Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Political Essays:

A digression from music writing, if I may.

This was a paper I wrote in early 2002, and I think that many of you will find it interesting knowing what we know today.
Drop me a line with your thoughts.

Colin James Nagy
Political Theory

How much freedom should we trade for our security?

Domestic security within the United States has always been an issue, yet with recent developments in global terrorism, most notably the September 11th attacks on the United States, it has become evident that holes and inconsistencies exist in the current system. However, despite the obvious need for change in the way our domestic security is carried out, there exists a fine line of what is necessary and what infringes on the civil liberties afforded to all Americans. Herein lies the dilemma facing the United States as it enters the 21st century.

The burden of balancing the rights of individuals as granted by the Constitution and Bill of Rights with the necessity of the state to undertake measures to protect both itself and its citizens during a time of emergency is heavy to bear and one that is not without far reaching implications on both sides. In seeking a greater protection for the threatened state, more power is either ceded by the individuals or usurped by the state. This has been the case throughout American history, and is no different today.
However, with an educated public and an alert media, it is possible to prevent such egregious violations of civil liberties.

These are two of the most vital resources when the question is raised: How much freedom should we trade for our security? The reason being, this question is not directly posed (nor can be), but rather emerges in time. With proper media attention, public discourse and commentary, a system will emerge which balances the two, rather than having excess on either side of the equation.

When confronted with dire circumstances such as the destruction, loss of life and economic disruption that global terrorism threatens, changes are unquestionably justified and various areas of our security infrastructure have come under severe scrutiny. Areas such as airport security to border control to coordination between the FBI and CIA have all been issues of the moment, and reform is on the tips of everyone’s tongue. However, with bureaucracies that have in the past been resistant to change, the true challenge is the reformation of pre-existing policies with due consideration of the very liberties that are contained in our modern democracy. It is my thought that during times of war or terror, the civil liberties of Americans have the potential to be blatantly curtailed and administrations use a combination of high public support and distracted attention to further a controversial agenda. This can currently be seen in the FBI’s new abilities for domestic surveillance and the current situations with military tribunals and indefinite detentions. When discussing the issue of how much freedom should be traded for security, a helpful place to start is with the United States Patriot Act, signed into law October 26th, 2002. It is clear to see that steps in the wrong direction have already been taken.

Political Philosopher John Locke argued that “occasions may arise when the Executive must exert a broad discretion in meeting special exigencies or "emergencies" for which the legislative power has provided no relief or existing law grants no necessary remedy.” (1) This idea can be applied to the legislation written and passed in the immediate period following September 11th—although it went through the traditional methods of becoming law, many of the safeguards and methods of scrutiny have been thrown by the wayside. Because of this, civil liberties and freedoms are being curtailed in favor of increased security.
The Patriot Act (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act ) passed October 25th and signed into law on the 26th, yields significant power to the Attorney General, the President and his cabinet, and in many ways lies in contrast with the original intentions of the constitution--to limit power to any certain area in an attempt to prevent tyranny.
To briefly summarize the 342 page act, it contains provisions to “deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools and for other purposes…” This means increased access by law enforcement agencies to electronic information, easier access to wiretaps and the right to eavesdrop on previously confidential attorney/ client privileges in certain situations. It outlines increased funding for anti-terror in both the domestic and international context, including financing for money laundering abatement. There are significant enhancements to immigration policies in the US, notably monitoring of foreign students. Perhaps most controversially, it outlines the concept of military tribunals of those suspected of terrorism and indefinite detention. The act also outlines new definitions of terrorism. For example: someone may be guilty of aiding terrorism, if he collects money for or even contributes to a charity which supports the general aims of any organization abroad deemed inappropriate or illegal by the US government - the IRA, for example, or foreign anti-abortion groups.

A recent article dated March 9, 2002 in the Guardian (UK) stated, “The Justice Department has now detained several hundred aliens, some of them in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. None has been convicted of anything at all, and many have been charged with only minor immigration offences that would not by themselves justify detention.” (2) This in essence is the major problem many people have with the provisions outlined in the Patriot Act; they feel it provides the government with far too much unchecked power, and as we have seen in the past, this can have disastrous consequences. In short, too much American freedom has been compromised.

The article goes on to state, “The department has also, without any congressional approval, unilaterally altered other safeguards against injustice, including, for instance, the right of someone suspected or accused of a crime to consult in private a lawyer of his own choosing. On November 13, in the most dramatic declaration so far, President Bush announced that any non-US citizen that he declared a suspected terrorist - this includes aliens resident in the US for many years as well as soldiers captured in combat in Afghanistan - might be tried, at his discretion, by a military tribunal rather than in a criminal court. Such tribunals might be secret, and would be governed by rules laid down by the secretary of defense, including provisions for the "qualifications" and "conduct" of lawyers representing the accused; the ordinary rules of evidence would not apply; the tribunal might declare a defendant's guilt even though not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt; its verdict, including any death penalties, could be reached by a two-thirds vote; and that verdict might be reviewed only by the president, or the secretary of defense….” (2)
An extremely recent example of the powers given to the government can be seen in a Washington Post article dated June 20, 2002. When referring to a statement by the Justice department in appeals court, it states, “The filing in the case of Yaser Esam Hamedi, the U.S. born man captured with Taliban forces and being held at a Navy brig at Norfolk, provides the most forceful enunciation yet of the Bush administration’s position that those declared enemy combatants in the war on terrorism have no right to counsel and can be held indefinitely…The document signals the government’s intent to assert broad political authority in the cases of terrorist suspects apprehended overseas. It raises the likelihood that similar authority will be sought in the case of Jose Padilla, a Brooklyn NY native arrested in Chicago in May on suspicions he was planning to participate in a “dirty bomb” attack.” (3)

With these examples, it is absolutely clear that too much freedom has been yielded in the name of security. Both of these men have United States citizenship, and are fully entitled to a criminal trial and legal council. While the plight of foreign combatants may be seen as a legal “gray” area (relegated to cells in Guantanamo bay) there is no doubt that these two men are US citizens, and are entitled to legal counsel and a fair trial. David Cole, a Georgetown law professor, states in the Washington Post article that, “This is a really astounding assertion of authority…its not just that you have no right to a lawyer, it’s that you have no right to have a hearing. If that is true, there is no limit to the President’s power to label US citizens as bad people and have them held in military custody indefinitely.” (3) One must only observe other examples in US history where this authority goes unchecked—perhaps most notably the internment of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The aforementioned are merely examples of trading too much freedom in the name of security. This is absolutely intolerable. Civil liberties must be upheld in any case. It is one thing to be searched more thoroughly while traveling, but it is completely another for the US government to reign supreme over former legal methods and practices outlined in the constitution; a document intended for the preservation of individual rights. This holds true in other areas as well, such as the FBI’s increased eavesdropping powers. The question must be raised of what if, during the monitoring of communications or other methods, the agency comes across other illegal activities? What, under the current provisions, prevents them from acting on this information that they didn’t originally set out to find? This stands as a slippery slope issue, and one that must be addressed in a clear and unquestionable manner. If civil liberties keep diminishing, the eventual slide into a police state isn’t necessarily unfathomable.

It is clear that in the current time period, in the wake of the most deadly attack in history to occur on American soil, that much is left to be done and reforms are necessary. However, with the current system, it has become glaringly obvious that in its haste, the American government has neglected the civil liberties afforded by the United States Constitution in favor of wartime legislation and emergency acts. To answer the question, how much freedom should we trade for security? The answer stands, enough to raise the level of public safety in our country, but never enough to start making our modern democracy appear as the shadow of a police state, with similarities to Soviet Russia or any other repressive regime in history. It was, in the end Osama bin Laden who stated an intention of Al Qaeda’s terrorist actions to be the limiting of personal freedoms to Americans by way of increased oppressive laws and regulations. This must not occur, as it will drastically affect American life as we know it.

Spinning in the Gulf.
Colin James Nagy
April 2003

According to a recent op-ed in the New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman presents the viewpoint that the War in Iraq was sold and imposed by the Bush Administration on the public and the international community on the basis of Iraqi possession and development of potential weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)

President Bush’s most important partner in the “coalition of the willing,” Tony Blair attempted to rally the British public using a mixture of this tactic and a lofty moral purpose. He stated in the Guardian UK, “history will prove us right.” Mr. Blair further went on to make historical comparisons related to potential pre-emptions in history that would have saved an immense amount of bloodshed particularly in regards to World War II.

In reference to the current justifications for the second Gulf War, Krugman quotes an unnamed Senior Bush administration official as saying, “We were not lying…but it was just a matter of emphasis.”

The US news media has deservedly been focusing on the hunt for these elusive weapons, as the Bush administration hypes the liberation and forthcoming groundwork for democracy. However, as Krugman rightly points out, “One wonders whether most of the public will ever learn that the original case for war has turned out to be false. In fact, my guess is that most Americans believe that we have found W.M.D.'s. Each potential find gets blaring coverage on TV; how many people catch the later announcement — if it is ever announced — that it was a false alarm? It's a pattern of misinformation that recapitulates the way the war was sold in the first place.”

Other Times columnists such as Thomas Friedman believe that ends in this case, justify the means, stating, “As far as I’m concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction. That skull (in reference to the skull of a political prisoner under the Hussein regime featured on the cover of the Friday, April 25th issue) is enough for me. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation even if it turns out the Bush Administration hyped the issue.”

This leads one to consider another “hyping” in history, hyped so much in fact, to the extent that it didn’t even exist. The first Gulf War was essentially sold to the American public stemming from allegations that Iraqi troops in Kuwait were removing newborn babies from their incubators.

Testimony before congress came from the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, DC. The most emotionally moving of the testimony came on October 10, 1990, from the 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah.

Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City. "I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital," Nayirah said. "While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."

This testimony was eerily reminiscent of World War I Allied propaganda that invading German soldiers had bayoneted and mutilated Belgian babies in 1914.

Since then, reputable human rights organizations and journalists have concluded that the baby incubator story was an outright fabrication. Every study commissioned by the Kuwaiti government could not produce a shred of evidence that the ambassador's daughter had been back in occupied Kuwait to do volunteer work in a hospital.

Subsequent investigations, by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, found no evidence for the incubator claims.

Nevertheless, on Jan. 12, 1991, the U.S. Senate approved support of the war against Iraq by a narrow, five-vote margin.

According to a report written by Lou Morano for United Press International on February 26, 2002, …The New York Times reported that the Defense Department is paying the Rendon Group, a Washington-based international consulting firm, $100,000 per month to help the Office of Strategic Information (OSI) with a broad campaign that would include "black" propaganda, or disinformation.

The Times later stated that, "the Rendon Group has done extensive work for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Kuwaiti royal family and the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition group seeking to oust President Saddam Hussein. ... The firm is well known for running propaganda campaigns in Arab countries, including one denouncing atrocities by Iraq during its 1990 invasion of Kuwait."

Again, this brings to mind the aforementioned pieces of disinformation promulgated the last time the government wanted to build public support for a war against Iraq. Hill and Knowlton, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, fabricated it.

From Krugman’s article, “In September Mr. Bush cited an International Atomic Energy Agency report that he said showed that Saddam was only months from having nuclear weapons. "I don't know what more evidence we need," he said. In fact, the report said no such thing — and for a few hours the lead story on MSNBC's Web site bore the headline " White House: Bush Misstated Report on Iraq." Then the story vanished — not just from the top of the page, but from the site.” The original and edited versions are available online at

The liberation of Iraq is no doubt a good thing, but the road we took to get here is quite troubling. Campaigning on a solely humanitarian rights basis would have brought critics out of the woodwork saying, why not Sierra Leone? Why not the Congo? Why not displace Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe? These are all valid questions. The US and its coalition members knew they needed something more effective and perhaps most importantly, more frightening. The fear of nuclear annihilation or death from sarin gas weighs much more heavily on the minds of most people, rather than the plight of people in far away (and much less publicized) conflicts.

Thus, tactics employed by the both Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. in their respective experiences with Iraq are quite similar. Time will tell if weapons of mass destruction will be found, despite international intelligence reports to the contrary. The recent, attitude of “might makes right—he who has the Stealth bombers, smart bombs and predator drones make the rules” posturing adopted by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other senior members of the administration is nothing new, contrary to the views of opponents of the war. It was clearly employed by the slick Public Relations maneuvering during the first Gulf War.

The main issue, however, is while these tactics might serve immediate US interests in the realist perspective, they seem very short-sighted when considering long-term credibility of US policy for the forthcoming years, not to mention further damaging the already strained trans-Atlantic and global alliances.

Written in 2002

The recent discovery of Al Qaeda videotapes by Senior CNN correspondent Nic Robertson documenting chemical weapons tests on animals is undoubtedly disturbing. However, one must question the timing and media coverage of such an event, especially given the questions being raised at the moment regarding further strategic action in the Middle East.

According to the CNN lead posted online August 18, 2002 at 10:48 p.m., a collection of dozens of videotapes obtained by CNN in Afghanistan sheds new light on the inner workings of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror organization. The chilling archive includes footage of dogs being killed in poison gas experiments, lessons on making explosives, instructions on terrorist tactics and previously unseen images of bin Laden and his top aides.”
The question as to where the tapes were discovered remains unclear. According to the original CNN report, “Mr. Robertson and senior CNN executives declined to say precisely how or where they located the tapes, but they said CNN did not pay for them. Mr. Robertson said he drove 17 hours from the Afghan capital of Kabul about two weeks ago to view the tapes, which he said had been moved away from their original location…”
The tapes show various Al Qaeda activities, ranging from instructional videos on bomb making to various terrorist activities. According to both CNN, and the New York Times reports, the most disturbing scenes included the poisoning of various dogs by unidentified chemicals.
A story by Judith Miller run in the New York Times describes in detail the poison-induced death of a “white Labrador-like dog, wearing a green ribbon.” The article goes on to state, “The dog then tries standing; its head shakes violently, and its breathing quickens. Its hind legs appear to collapse. Seconds later, the dog falls and struggles to stand. Unable to control its front legs, it whimpers and moans. Then the dog appears to vomit. Its moan becomes a piercing wail.”
As horrifying as this is, the dramatic detail proves entirely unnecessary, and one must question what this sort of emotional appeal does for US public opinion in a time of divided interests. It brings to mind the rumors, and subsequent rampant media coverage of the babies in Kuwait allegedly removed from their incubators by Iraqi soldiers, thus rallying opinion towards strategic action against Iraq under the first Bush administration.

Such blatant emotional appeals, whether they be newborns or white Labrador retrievers serve essentially the same purpose. It paints the enemy as unhuman, and makes it entirely easier to sell any sort of war plan to the public. With a nation divided as to what will happen in the forthcoming weeks in respect to Iraq, these discovered videotapes may just serve that purpose. Media agencies, especially such bastions of journalism as the New York Times must remain cognizant of the fact that the US government has, and always will be mounting propaganda campaigns in times of war. To say that these Al Qaeda tapes might have been strategically leaked (or placed in an area easily found with an anonymous tip) might not be far from the truth. It’s purely speculation, but something to bear in mind given the circumstances.