USA - Repression in the name of "national unity"

Sep/Oct 2002

Since the attack against the World Trade Centre, most Western governments have used the cover of the "war against terrorism" to introduce repressive legislation which has nothing to do with any terrorist threats. It was the case in Britain, with the tightening of Blair's anti-terrorist bill and Blunkett's current "Big Brother" type plans. And, of course, Bush did not waste such an opportunity to enshrine his reactionary views in law. The present text is an edited version of an article from the quarterly published by the Trotkyist group "The Spark" in the USA (Class Strugggle #36 - Aug-Oct 2002)

In less than a year since September 11, the Bush administration has rolled up a record that even J. Edgar Hoover would envy. Dozens of repressive new laws, resolutions and executive orders were pushed rapidly through Congress - or simply just announced, without Bush even letting Congress know what he was about to do. Few questions were raised, either in Congress or by the major media. And when timid questions were asked, the Bush Administration simply batted them away - under the pretence of "national security." In December, Attorney General Ashcroft, for example, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, proclaimed: "To those who scare peace- loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends."

The forces of reaction were in the saddle, and they were riding the horse of September 11 for all it was worth.

Ashcroft to Congress: pass it or else...

Only one week after the attack on the World Trade Centre, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave Congress a proposed "anti-terrorism" bill, almost 350 pages long, declaring that Congress should pass it in three days or be held responsible for the next round of terrorist attacks that was sure to come. Wanting to show that it wouldn't be cowed, Congress took a whole five weeks to pass the legislation. Having demonstrated such "independence," Congress then gave the Bush Administration almost everything it asked for.

The bill, which Bush signed into law on October 26, carried an extravagant title- - "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act" - words clearly chosen for no other reason than that they created the acronym, USA Patriot Act. Under the pretext of "fighting terrorism," Congress thus bestowed on the Administration vast new police powers, that are not limited to investigations into terrorism, but can be used in all federal investigations.

Effectively, the act allows the Justice Department to incarcerate non-citizens indefinitely, without charge, holding them only on the government's own assertion that they pose a risk. By removing the requirement of a warrant, the act allows police agencies to listen to phone calls or intercept internet communications of both citizens and non-citizens. It allows police to make secret searches of the living or working space of anyone, whether non-citizen or citizen, without notifying the person before or afterwards. It opens up an individual's medical, financial, student and work records to the police, without requiring the police first to provide to the courts any justification for the investigation other than their "suspicions." Finally, it gives the CIA broad authority to work with domestic agencies to spy inside the country on American citizens.

Immediately after September 11, before any new laws were passed or orders issued, the federal government rounded up and detained people without any warrant being issued and without any charges being pressed against them. By the time the USA Patriot Act was passed, almost 1,000 people had been incarcerated in these sweeps. It was not until the end of November 2001 that any charges were pressed - and then only against 93 people - but none of these charges was directly related to the attack on the World Trade Centre. Since then, some people have been released, some expelled from the country, while others are still being held. No-one, outside of closed government circles, has any idea even of the numbers, much less of who all the people are.

The only terror suspect who has now been charged in relation to the 11 September attack, Zacarias Moussaoui, was actually picked up before September 11 on immigration charges. So, obviously, the federal police agencies did not feel the need for legal authorisation when they wanted to act.

Nonetheless, the passing of the USA Patriot Act does mark a change. It gives legal authorisation for police agencies to do in the light of day what they had previously done only covertly or under questionable legal pretext.

The act also changed the legal definition of terrorism, making it so broad as to include almost any demonstration whose aim is to get government to change its policies. The only requirement is that there are judged to be "acts dangerous to human life", for this to be construed as "terrorism", or actions which "appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion". In other words, strikers who continue a picket line in defiance of a court order could be arrested under this statute if there is any violence on the picket line; as could anyone who takes part in a demonstration against a war. Anyone who has ever been on a picket line or on a demonstration knows how frequently the police initiate violent actions, resulting in the arrest of pickets or demonstrators.

That this new definition was not just a question of ill-chosen words was demonstrated almost as soon as the law was passed. The attorney general of South Carolina publicly denounced five longshoremen as "terrorists." The "terrorist crime" they were supposed to have committed happened in a clash with police on a picket line almost 2 years earlier.

Right after the act was passed, Ashcroft announced that local police and FBI agents would "interview" 5,000 more young men who had entered the US during the previous 2 years from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries - that is they were to be harassed and intimidated, solely because of their national origin and their age.

Secret military trials on the agenda

Then came Bush's executive order establishing military trials for non-citizens accused of being "terrorists." The rules for these "trials" are particularly odious. Bush or someone he designates not only has the right to decide if an individual should be tried as a "terrorist," he also selects the military officers who will serve as the judge and the jurors. They then choose the officer who will serve as the prosecuting attorney AND the officer who will be the defence attorney. While the person accused has the right to hire a civilian lawyer, this lawyer does not have the right to attend the parts of the trial the prosecutor asks to be closed - even if that turns out to be the whole trial. Evidence may be withheld from the defendant and his lawyers, even when the evidence is not classified - all that is required is for Bush or his representative to declare that he believes the evidence "might" compromise "national security." The defendant himself can be banned from the trial, unable to face any of the accusers and thus unable to answer any of the charges. Conviction in all but capital cases requires only a two- thirds vote, not a unanimous decision. Trials may be held in secret, without the population ever knowing that they even took place. No other court has the right to review the military trial's verdict. And, finally, even if the military trial finds the defendant innocent, the government can still continue to hold him indefinitely. Such a kangaroo court can be imposed, simply at the whim of a president or a president's appointee, not only on people who might recently have come into the country, but on any of the 18 million foreign-born legal residents of the US.

In fact, as is shown by the arrest this June of Jose Padilla - the so-called "dirty bomb" suspect who was alleged to have links to bin Laden - the new law makes no distinction between citizen and non-citizen. Chicago-born Padilla, who is a citizen, was picked up, and then turned over to the military, without any trial or hearing being held and without even a shred of evidence of a crime being offered. On the basis that it believed that Padilla might someday build a "dirty bomb," the administration declared him to be "an enemy combatant." This was enough to deprive Padilla of his rights as a citizen. Even the conservative Cato Institute, which usually would stand behind Bush, had this to say about the case: "the Bush administration has made an extraordinary assertion of power. It is sweeping and unnerving. The administration contends that, by merely designating a person as an enemy combatant,' the government can hold him in prison without according him a trial. Indeed, the government does not have to charge him with any criminal offence, much less present evidence of an offence. That is true even if the person in question is an American citizen and is apprehended on American soil."

Since that time, the Bush Administration has proposed a multitude of other repressive measures. It wants customs officials to have the right, as a matter of course, to open and read all mail leaving the US, without any warrant. (Customs already had the right to open all incoming mail.) Executive orders eased the very few restrictions on police surveillance and harassment that had been written into the USA Patriot Act. And people picked up for violations of visa or other immigration statutes can now be held indefinitely if the government so chooses - even if they have never been accused of any crime and even if an immigration judge orders them freed.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported in June that a number of people had been visited by the FBI after having been overheard criticising Bush. For example, a retired phone worker in California was interviewed by the FBI only because he had publicly said during a work-out in a gym: "Bush has nothing to be proud of. He is a servant of the big oil companies and his only interest in the Middle East is oil." A student at Durham Community College in North Carolina was visited by FBI agents who accused her of having "un-American materials" in her apartment - which turned out to be a poster of Bush holding a noose which read, "We hang on your every word," referring to Bush's support for the death penalty. It is likely that these two people were reported to the FBI or other police agencies by someone who heard or observed them.

This reflects the atmosphere the state apparatus has been creating. To make the point, Bush in July called on postal and other delivery workers, as well as gas, electric and phone service workers, and any one else who regularly goes into people's homes "to be on the alert, and report anything suspicious to the FBI or local police." And what constitutes "suspicious"? Apparently, criticising Bush puts you way high up on the list!

Turning back the clock

At the end of May, Ashcroft announced new "guidelines" for federal investigations - not just of suspected terrorism, but of any kind. Among other things, the new guidelines allow the government legally to spy on any organisation and its members, even when there is no suspicion of any criminal activity. It further opens the Internet to the FBI, effectively allowing it to go into any site or forum, and from there to get personal information on the people who visit those sites or forums.

Bush pretends that these changes are aimed at stopping the threat posed by foreign organisations like al-Qaeda. But, the fact is, the new guidelines concern only domestic organisations and citizens. The police agencies are using the pretext of September 11 to roll back the clock.

Ashcroft's new guidelines replace ones that had been operative since 1976. Those guidelines came out of Senate hearings, which themselves were the recognition of widespread opposition in the population to government spying on and political assassinations of citizens during the black and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s.

The Senate committee that looked into government spying back in 1976 concluded: "Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs pose no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone "bugs," surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept up vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens.... Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles....Unsavoury and vicious tactics have been employed including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracise persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials." And while the Senate report didn't directly say that the police agencies had sponsored the murder of militants, it implied that they did, and it openly accused the government of provoking the "US" organisation headed by Ron Karenga to kill members of the Black Panthers, and to create a blood-feud between the two organisations. Congress, wanting to be seen to act on this report, asked the Justice Department to draw up new "guidelines" in 1976, to police itself and its agencies.

Setting up the guidelines was essentially an attempt to blunt criticism of the FBI, CIA and other federal police agencies, even while giving them sufficient freedom to carry on their operations. As actions by the FBI and other police agencies have demonstrated ever since, they were certainly not handcuffed by the 1976 guidelines, even if they had occasionally to answer to the courts when their actions were excessively arbitrary.

We would be naive to believe that the old guidelines offered the population a real protection. Nonetheless, the FBI, CIA and other police agencies were never happy about the 1976 guidelines, preferring not to have to submit to any kind of regulation, even when it is carried out by other parts of the state apparatus itself.

Ever since the movement receded a bit, starting in the later 1970s, the FBI and other agencies have been trying to chip away at these restrictions, with the help of court rulings, legislative changes and presidential orders. This process was speeded up a bit after the Oklahoma City bombing, when the Clinton Administration used the reaction to that terrorist act to rush through the "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act." Interestingly enough, one of the main parts of that bill had nothing to do with terrorism; it was aimed at limiting the number of appeals and reducing the circumstances under which someone facing execution can appeal - including preventing condemned persons from bringing in evidence of their innocence if they have gone past a certain point in the appeals procedure. Clinton's bill also gave the government the right to proscribe an organisation, not because of anything it had done, but only based on the government's "belief" that it might in the future carry out a terrorist action. In other words, the state apparatus was freed to act arbitrarily. And the Clinton administration did just that subsequently putting groups that had committed no crime, but which oppose US policy, on the list of proscribed groups.

What Bush did, using the pretext of September 11 and resting on calls for "national unity," was to speed up the process of attacking democratic freedoms. He effectively turned the clock all the way back, without anyone daring to oppose him.

It's liberty or safety, says Bush

The pollsters tell us that when they asked people to choose between "preventing more terrorist attacks" and losing a few democratic rights, the majority of people today opted for "preventing more terrorism". Like most pollsters' questions, this is a false choice - as the continuing revelations about September 11 show. Individual rights clearly were violated and masses of intelligence information was gathered - but neither prevented the attack of September 11. The fact is that terrorist acts like those of September 11 are not prevented by repression. The situation in Israel stands as proof of the incapacity of even severe repression to prevent terrorism.

It is obvious that in a country that had never been subject to such an attack on its own soil, September 11 would call forth a horrified reaction from the population. But the whole ruling class and its political servants, with Bush pushed to the forefront, has done everything possible to play on that reaction.

We have been bombarded by patriotic propaganda, unceasing practically from the moment the planes hit the World Trade Centre, up through now, with a great big special emphasis this year on making the Fourth of July not only a patriotic holiday, but one with an especially militaristic tone. We have been warned, repeatedly, of possible new imminent terrorist attacks. At the beginning, the anthrax threat was presented as a second round of attacks from foreign terrorists. More recently, as it became obvious that the sender was in all likelihood connected with US military research, the anthrax question was buried - only to be replaced by other warnings about possible attacks on nuclear power centres or "dirty bombs." We have lived through nearly a year of propaganda aimed at making us feel that we are under siege.

At the same time, Bush has been built up as leading the resistance against terrorism. The radio and TV are filled with sound bites emanating from his publicists: "there is a war going on between good and evil, and the good guys are winning", etc.

Bush used the war on Afghanistan - whatever other aim the US had in pushing it - to give the appearance he was doing something to avenge September 11 and to root out the terrorists. After Afghanistan came the famous "axis of evil," speech and the war that Bush supposedly is leading on "our" behalf against terrorist networks all over the world. With a script straight out of "Star Wars," the administration tells us that this war may go on in quasi-permanent fashion, that we won't see its results for years, that we often won't be able to see it at all, but that it will be going on all the more effectively for all its secrecy.

Through all of this runs one refrain: "united we stand." Bush calls on us to join him in a great parade of "national unity," forgetting all those differences we have with him and with the ruling class he represents. And the union leaderships have accepted to play their part, pushing this lie aimed at roping in the workers.

Union leaders rush to prove their loyalty

Six days after the attack on the World Trade Centre, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced that the federation would "invest" $0.25bn to help rebuild New York - and then waited for corporations to make a similar offer. And he waited. And waited...

Sweeney also reported that any union plans for major strikes or tough labour negotiations had been put on the shelf, "for now." He was joined at the podium by president Tom Donahue of the US Chamber of Commerce who urged corporations not to lay-off any workers even if tough times develop. Big companies responded ... by rushing to announce new lay-offs and job cuts, even bigger than the ones before September 11. By the end of October, they had announced over 500,000 job cuts. Sweeney may have reproached companies for breaking the "agreement," but this did not mean that the unions would stop respecting their commitment.

In all the months since, even when union leaders reproached Bush for his domestic priorities or complained that his September 11 bailouts ignored the plight of workers affected by the attack, they have not dared challenge the idea that the "war on terrorism" takes priority.

In fact, their voices have been among the loudest shouting for national unity. They participated - and sometimes led - the flag- waving demonstrations. They went out of their way to give Bush support, in advance, for the war on Afghanistan. And in the first days after Bush announced this war, they took out newspaper ads proclaiming, "we support our president."

Certainly, a somewhat tense atmosphere prevailed in the working class in the first months after September 11. But the open enrolling of the unions behind Bush deprived the working class of any perspective in this difficult period. More exactly, it helped fasten the working class onto the bosses' perspective: the idea that the working class can share a common interest with the bosses.

At its biennial convention in December, the AFL-CIO, even while condemning Bush for waging a war on the workers at home, passed "A call for justice." This resolution declared: "We are now engaged in a new and difficult chapter in our nation's history, one fraught with peril and uncertainty. We can expect hardship and sacrifice, and the challenges we face are great. We must not only fight terrorists who are out to destroy us and all we stand for, but we must also redouble our efforts to eliminate the desperate conditions - poverty, repression and hopelessness - that are breeding grounds for despots and demagogues the world over. And we must restore the nation's domestic security and economic vitality."

The Chamber of Commerce must have been standing in the wings applauding.

Turning their "war" against the working class

It is obvious that the new laws being passed under the guise of a fight against terrorism and an "external threat" can be used against workers at home when and if they begin to fight back against the bosses. And this would not be the first time in US labour history either.

As long ago as 1920, following the enormous 1919 strike wave, attorney-general Palmer initiated a series of raids (the so-called Palmer Raids) - supposedly to round up "illegal aliens." In reality, this attack was directed against the working class militants citizen and non-citizen, who had led the strikes. Tens of thousands were rounded up and jailed without warrants and offered no chance of a hearing or trial. Thousands were simply expelled from the country. Others were later tried on specious charges.

There was another repressive wave after World War II - led by the so-called McCarthy commission, whose stated aim was the unmasking of Soviet spies and the fight against the "Communist threat". But one of its chief activities was rooting out the working class activists who had led the big struggles of the 1930s, the strikes during World War II and in 1946. Laws and executive orders were used to imprison or expel militants. Every dirty trick in the book, including beatings and killings were used. People were forced into falsely incriminating themselves and others, with the aim of breaking the morale and fighting spirit of the working class. Others were imprisoned without warrants or charge, driven from their homes, fired from their jobs - all under the direction of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover. It was during this period that the Rosenbergs, husband and wife, who were just ordinary members of the Communist Party, were sent to the electric chair after a show trial found them "guilty" of stealing information relating to the atomic bomb. The real object was to terrorise the working class movement as a whole.

In the 1960s, the black movement was targetted, using the same methods and directed by the same J. Edgar Hoover. Dozens and dozens of militants were assassinated. Many hundreds more were arrested on false charges and held in prison for years while their cases wound their way through the courts. Thousands were spied on and harassed. The aim of all this was to make it impossible for black activists to continue their political activity. It is for good reason that the families of Malcolm X and of Martin Luther King believe that the state apparatus was involved in their assassinations.

Even more recently, with the famous 1976 guidelines in place, police agencies have used similar tactics to interfere with political activity or with strikes. The case of Mumia Abu Jamal, who was framed on murder charges, is a perfect example. Jamal's real crime was that he exposed the corruption, criminality and brutality of Philadelphia police on his radio show. The complete fabrication of the murder charge against him is so obvious that even the European Parliament has called on the US to grant him a new trial.

A number of unions - including the mineworkers' union, the autoworkers' union and most other unions in Detroit - have been threatened in the last decade with prosecution under the "racketeering statutes," for strike activity. The Detroit unions had merely called on their members to join the picket lines of the striking newspaper workers. The United Mine Workers union and its officials were actually charged during the Pittston strike and found guilty. They faced long prison terms and fines that would have bankrupted the union many times over. The fact that the Clinton administration went to court to try to maintain the fines and the sentences, after the strike was over and the corporation involved had asked the court to withdraw the charges, demonstrates that the state apparatus can always find a legal pretext - far-fetched though it may be - when it wants to prevent the working class from organising to defend itself. This is what all the different police agencies of the state apparatus have been established and trained for.

What is striking about this history is how open the police agencies have been in carrying out anti-worker and racist attacks - and how little "democratic rights" counted when they wanted to attack.

Unity in sacrifice?

Bush and the bosses have taken advantage of the campaign for national unity, reinforced by the attitude of the unions themselves, to step up attacks on the workers and increase subsidies for the bosses.

Daring to pretend that September 11 severely wounded what would have been a strong economic recovery, the Bush administration first rushed in to provide loans for the airlines - loans which would be extended only if the companies forced their workers to give back concessions won on wages, benefits and working conditions covered by existing contracts. Union officials at American West and US Air have already agreed and those at United have indicated they are ready to discuss the question. Turning to steel, Bush announced temporary tariffs to give the industry a breather, while insisting that the steel companies must find a way to reduce their costs - that is, to reduce labour costs. Bethlehem Steel, declaring bankruptcy, quickly announced that it will not be able to survive without big wage concessions.

Across the board, September 11 has been used as the pretext to attack the working class, while directing more subsidies to the big corporations. Under the pretext that money was needed to fight the war on terrorism, Bush proposed and Congress approved vast increases in the military budget - that is, in money going to the biggest corporations - to be paid for by severe cuts in social programs and public services. The education budget was the only one to avoid being cut or frozen - which means very little, since the federal budget pays out only a very tiny part of education expenses. Moreover, the increase in education spending was earmarked for programs that could help divert students from the public schools into religious-run schools or even into "home- schooling."

The attempt to shift money from social spending to support for the corporations was repeated by state and local governments - and always with the same refrain - September 11th - and for the same purpose, to increase subsidies to the corporations.

But during the past year and a half, the biggest corporations have put over 2m workers on permanent lay-off - over half of them prior to the attack on the World Trade Centre. Before September 11, they called it "restructuring;" today the AFL-CIO leaders call it restoring "the nation's economic vitality." Whatever its name, the impact on the working class is the same: a cut in jobs and using the threat of more job losses as a reason to increase the intensity of work.

In recent years, the working class has seen its standard of living fall drastically. And now workers are being stripped of pensions and benefits, even when "guaranteed" by union contract. The bosses have become even more confident in the absence of any major resistance and encouraged by the servility of the union leaderships. But they know that the balance of forces will tip against them sooner or later when the working class decides to put a stop to all these attacks. The latest armory of repressive laws may give the capitalist class a sense of security, but this sense could quickly be proved entirely false, if the working class replies with its very own version of "national unity" and begins the fight to regain all the lost ground - the fight which is so long overdue.

20 July 2002