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What Is This You Bring My America?

Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that among hundreds of recently declassified intelligence documents from the 1950s was a 1950 proposal by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover

to suspend habeas corpus and imprison some 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty....

Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to "protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage." The F.B.I would "apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous" to national security, Hoover's proposal said. The arrests would be carried out under "a master warrant attached to a list of names" provided by the bureau.

"In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus," it said.

The revelation was noted briefly by a couple of major blogs and discussed at some length by smintheus at DailyKos. All have been quick to note the parallels between Hoover's attempt to suspend Habeas Corpus and the current travails of our fair and essential writ. Both the NY Times and smintheus emphasize that there is no evidence Hoover's plan was approved.

Smintheus argues that horrible though it was that Truman created loyalty boards, it was to preempt

something even more abusive of civil liberties. Truman also feared that something truly evil might be stirred up by Hoover, whom he loathed. Truman told Clark Clifford on May 2, 1947 that he "wants to be sure and hold FBI down, afraid of 'Gestapo'". Truman believed, rightly I think, that Hoover had assembled enough dirt on members of Congress that they would give in to almost any of Hoover's demands. In fact within hours of taking the oath of office in 1945, the President had his eye on the manipulative Hoover (Hoover had sent over to the White House a young FBI agent from Truman's home town, to chat the new President up).

So the background to this notorious decision from 1947 illustrates that Truman, far from indifferent to the Bill of Rights, instead believed that he was fighting as best he could on its behalf. His profound skepticism of the FBI Director was both a personal as well as a politically savvy judgment. For all his faults (including cronyism, occasional ineptitude, stubbornness), Truman was at least a very sharp, self-reflective, and principled man. Such a person has the potential to rise above his times.

The impression one gets from reading the Times and smintheus is that though those were dark times, we averted something potentially much worse, in no small part because of Truman's leadership.

Smintheus may be correct about Truman's motive and strategy, but I don't think halting mass detentions actually ameliorates the dangerousness of Hoover's activities. Then and now, the news that the mass detentions did not occur is something of a red herring.

Actually, Hoover's proposed suspension of Habeas Corpus and mass detentions is not news. The document reported on in the NY Times is new, but the plans have been known since The Church Committee's famous 1976 Congressional report on "Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans."

Mass detentions---as well as illegal surveillance practices by the NSA---should be vigorously opposed, of course. But the fundamental problem is data mining as an approach to intelligence. Data mining is the basis for mass detentions and the emphasis on data mining as a method leads to illegal surveillance activities.

Emergency Detention Born and Reborn*

There were, in fact, a number of manifestations of Hoover's Emergency Detention Program, detailed in the 1976 Congressional Church Committee report:

The development of plans during this period for emergency detention of dangerous persons and for intelligence about such persons took place entirely within the executive branch. In contrast to the employee security program, these plans were not only withheld from the public and Congress but were framed in terms which disregarded the legislation enacted by Congress. Director Hoover’s decision to ignore Attorney General Biddle’s 1943 directive abolishing the wartime Custodial Detention List had been an example of the inability of the Attorney General to control domestic intelligence operations. In the 1950s the FBI and the Justice Department collaborated in a decision to disregard the attempt by Congress to provide statutory direction for the Emergency Detention Program. This is not to say that the Justice Department itself was fully aware of the FBI’s activities in this area. The FBI kept secret from the Department its most sweeping list of potentially dangerous persons, first called the “Communist Index” and later renamed the “Reserve Index,” as well as its targeting programs for intensive investigation of “key figures” and “top functionaries” and its own detention priorities labeled “Detcom” and “Comsab.”

Director Hoover advised Attorney General Clark in March 1946 of the existence of its Security Index, although he did not say that it had existed since Attorney General Biddle’s 1943 directive. The Index listed persons “who would be dangerous or potentially dangerous in the event of . . . serious crisis, involving the United States and the U.S.S.R.” The Justice Department then prepared a memorandum concluding that the available options for action in an emergency were a declaration of martial law or suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. The FBI Director recommended going to Congress to secure “statutory backing for detention.”

After a conference between Department and FBI officials, the FBI submitted a lengthy analysis of its standards for classifying potentially dangerous persons. The memorandum gave specific examples of “Communists and Communist sympathizers whose names appear in the Bureau’s Security Index.”

While no mass roundups occurred, the keeping of large lists of “suspects” was an ongoing activity. The Custodial Detention List was established in the early 1940s, abolished by Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1943, and immediately re-invented by Hoover as the Security Index, which was maintained through the early 1970s, when it was re-named as the Administrative Index. At each stage in the game, there were subsidiary indices—such as the Communist Index, the Reserve Index and the Agitator Index—less well-known to the Attorney General and Congressional oversight committees. The 1976 Congressional report stated that

By early 1951, the total had increased to 13,901 names [on the Security Index] as the result of an FBI decision after the outbreak of the Korean War to broaden “the basis for inclusion in the Security Index to include all active members of the Communist Party.” The size of the Communist Index, as contrasted with the Security Index, was indicated by the figures from the New York field office which had 2,897 names on the Security Index and 42,000 names on the Communist Index. Since the Communist Index was based on “allegations of Communist activity,” it was “a measure of investigations performed.” If this proportion applied “throughout the field,” as the FBI memorandum suggested, then the Communist Indexes in the field offices contained over 200,000 names.

Though the Truman administration may have rejected Hoover's plan to round up and jail 12,000 people, Hoover's list continued to grow and grow and grow. Just one year later, the Hoover suspect lists were on a scale comparable to that of Bush's National Counterterrorism Center.

Last February there were revelations of a similar, present-day central repository of suspects, "a central repository of 325,000 names of alleged international terrorism suspects or people who aid them:"

a number that has more than quadrupled since the fall of 2003, according to counterterrorism officials.

The list kept by the National Counterterrorism Center - created in 2004 to be the primary U.S. terrorism intelligence agency - contains a far greater number of international terrorist suspects and associated names in a single government database than has previously been disclosed.

In 1974, after many of these earlier programs came to light and the Attorney General demanded more precise “guidelines” for how security lists would be maintained. Even so, the 1976 Congressional report concluded that “the broad claims of power in the hands of the Executive branch could readily permit a return to the vague and overbroad domestic intelligence policies of the past.”

Dangerous Lists

Smintheus says that compared to Bush, Truman was a "real leader" who could be "trusted to take a firm line the next time the crazies try to pull a stunt like this." Truman was surprisingly strong on some aspects of civil rights policy, notably standing up to Southern Democrats with his proposals to establish a President's Committee on Civil Rights and a Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces, which paved the way for desegregation of the Armed Forces.

But leaving Hoover unchecked to build his lists was leaving alone the machinery for the House Un-American Activities Committee and the parallel Senate sub-committee to conduct witch hunts in Washington throughout the 50s and 60s.

Outside of Washington, Hoover's lists of subversives were used for even more sinister purposes. FBI intelligence and the anti-Communist Congressional investigations it supported were part of the deadly segregationist apparatus in the South. There was, for example, extensive collaboration between the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state's segregationist spy agency, and the FBI and Congress. This report on the Commission's 1964 activities gives a sense of the scope of collaboration.

We helped arrange the first public court hearing that identified the civil rights movement in Mississippi with the Communist Party. This was set up with city officials of Drew with information gathered by our investigative staff, published information in communist newspapers, and reports from the Senate Fact Finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities, and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. We alerted the press about the impending trial and wide publicity was given to the subversive backgrounds of several persons working with the Mississippi Summer Project. We furnished Senator James O. Eastland with information he used in a speech on the floor of the Senate. Senator Eastland included other names in his charge that subversives had invaded Mississippi using civil rights as a pretense.

The Sovereignty Commission and the federal government also cooperated with segregationist agencies in other states, including Alabama, Georgia and Florida. These collaborations amounted to enormous violations of privacy and of civil rights for the subjects of investigation. Being a person of interest to segregationist state agencies was also a way to become a target of the Ku Klux Klan and therefore a potential death sentence.

Shock Doctrine

The Times reported that

Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, 12 days after the Korean War began.

Perhaps only intuitively, Hoover tried to capitalize on the state of shock of a nation just gone to war, anticipating the approach to policy change that has been promoted and popularized by economist Milton Friedman.

Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine, is a protracted analysis of Friedman's influence on American society and global economic policy.

For more than three decades, Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the "reforms" permanent....

He observed that "only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." ... And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the "tyranny of the status quo." He estimated that "a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity." A variation on Machiavelli's advice that injuries should be inflicted "all at once," this proved to be one of Friedman's most lasting strategic legacies.

Among Klein's examples: Following Hurricane Katrina, the vast majority of New Orleans Public schools were converted to charter schools in a massive experiment in school privatization, a scheme promoted by Milton Friedman himself, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that was his last published writing before his death at age 94.**

Around the same time the size of the National Counterterrorism Center list became known in early 2007, Salon.com reported that

[a]t present, U.S. intelligence is more dependent on private contractors than it has ever been. About half of the rapidly expanding annual intelligence budget, or more than $20 billion, now goes to outside firms.

Also at this time, Halliburton announced a $385 million government contract

for establishing temporary detention and processing capabilities to augment existing ICE Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) Program facilities in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs. The contingency support contract provides for planning and, if required, initiation of specific engineering, construction and logistics support tasks to establish, operate and maintain one or more expansion facilities.

The contract may also provide migrant detention support to other U.S. Government organizations in the event of an immigration emergency, as well as the development of a plan to react to a national emergency, such as a natural disaster.

The idea of mass detentions "in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants" is insidious enough, but note also the vagueness of supporting "the rapid development of new programs" and the possible wider application "to a national emergency, such as a natural disaster." What in the world is an "immigration emergency," anyway?

"Behind the apparent custodians the real custodians"

US law enforcement and intelligence agencies stockpile names of suspects and contractors draft plans for emergency detention facilities to put them in---and wait for the next terror attack, war or natural disaster to justify mass detentions in privatized jails.

It's not enough to put an end to the the Halliburton detention center plan and to get to the bottom of the NSA surveillance abuses. We are in need of a much broader act of political will. Klein writes that in 2003

[T]he U.S. government handed out 3,512 contracts to companies to perform security functions; in the twenty-two month period ending in August 2006, the Department of Homeland Security had issued more than 115,000 such contracts. The global "homeland security industry"---economically insignificant before 2001---is now a $200 billion sector....

Since at least the 1940s the US has suffered from "vague and overbroad" domestic intelligence policies. Over at DailyKos, smintheus wants the next president to someone "who can be trusted to take a firm line the next time the crazies try to pull a stunt" like Hoover did in 1950. But the policies shaped by Hoover have never been adequately challenged, and now technological resources and corporate financial interests have raised domestic surveillance activity to a pitch unimagined in the 20th century.

As Klein has observed, though the current situation was established under Bush,

it now exists quite apart from any one administration and will remain entrenched until the corporate supremacist ideology that underpins it is identified, isolated and challenged.

We need a president willing to challenge entrenched assumptions about the license of federal law enforcement to violate our privacy and willing to get the private sector out of homeland security (and out of elections and education and humanitarian relief and ...).

I don't think any of the "electable" Democrats plan to be that president. But we need to plan for a Democrat to be that president. After the elections it's going to take some organizing. A lot of organizing.

* Portions of this section are adapted from a blog post I wrote last February.
Klein's overall argument is more wide ranging and nuanced than I let on here.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Marshall Kirkpatrick December 30, 2007, 9:59 pm

    Good post, though I’m afraid that turning back the privitization of state functions is going to be a very difficult sell because of the arguably superior efficacy of the private sector. It’s hard to know which approach incurs more waste, less accountability and more opportunity for abuse – isn’t it?

    I look at Walmart’s responses to recent natural disasters as a great example. It’s easy (for me at least) to imagine just how bad that could turn out, but it’s also hard not to scoff at the public sector’s ineptitude.

  • Benjamin T. Greenberg December 31, 2007, 12:38 am

    Hi Marshall. Thanks for taking the time to read.

    I’m hard pressed to think of examples of privatized state function where a) efficiency increases and b) the state continues to fulfill its function. The case could probably be made for some charter schools in some places, but turning the whole public school system into charter schools sounds scary to me.

    Walmart got to NOLA with water quicker than the government, but Walmart did not have a plan nor was it equipped to deliver thee necessary relief services–let alone manage an evacuation. Are there are other Walmart examples? I may not be reading your reference right.

    Also I think we’ve gotta remember that for nearly 30 yrs now, since Reagan, there has been a trend towards denuding government of its ability to deliver its functions. If you don’t fund enforcement of environmental regs, civil rights, etc. and you place ideologues in charge of those state functions, you end up with a government that seems more wasteful and ineffective than anything else.

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