Faking Civil Society

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the USA PATRIOT Act, the following exchange took place between former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, now attorney general, and Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.):

"GONZALES: Mr. Chairman, let me, kind of, reassure the committee and the American people that the department has no interest in rummaging through the library records or the medical records of Americans.

"GONZALES: That is not something that we have an interest in.

"SPECTER: Does that mean you’d agree to excluding them?

"GONZALES: We do have an interest, however, in records that may help us capture terrorists. And there may be an occasion where having the tools of 215 to access this kind of information may be very helpful to the department in dealing with the terrorist threat.

"The fact that this authority has not been used for these kinds of records means that the department, in my judgment, has acted judiciously. It should not be held against us that we’ve exercised, in my judgment, restraint.

"It’s comparable to a police officer who carries a gun for 15 years and never draws it. Does that mean that for the next five years he should not have that weapon, because he’s never used it?

"SPECTER: Attorney General Gonzales, I don’t think your analogy is apt, but if you want to retain those records, as your position, I understand. And let me move on."

Actually, Specter is wrong. Gonzales’ analogy is all too apt. That sheathed gun is, in this case, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which gives the government the ability to demand – as librarians fear – records of a person’s library reading habits. A library, so requested, is banned from informing the reader of this search. But of course Section 215 applies to far more than libraries;and when it comes to basic civil liberties as well as the most basic aspects of civil society, the Bush administration does indeed carry a gun that we have no reason to believe has remained sheathed.

The actual wording of Section 215 reads, in part:

“The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. … No person shall disclose to any other person (other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section.”

In other words, they can do it and we can’t know. Nothing civil about it. Note, by the way, that “not conducted solely,” which assumedly means that an investigation can be conducted against “activities protected by the first amendment.” And keep in mind that the man now testifying, before he morphed into the attorney general of the increasingly ill-named Justice Department, was sitting in the White House Counsel’s office overseeing some of the most pretzeled language and tortured logic ever-produced to create a prosecution-free basis for promoting a presidential regime of torture throughout our various jails, camps, and detention centers then being set up abroad.

It’s one of those commonplaces to say that empire and its appurtenances like torture never stay long out in the imperium, but it’s another thing to note that the men who now run the Pentagon (Donald Rumsfeld), the Homeland Security Department (Michael Chertoff), and the Justice Department (Alberto Gonzales), as well as the White House (George Bush & Co.) have been deeply involved in creating the opposite of a civil society around an American-garrisoned world, and that everyone should think twice about letting them into a library with that sheathed gun. Even their language is a language of armament. While FBI Director Robert Mueller “asked lawmakers to expand the bureau’s ability to obtain records without first asking a judge, and he joined Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in seeking that every temporary provision of the anti-terrorism PATRIOTAct be renewed,” Gonzales was insisting that “now is not the time for us to be engaging in unilateral disarmament” when it came to the “legal weapons available for fighting terrorism.”

In his latest “Letter from Ground Zero” for the Nation magazine (posted here thanks to the kindness of that magazine’s editors), Jonathan Schell considers ways in which a striking development of the pre-9/11 decades, the creation of “civil societies” around the world in places where previously only uncivil ones had existed, is slowly being turned into something else entirely. He also explores ways in which, domestically, a society that could hardly be thought of as civil is being created by men whose most powerful impulse is to draw their guns. Tom

Faking Civil Society

by Jonathan Schell

Perhaps the most beautiful achievement of political life in the late 20th century was the international movement for democracy that brought down several dozen dictatorships of every possible description – authoritarian, communist, fascist, military. It happened on all continents, and it happened peacefully. It began in the 1970s, with the collapse of the Greek junta and of the right-wing regimes in Portugal and Spain; it continued in the 1980s, mysteriously jumping the Atlantic, with the collapse of dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil; then, vaulting the Pacific, it claimed the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Finally, in the early ’90s, it spread to South Africa, where the white apartheid regime yielded to majority rule, and returned to the Eurasian continent where the great Soviet empire itself shuffled off history’s stage.

The actors in this benign contagion acquired a name: civil society. “Civil”: they were peaceful, meaning that the bomb in the cafe, the assassination of the local official, the paratrooper invasion of the Parliament building, were not their tactics. “Society”: they expressed popular will, not the will of governments. The movement broke or made governments. It was their master.

Recently, however, the movement has undergone a change both at home and abroad. Civil society groups in the more prosperous societies began to lend welcome assistance in poorer ones. But governments also joined in. Unlike private civil groups, governments are in their nature interested in power, and the civil society movements clearly exercised it. Here in America, the National Endowment for Democracy was created in the early ’80s. Funded by Congress and governed by a board that includes active and retired politicians of both parties, it nevertheless calls itself a “nongovernmental” organization. Its declared mission was to support democracy per se, not any political party, but the distinction was soon lost in practice. Most of the $10.5 million handed out in Nicaragua during the elections of 1990 went to the opposition to the Sandinistas, who were duly voted out of power. In 2002, the Endowment funded groups in Venezuela that backed the briefly successful coup against President Hugo Chávez, in which the Venezuelan Parliament, judiciary, and constitution were suspended.

The day after the overthrow, which Omar Encarnación of Bard College has called a “civil society coup,” the president of the International Republican Institute, which is loosely tied to the GOP and is a conduit for Endowment funds, stated, “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country.” Speaking for the U.S. government, presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer stated that the coup “happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people.” In fact, the Venezuelan people opposed the coup, and Chávez, notwithstanding his own repressive tendencies, almost immediately returned to power.

More recently Endowment contributions went to groups in Ukraine that supported presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko, who became president after fraudulent results engineered by the opposition government candidate were reversed by popular pressure. In Venezuela, the outcome was the destruction, however brief, of all democratic institutions, whereas in Ukraine the outcome was the rescue of democracy; yet in both cases the integrity of civil society, which depends on independence from governments, was partially corrupted.

Something similar was meanwhile happening within the United States. The Republican Party and its supporters have been the pioneers, creating that might be called a shadow civil society and seeking to merge it imperceptibly with the real one. Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley summarized the process in a March 30 op-ed in the New York Times: Large donors founded partisan think tanks more interested in propagandizing than in thinking; then proceeded to establish seemingly independent but actually politically subservient news organizations such as FOX News and the Rush Limbaugh show. Recently, some new wrinkles in the process have emerged: the use of fake newscasters, pretending to report from an independent news station while actually working for a department of government, and fake reporters, such as “Jeff Gannon,” the impostor permitted by the White House to ask sycophantic questions of the president at White House press conferences. There is also the fake “town meeting” (the very emblem of civil society) with the president, at which a screened audience asks pre-tested questions.

The strategy of faking civil activity has a long tradition in the foreign sphere. For example, the CIA virtually cut its teeth manipulating popular and intellectual movements in Europe in the late 1940s and ’50s. (Indeed, historian Allen Weinstein, who was the National Endowment’s first acting president, has commented, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”) But the domestic practice is more recent. One of the lesser-known points of origin is the presidency of Richard Nixon, who once ordered his aide Charles Colson to firebomb the Brookings Institution, then called it off. But he also had some more workable ideas. He told Patrick Buchanan, then his communications director, that he wanted somehow not only to cut off existing “left-wing” foundations “without a dime,” but also to found a right-wing institute that would seem to be independent but would actually be managed by the White House. As Buchanan commented in a memo, “some of the essential objectives of the Institute would have to be blurred, even buried, in all sorts of other activity that would be the bulk of its work, that would employ many people, and that would provide the cover for the more important efforts.” In this matter, as in so many others, today’s Republican Party is the legatee of Richard Nixon.

Some Democrats want their party to respond in kind. For urgent and understandable reasons, they want to level the playing field. But the cost could be high. In such a world, nothing would be what it seemed. Behind every blogger would lurk the PR spinmeister, behind every reporter would stand the political hack, behind every charming demonstrator holding her banner – rose, orange, purple, or cedar – would lie the cold hand of the state. In the name of civil society, civil society would be spoiled.

Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.