The revelation by Glenn Carle, a former CIA official, that the Bush White House sought information on Prof. Juan Cole, an academic and critic of the Iraq war, in order to discredit him is hardly shocking, at least to anyone of my generation. After all, I reached political consciousness during the administration of Richard M. Nixon, whose hijinks – the Watergate break-in, the infamous COINTELPRO operation – are well known. Less well-known is the long history of police state tactics by previous administrations, running all the way back to FDR and Woodrow Wilson, two wartime presidents who set the pace for their successors.
Sure, now we have laws supposedly forbidding a repeat of history, and yet, existing right alongside these prohibitions, we have legislation like the PATRIOT Act, which empowers the feds to read our emails, monitor our political activities, and pretty much do what it pleases in the name of fighting our endless “war on terrorism.” Congress has renewed the Act, year after year, with clocklike regularity, and the nation’s liberals, as well as the supposedly “limited government” conservatives, aren’t making much of a fuss about it. As the first in a series of articles by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin in the Washington Post, “Top Secret America,” pointed out,
“The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”
It’s the only growth industry we have left, apparently:
“Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.”
Granted near absolute power to operate with impunity – to collect information on us, through fair means or foul – this vast army of spies, stool pigeons, and “analysts” is bound to do precisely what they were doing to Professor Cole because that’s their job. The idea that the information-gathering function of our national security bureaucracy can be separated out from any malign intent – and that it was this intent, rather than the act of collecting information, that was the real transgression — is reflected in the New York Times’ account:
“The experts said it might not be unlawful for the C.I.A. to provide the White House with open source material — from public databases or published material, for example — about an American citizen. But if the intent was to discredit a political critic, that would be improper, they said.”
For what purpose would the CIA or any similar government agency be collecting information on American citizens other than to discover facts that might bring discredit on them? The idea that such intelligence gathering is basically benign, and can only be considered illegal and/or impermissible on account of intent, is how they manage to get away with it.
As the Washington Post series showed, the sheer number of resources being absorbed by Top Secret America’s parallel universe of intelligence operatives is so immense it can’t even be accurately calculated. Even under the strictest legal constraints, some portion of this intelligence trove is more than likely to be leaked – especially if there’s some political advantage to it. In Washington, unsurprisingly, this happens all the time.
A couple of years ago, Prof. Cole, who teaches at the University of Michigan, was being considered for a teaching post at Yale: the matter became a cause célèbre in the blogosphere, and in the neoconservative media, where an organized campaign to deny him the position was launched. Yale eventually caved in to the pressure: Cole continues to teach in Michigan.
In retrospect, I think there can be little doubt that the campaign to deny Cole the Yale tenure-track position was directed from the White House. As the Times reported, the effort to dig up dirt on Cole started in 2005: the next year, when the Yale position was up for consideration, he was accused of being “pro-terrorist,” anti-Israel, and called every name in the book. When David B. Low, Carle’s boss, called Carle into his office, he said of Cole: “The White House wants to get him.”
Well, it looks to me like they got him.
Prof. Cole has reportedly called for an investigation, and good luck to him in that. Each and every member of the faculty committee at Yale that voted on Cole’s proposed appointment should be asked – and probably will be asked – to reveal their contacts with outsiders regarding the matter. I have no doubt that the trail of defamation will lead straight to Washington, D.C.
The larger lesson to be learned from all this is that none of us is safe. If you stick your head up above the tall grass, and are critical of whatever gang is in charge at the moment in Washington, you are taking a very big chance. Your career, your private life, your financial and professional existence – all are put at risk. And the idea that, under the Obama administration, we are going to catch a break is laughable: the FBI has been given more leeway in pursuing domestic intelligence targets, and that’s for a very good reason – because they intend to use it.
You can bet Prof. Cole wasn’t the only one on the Bush White House’s “enemies list” who suffered damage to his professional reputation inflicted by US government operatives. We’ll probably never know the identities of the targets, or the methods used to smear, slander, and marginalize them.
What I want to know is: who’s on Obama’s enemies list? Because, as sure as Washington real estate prices will continue to rise while plummeting in the rest of the country, these very same activities are continuing under the present administration. The heat is off Prof. Cole, at least for the moment – having endorsed Obama’s latest war, in Libya, the prominent lefty blogger probably has nothing to worry about. However, this administration has so far faithfully emulated its predecessors in so many other important ways that one has to assume the heat is still on the rest of us: indeed, given the Obama administration’s record on national and domestic security, one must assume domestic spying efforts and other covert actions have escalated.
In short, the persecution of Prof. Cole is just one example of America’s emerging police state – emerging into the daylight, that is, because it’s been thriving in the dark for quite some time.