Peter Dale Scott

It's Not All About Democracy: The Very Dark Side of American History

Editor's Note: Many Americans view their country and its soldiers as the "good guys" spreading "democracy" and "liberty" around the world. When the United States inflicts unnecessary death and destruction, it's viewed as a mistake or an aberration.

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Eighties Surveillance Revival

Revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has engaged in warrantless eavesdropping in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prompted President Bush to admit last month that in 2002 he directly authorized the activity in the wake of 9/11.

But there are reasons to suspect that the illegal eavesdropping, and the related program of illegal detentions of U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals, began earlier. Both may be part of what Vice President Dick Cheney has called the Bush administration's restoration of "the legitimate authority of the presidency" -- practices exercised by Nixon that were outlawed after Watergate.

In the 1980s Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld discussed just such emergency surveillance and detention powers in a super-secret program that planned for what was euphemistically called "Continuity of Government" (COG) in the event of a nuclear disaster.

At the time, Cheney was a Wyoming congressman, while Rumsfeld, who had been defense secretary under President Ford, was a businessman and CEO of the drug company G.D. Searle. Overall responsibility for the program had been assigned to Vice President George H.W. Bush, "with Lt. Col. Oliver North...as the National Security Council action officer," according to James Bamford in his book, "A Pretext for War."

These men planned for suspension of the Constitution, not just after nuclear attack, but for any "national security emergency," which they defined in Executive Order 12656 of 1988 as: "Any occurrence, including natural disaster, military attack, technological or other emergency, that seriously degrades or seriously threatens the national security of the United States." Clearly 9/11 would meet this definition.

As developed in the mid-1980s by Oliver North in the White House, the plans called for not just the surveillance but the potential detention of large numbers of American citizens. During the Iran-Contra hearings, North was asked about his work on "a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American constitution." The chairman, Democratic Senator Inouye, ruled that this was a "highly sensitive and classified" matter, not to be dealt with in an open hearing.

The supporting agency for the planning and implementation was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA was headed for much of the 1980s by Louis Giuffrida, whose COG plans for massive detention became so extreme that even President Reagan's then Attorney General, William French Smith, raised objections.

Smith eventually left Washington, while COG continued to evolve. And in May 2001 Cheney and FEMA were reunited: President George W. Bush appointed Cheney to head a terrorism task force and created a new office within FEMA to assist him. In effect, Bush was authorizing a resumption of the kind of planning that Cheney and FEMA had conducted under the heading of COG.

Press accounts at the time claimed that the Cheney terrorism task force accomplished little and that Cheney himself spent the entire month of August in a remote location in Wyoming. But this may have just been the appearance of withdrawal; as author James Mann points out in "The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet," Cheney had regularly gone off to undisclosed locations in the 1980s as part of his secret COG planning.

As to the actual role of Bush, Cheney and FEMA on 9/11 itself, much remains unclear. But all sources agree that a central order at 10 a.m. from Bush to Cheney contained three provisions, of which the most important was, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, "the implementation of continuity of government measures."

The measures called for the immediate evacuation of key personnel from Washington. Both Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to leave, but Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was helicoptered to a bunker headquarters inside a mountain. Cheney also ordered key congressional personnel, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, to be flown out of Washington, along with several cabinet members.

During Cheney's later disappearance from public view for a long period after the attack, he too was working from a COG base -- "Site R," the so-called "Underground Pentagon" on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, according to Bamford.

Many actions of the Bush presidency resemble not only what Nixon did in the 1970s, but what Cheney and Rumsfeld had planned to restore under COG in the 1980s in the case of an attack. Prominent among these have been the detention of so-called "enemy combatants," including U.S. citizens, and placing them in special camps. Now as before, a policy of detentions outside the Constitution has been accompanied by a program of extra-constitutional surveillance to determine who will be detained.

As Cheney told reporters on his return last month from Pakistan, "Watergate and a lot of things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the '70s served, I think, to erode the authority" of the president. But he defended as necessary for national security the aggressive program he helped shape under President George W. Bush, which includes warrantless surveillance and extrajudicial imprisonment -- in effect, a new Imperial Presidency.

At least two Democrats in Congress have suggested that Bush could be impeached for his illegal surveillance activities. The chances of impeachment may depend on whether Congress can prove that planning for this, like planning for the Iraq War, began well before 9/11.

The Ali Mohamed-FBI Bungle

It is clear that important new evidence about al Qaeda has been gathered and released by the 9/11 Commission. But it is also clear that the commission did nothing when a Justice Department official, in commission testimony last week, brazenly covered up the embarrassing relationship of the FBI to a senior al Qaeda operative, Ali Mohamed. By telling the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to release Mohamed in 1993, the FBI may have contributed to the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya five years later.

The official testifying was Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, who prosecuted two terrorism cases involving Mohamed. As Fitzgerald told the commission, Ali Mohamed was an important al Qaeda agent who "trained most of al Qaeda's top leadership," including "persons who would later carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing."

As for Ali Mohamed's long-known relationship to the FBI, Fitzgerald said only that, "From 1994 until his arrest in 1998, he lived as an American citizen in California, applying for jobs as an FBI translator and working as a security guard for a defense contractor."

Whatever the exact relationship of Mohamed to the FBI, it is clear from the public record that it was much more intimate than simply sending in job applications. Three years ago, Larry C. Johnson, a former State Department and CIA official, faulted the FBI publicly for using Mohamed as an informant, when it should have recognized that the man was a high-ranking terrorist plotting against the United States. In Johnson's words, "It's possible that the FBI thought they had control of him and were trying to use him, but what's clear is that they did not have control." (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/04/01)

Ali Mohamed faced trial in New York in 2000 for his role in the 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of conspiracy and avoided a jury trial. While pleading guilty, Mohamed admitted he had trained some of the persons in New York who had been responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

In Mohamed's plea-bargain testimony, as summarized on a U.S. State Department Web site, he revealed that in late 1994 the FBI ordered him to fly from Kenya to New York, and he obeyed. "I received a call from an FBI agent who wanted to speak to me about the upcoming trial of United States v. Abdel Rahman (in connection with the 1993 WTC bombing). I flew back to the United States, spoke to the FBI, but didn't disclose everything that I knew."

One year earlier, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, Ali Mohamed had been picked up by the RCMP in Canada in the company of an al Qaeda terrorist. Mohamed immediately told the RCMP to make a phone call to his FBI handler. The call quickly secured his release.

The Globe and Mail later concluded that Mohamed "was working with U.S. counter-terrorist agents, playing a double or triple game, when he was questioned in 1993." His companion, Essam Marzouk, is now serving 15 years of hard labor in Egypt after having been arrested in Azerbaijan, according to Canada's National Post newspaper. As of November 2001, Mohamed had still not been sentenced, and was still believed to be supplying information from his prison cell.

The RCMP's release of Mohamed may have affected history. The encounter apparently took place before Mohamed flew to Nairobi, photographed the U.S. Embassy, and took the photo or photos to bin Laden. (According to Mohamed's confession, "Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber.")

The 9/11 Commission should have had a serious discussion of the U.S. intelligence agencies' relationship to Mohamed. It has been widely reported, and never denied, that after he first came to the United States from Egypt he worked first for the CIA and then the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Mohamed trained the WTC bombers at an Islamist center in Brooklyn, N.Y, where earlier he had been recruiting and training Arabs for the U.S.-supported Afghan War. A British newspaper, the London Independent, has charged that he was on the U.S. payroll at the time he was training the Arab Afghans, and that the CIA, reviewing the case five years after the 1993 WTC bombing, concluded in an internal document that it was "partly culpable" for the World Trade Center bomb.

The commission may have failed to explore these matters for the same reason it suppressed testimony from a former FBI translator, Sibel Edmonds. She said a foreign organization had penetrated the FBI's translator program. Attorney General John Ashcroft has since ordered Edmonds not to speak further about the matter, asserting "state secrets" privilege.

Sadly, the only public commission discussion of Mohamed came from commission member Timothy Roemer, who naively repeated Fitzgerald's statement and went no further: "He comes to the United States and applies for jobs as an FBI translator and as a defense contractor," Roemer said.

History Warns Against Simply Arming Afghan Insurgents

The Bush administration says it will use covert forces to oust Afghanistan's Taliban government. But history -- especially the last two decades -- tells us that such efforts from abroad are doomed and counterproductive.

Now that President Bush has approved a secret plan to support guerrillas, Washington pundits are calling on the CIA to work with the Afghan Northern Alliance -- a coalition backed by Russia, India, and Iran. The group, which controls about 10 percent of the country, is composed mainly of minorities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks, who are found on both sides of the northern border with the former Soviet Union. Already, the alliance is a preferred conduit for food aid, because the U.S. is the biggest contributor to international organizations that give such aid.

The alliance's surviving leaders, including its nominal president, Burhanuddin Rabani, and its military chief, Rashid Dostum, are remembered with hatred in Aghanistan for their role in provoking the murderous civil conflict of 1992 in which 50,000 civilians were reportedly killed. Alliance leaders' disregard for civilian life was shown again when it shelled Kabul two weeks ago.

There are also calls for the U.S. to work with potential dissidents from the southern, dominant, Pashtun group (representing 40 to 45 percent of the population), traditionally backed by Pakistan. After years of subsidies from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the CIA, most of these leaders are now sympathetic to and often financed by Islamic fundamentalism. It will be hard to exclude the associates of the dominant Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are themselves often sympathetic to bin Laden.

According to the recent book "Reaping the Whirlwind," by Michael Griffin, Hekmatyar -- like bin Laden -- is widely reported to have links with both the narcotics trade and international Islamist terrorist movements. Griffin, a widely traveled freelance journalist, has worked as information consultant for UNICEF in Afghanistan.

It is possible that these coalitions could succeed with outside help in ousting the Taliban. But it will be hard to avoid a return to the collapse of central authority, which in 1994 made most Afghans welcome the Taliban's restoration of order.

This is why some White House officials favor turning away from these factions to a fresh start -- by convening an emergency loya jirgah (great council) to establish a constitution and government under the guidance of the 86-year-old former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Such an initiative will remain academic and irrelevant unless it can attract support from moderate elements inside the Taliban itself. That would require diplomacy, an approach not given much favor by the White House until recently.

Pakistan is the logical country to explore diplomatic initiatives with the Taliban. The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, has the best contacts with the Taliban leadership it helped to install.

But Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar has rebuked President Bush's appeal for help from Afghans inside the country in ousting the Taliban. Sattar has warned that any foreign meddling in Afghan politics would again, as in the past, lead to great suffering.

In the past few days, it has become clear that U.S. meddling could have an unsettling effect inside Pakistan as well. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf came to power there through a coup led by the army, where support for the Taliban remains strong.

The last great hope for peace in the region emerged a decade ago, when the U.S. and Soviet Union entered into a dialogue aimed at achieving a mutual withdrawal. This would have led to an interim government, sponsored by the secretary-general of the United Nations, and reinforced by the hegemonic influence of both powers over other states in the region. All nations would have been forced to agree that they would end their support for their various factions inside Afghanistan. Money would have gone instead into reconstructing the battered nation.

The plan failed chiefly because of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The CIA in particular has been accused of continuing support in 1990 to Hekmatyar, against official U.S. policy and with a view to preempting the U.S.-Soviet dialogue.

Today, Russian President Alexander Putin is willing to support a U.S.-led campaign against terrorism partly because he expects that campaign to endorse Russian efforts against the allies of al-Qaeda in Chechnya. But the aid he has promised is to the Northern Alliance --his best hope for containing radical Islamic movements in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which are based south of the Afghan border.

Meanwhile, the clamors from ex-CIA officers for allowing the CIA to recruit criminals suggests that they favor resuming contacts with their drug-financed proteges of the past (some of whom already had heroin refineries when the CIA started aiding them in 1979).

In other words, both great powers appear to be turning their backs on their diplomatic approach of 1990 -- the only plan, some experts say, which ever had a chance of success.

Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat, has authored numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign affairs (pdscott@socrates.berkeley.edu).

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