripe are the most likely suspects,
the White House and the media constantly suggest that Osama bin
Laden is responsible for the anthrax attacks, depicting his Al
Qaeda network as a pervasive and all-powerful threat.
Periodic alerts such as those issued October 11 and October
29 are intended to facilitate the consolidation of the new apparatus
of internal repression. On October 29, the same day as the most
recent alert, President Bush presided over the first meeting of
the Council of Homeland Security. This new and unprecedented body
includes-in addition to former Governor Tom Ridge, who has been
named the director of the Office of Homeland Security-the vice
president, the attorney general, the secretaries of defense, treasury,
transportation and health and human services and the heads of
the CIA and FBI. The powers of this council as well as those of
the Office of Homeland Security are vague and undefined, and therefore
Following that meeting, Bush announced the establishment of
yet another agency with unspecified police powers-the "foreign
terrorist tracking taskforce," headed by Ashcroft. The establishment
of this task force is part of a new border policy that will enable
the government to more easily bar entry to immigrants alleged
to have terrorist connections, and to carry out a general crackdown
on those applying for or holding student visas.
Mass arrests among immigrants
These far-reaching changes come under conditions where the
national security dragnet initiated after September 11 is expanding,
with the number of people rounded up now standing at more than
1,100. While federal officials will not say how many of these
detainees have been released, a Justice Department spokesperson
said "a majority" of them are still in custody. The
roundup of these individuals has been shrouded in secrecy, with
the government providing no information about the detainees' identities,
where they are being held, why they are being detained, and what
charges, if any, are being laid against them.
Many are held in solitary confinement. The whereabouts of
some suspects are unknown to family members, and others either
have no legal representation or have been denied contact with
their lawyers. Much of the legal action against those in custody
is taking place in secret court proceedings, with court documents
sealed to the public. All of this is being done to shield the
operations of federal, state and police agencies from public scrutiny.
The Justice Department has rejected appeals from civil liberties
groups and some congressmen for information about the detentions,
without giving any explanation for its blackout. Kate Martin,
director of the Center for National Security Studies, commented
that the government's conduct in the investigation is "frighteningly
close to the practice of 'disappearing' people in Latin America."
Following each of the two national alerts against terrorism
since September 11, the number of those rounded up by the government
has risen sharply, tripling in the past few weeks. One of the
main purposes of the alerts is to signal state and local police
to step up their surveillance activities and round up more suspects.
While the mass murder at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
is the pretext for the mass arrests, not a single one of those
detained has been charged with any offense related to the September
11 attacks. Even the Justice Department claims that at most 10
or 12 of those detained are suspected, but not proven, of having
links to the hijackers. The vast majority of the arrests have
another purpose, unrelated to any investigation of the terrorist
attack: to intimidate the immigrant population and accustom the
American people as a whole to methods previously associated with
A "war on two fronts"
Government officials have emphasized that the anti-terror
measures adopted in recent weeks should not be regarded as temporary.
At a briefing on October 29, Ridge declared, "We want America
to be on the highest alert. And from time to time, we may issue
the same general alert again."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a column in the November
1 edition of the Washington Post, baldly stated that not only
should the American people accept an open-ended war against terrorism,
but they must "prepare now for the next war-a war that may
be vastly different not only from those of the past century but
also from the new war on terrorism that we are fighting today."
In other words, America is going on a war footing, not for the
duration of a specific conflict in Afghanistan, but indefinitely.
Consequently, the domestic police measures being taken now by
the government must also be accepted as a permanent state of affairs.
One catch phrase has more and more routinely appeared in the
statements of Bush administration officials: America is fighting
"a war on two fronts." Announcing his terrorism alert
last week, Ashcroft stated: "I trust the American people
to be able to understand in this context the conflict, where there
is a front overseas and there is another front here in the United
Ridge said the following day, "We are engaged in a two-front
war against terrorism." In an October 31 speech urging passage
of his economic stimulus plan, Bush repeated this mantra: "For
the first time in our nation's history, part of the battle front
is here at home."
Precisely what is meant by this "war on two fronts"
is never explained. But in light of the extraordinary security
measures taken by the government since September 11, references
to a battle on the "home front" take on a chilling significance.
With their attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and hysteria
over impending terrorist threats, authorities want to identify
anyone rounded up in their investigation as the enemy, whether
or not there is evidence against them. The same methods will be
used against those who oppose the war against Afghanistan and
other policies of the government, domestic or foreign.
Before and after September 11
The government's actions in the period since September 11
constitute the most serious and sustained attack on civil liberties
in US history. No one should believe that this is merely a reaction
to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Such
measures have long been sought by the most right-wing sections
of the ruling elite, who have seized on the tragic events of September
11 to realize their political agenda at home, just as they are
using them to launch a US military intervention in oil-rich Central
These sweeping changes are the culmination of two decades
of political reaction and attacks on democratic rights, which
have seen a steady buildup of the repressive forces of the state-two
million Americans in prison, thousands on Death Row, legal restrictions
on the rights of defendants, expanded powers of police spying
and electronic surveillance. This has been accompanied by the
emergence of a fascist-minded right wing with little popular support,
but enormous influence in the Republican Party, in Congress, and
now in the White House.
Those who want to claim that the recent escalation of the
onslaught on civil liberties is simply a response to September
11 ignore the critical fact that the Bush administration came
to power on the basis of an unprecedented assault on the most
basic of democratic rights-the right to vote. The drive by Bush
and the Republican Party to hijack the election and take power,
despite having lost the popular vote nationally, was consummated
in a ruling by the right-wing majority on the US Supreme Court,
which halted a legal recount in the pivotal state of Florida,
handing the presidency to Bush. A government that takes power
by methods of fraud and conspiracy must rule through the same
This is an administration committed to a domestic and foreign
policy tailored to the interests of the wealthiest and most privileged
layer in American society. It is also an administration of enormous
crisis. Prior to the terror attacks, the Bush administration was
showing clear signs of internal disarray. Its already narrow social
base of support was eroding under the pressure of a deepening
economic slump, both in the US and globally.
The Republicans had lost control of the Senate, and on the
international front, the Bush administration was increasingly
isolated, with nominal allies as well as enemies opposing its
aggressive and unilateralist posture. The events of September
11 were seized on by those who run the Bush administration as
a welcome opportunity to shore up the government and rally public
support by launching a military attack on the alleged perpetrators,
while preparing for an upsurge of social struggle over rising
unemployment, worsening slump and the government's pro-corporate
policies by expanding and restructuring the police powers of the
The Bush administration's domestic "anti-terror"
campaign must serve as a sharp warning. After the Florida debacle
of November and December 2000, there were complacent commentaries
in the press declaring that, unlike many other countries, the
bitter political struggle in the United States did not end with
tanks in the streets. Now the tanks are in the streets, and soldiers
surround the Capitol, in what might be called a slow-motion coup
All of the traditional norms of bourgeois democracy in the
US are in question. The Bush administration expresses the contempt
for democracy that pervades powerful sections of the American
corporate and financial oligarchy, as well as their fascistic
allies in the Christian right, the gun lobby and the militia movement.
They are determined to go as far as they can in establishing an
authoritarian regime. Such concepts as the separation of powers
between the three branches of government and legislative oversight
of the executive branch are being tossed aside in the effort to
vastly expand the police powers of the federal executive.
It is worth noting that at the height of the anthrax scare,
in mid-October, congressional Republicans favored shutting down
Congress and adjourning indefinitely, the better to give Bush,
the FBI, the CIA and the military a free hand, both abroad and
The Bush administration's war on democratic rights has exposed
the inability of the Democratic Party to offer any serious opposition
to the extreme-right forces that dominate the Republican Party.
Within hours of the September 11 attacks, the Democrats pledged
unconditional support to the Bush White House, declaring that
political dissent was no longer permissible. The Democratic leadership
not only lined up to give Bush an open-ended mandate to wage war
abroad, it insured the passage of his "anti-terror"
bill, suppressed any investigation of the unexplained intelligence
failure that allowed the September 11 attacks to take place, and
sanctioned the trashing of constitutional safeguards in the ongoing
The political collapse of the Democratic Party is the culmination
of a protracted process of adaptation to the most right-wing sections
of the ruling elite. In their craven response first to the Republican
impeachment conspiracy, and then to the theft of the 2000 election,
the Democrats already demonstrated their inability and unwillingness
to defend democratic rights.
While for the moment, the vast majority of those caught up
by the government's dragnet are immigrants of Middle-Eastern and
Central Asian descent, it is only a matter of time before these
anti-democratic methods will be used more widely. The wholesale
attack on democratic rights can only be halted through the independent
organization of the working class, which unites all sections of
the working population-immigrant and US-born-in a political struggle
against the financial oligarchy and its political representatives.