The War On Terror

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Urban Survival Secrets for Terrorist Attacks

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The main response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was the declaration of a War on Terror. Over and above the military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, this new policy unleashed a torrent of domestic policy changes. I cannot pretend to know how this new political environment following the declaration of a War on Terror will evolve, but one initial impact has been to radically redefine the relative powers of individuals, corporations, and the state. In a larger sense, this new political environment is a manifestation of trends that have been underway for some time. Perhaps, an organized movement will reverse some of these changes, but at the time of this writing, nothing of the sort has happened.

John Poindexter, who first came to public attention as National Security Advisor during the Reagan administration, seemed to be symbolic of the new state of affairs. At the time, the administration attempted to circumvent legislation that prevented it from financing a terroristic revolution against the government of Nicaragua. In this case, the president declared that these terrorists were the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers. Poindexter was involved in a complex scheme to sell arms to Iran in return for money and hostages, while illegally diverting the proceeds to the Nicaraguan paramilitaries.

The resulting controversy threatened to engulf President Reagan, who successfully feigned ignorance about the whole affair. A number of lesser figures, including Poindexter, could not escape facing consequences for their actions—at least temporarily. A jury found Poindexter guilty of five counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and false statements to Congress, although a court later reversed the convictions on a technicality.

Poindexter then went on to become senior vice president of Syntech, a high technology company that produces communications equipment. Then, under the administration of George W. Bush, Poindexter resurfaced in public life as the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Total Information Awareness Project. The objective of this office was to assemble the extensive information held by private companies together with government information to construct a massive database that would include every resident of the United States. Existing law forbade the government from directly collecting much of this data, but the law lacked any provision to prevent the government from purchasing such information from private companies, such as Syntech, which won a large contract from Poindexter's office. So the same person convicted of destroying and falsifying information that the public needed to be able to understand the depths of the illegal acts of the government, retreats to the corporate sector, and then returns to the government to gather every imaginable sort of information about the public. This government's demands for information know no bounds—including a requirement that librarians divulge the reading habits of their patrons when the government asks them to do so.

Alas, Admiral Poindexter did not pass through this period unscathed. In July 2003, the United States Senate voted to deny funds for its Total Information Awareness program, renamed as Terrorism Information Awareness to deflect the public distaste for this dangerous project. Then in August, in an effort to tap every conceivable source of information, the admiral ran into a firestorm of protest when he unveiled an unusual futures market in which people could speculate on the probabilities of terrorist attacks, assassinations and coups. A few days later, he announced his intention to resign from what the New York Times called, "the wacky espionage operation he runs at the Pentagon" (Anon. 2003).

While civil libertarians might take heart that the futures market in terrorism may not see the light of day, they have little else to celebrate. After Congress denied the administration funds for the Information Awareness Office that Poindexter ran, the Pentagon announced the termination of that operation. Undeterred, the Department of Defense reported that some of its egregious projects would merely be shifted to other areas within the Pentagon (Hulse 2003). In addition, "Congress left undisturbed a separate but similar $64 million research program run by a little-known office called the Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA) that has used some of the same researchers as Poindexter's program" (Sniffen 2004).

Eventually, the leadership in this area shifted to Homeland Security, which set about contracting with corporations, which were free to collect data in ways in which the government was supposedly not permitted to do. By operating offshore, such companies had even more leeway to combine the information from commercial databases, private businesses, and government (O'Harrow 2004). To give some idea about the massive quantity of available information, Wal-Mart alone apparently has about half as much information as the entire internet (Flint 2004). So, Poindexter's other more ominous projects continue, although with less fanfare and without the admiral's leadership.

At the same time that the government makes such intrusive demands for personal information from the public, it restricts information about its own activities and those of the corporations.

I have already mentioned the report of the Union of Concerned Scientists that discussed efforts to stifle scientific research. Earlier, in 2003, Representative Henry A. Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform published a 40-page report detailing a number of cases in which the administration "has manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings."

Much of this information was absolutely unrelated to terrorism. In one instance, the government denied a microbiologist, James Zahn, permission to publish findings on the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria near hog farms in the Midwest. The report also covered the cases, such as global warming and sex education. Any connection between terrorism and the abuses documented in the report would be far-fetched to say the least (Marquis 2003).

The second Bush administration embarked on a massive purge of available information about government activities. Although the administration justified many of its actions as an effort to withhold information from terrorists, this administration has attempted to curtail public access to all sorts of information that has no possible connection with public safety. Even well before September 11, 2001, the Bush administration had steadfastly refused to make information available to Congress, let alone the public, about its meetings with corporate leaders in fashioning its energy policy (see United States General Accounting Office 2003).

Even though the justification about withholding information to prevent terrorism might sound reasonable to some, the sincerity of the administration's motives are suspect. For example, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, the Environmental Protection Agency had identified 123 chemical plants where a terrorist attack could, in a "worst-case" scenario, kill more than 1 million people. In a 1999 report, published well before the September 11 attacks of 2001, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, issued a dire warning: "security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor." The report pointed to precedents where industrial chemicals "have been used by terrorists as improvised explosives, incendiaries and poisons in several recent incidents [T]hey have rapid, highly visible impacts on health, they are accessible; and they can be dispersed by smoke, gas clouds, or food and medicine distribution networks." In a separate assessment issued in October 2001, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. James B. Peake estimated that a terrorist attack launched on a chemical plant located in a densely populated area could cause as many as 2.4 million fatalities or injuries (Common Cause 2003). In short, these chemical plants might be nothing less than prepositioned weapons of mass destruction.

The chemical industry assured the government that it had voluntarily developed guidelines to ensure public safety. A March 2003 General Accounting Office study questioned whether voluntary guidelines were adequate. In addition, Sal DePasquale, a former security official at Georgia-Pacific Co. who had helped draw up the American Chemistry Council's voluntary security plan, wrote that because of cost concerns, the industry has resisted suggestions that it upgrade the training of its security forces to allow guards to carry guns. He warned: "Across the country there are huge storage tanks with highly dangerous materials that are far from adequately secured" (Mintz 2003).

Indeed, these fears might have been well-founded. Mohamed Atta, widely regarded as the September 11 ringleader, reportedly scouted a chemical plant in Tennessee. Given the eagerness with which the government moved to invade individual privacy in order to reduce the threat of terrorism, you might expect that the government would take measures to ensure the security of chemical plants. Indeed, a bill by Senator Corzine from New Jersey passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by a vote of 19-0 to tighten security at chemical plants.

The petrochemical industry went into high gear to shut down this measure. Industry supplied eight senators who were critical of the Corzine bill with more than $850,000. Not surprisingly most Republican senators on the committee subsequently withdrew support (Common Cause 2003). So even though the chemical industry offers inviting targets to terrorists, the political influence of the industry trumped considerations of security.

I don't want to give the impression that the government was completely unmindful about security issues with the chemical industry. Less than a month after the September 11 attack, the government began rushing to pull information from its web sites. Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act requires that each facility that uses or stores extremely hazardous chemicals file a Risk Management Plan to be made available to the public. The EPA removed from its web site information that includes measures taken by a facility to prevent an accidental release and response plans to protect human health and the environment in the event of a release (Carroll 2001).

Although this information could be useful to terrorists, industry had different reasons for resisting its availability long before terrorism entered into the debate. Congress mandated the release of this information to help citizens protect themselves from the dangers associated with toxic releases. Industry naturally would prefer to avoid citizen complaints or local legislation intended to protect human health. While consumer sovereignty is supposed to be a defining characteristic of modern American society, citizen sovereignty certainly is not.

So, the Environmental Protection Agency may have been sincere in its actions as an attempt to deprive terrorists of potentially dangerous information. I cannot rule out the possibility, however, that the fear of terrorism provided a justification for the government to do a favor for industry. Certainly, such behavior is consistent with the other actions of the Bush administration. We need only recall how the government dismissed the problem of terrorism in regulating the safety of the nuclear power industry. Similarly, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ruled that neither citizens nor even state and local governments have a right to information regarding the risks of planned liquefied natural gas terminals (Kelly 2004).

A Government Accountability Study reported that security at nuclear energy plants was lax (Davidson 2004). Should anyone be surprised that the response of the government was to classify information regarding security without pressuring the industry to improve its defences?

Within the political environment of the War on Terror, we heard nothing of consumer sovereignty. Instead, the administration called upon everybody to make sacrifices in the name of the greater good— everybody, that is except the corporate sector and the wealthy beneficiaries of the Bush Administration's massive tax cuts. This disregard for the welfare of individuals extended even to those individuals whom the state supposedly honors most highly—veterans.

The atmosphere of a War on Terror serves a very useful purpose for both government and the corporations. Presenting government as the people's ultimate protector, transforms any criticism of government actions—and by extension those of the corporations—into an act of treason. John Poindexter, although he is no longer openly engaged in government, is symbolic of the state of affairs, in which the government is free to gather, hide, or distort information—whatever is expedient (or profitable).

The War on Terror has another attractive feature for corporations. The FBI has greatly diminished its efforts to investigate white-collar crime. The Los Angeles office supposedly has reduced the number of agents in this area from 185 to 75. The selective application of policy undermines any credibility of the claim that concern about terrorism is foremost in the minds of policy makers.

The second Bush administration has successfully magnified the danger of terrorism, and then presented itself as the only possible protection against such risks. This behavior is not at all unique to this administration. For example, the government had exaggerated the military threat posed by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and even Nicaragua; however, the extremes to which the government has taken this tactic during the second Bush administration are unprecedented. Charles Tilly has compared this posture with regard to danger to the behavior of a racketeer:

If protection rackets represent organized crime at its smoothest, then war making and state making—quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy—qualify as our largest examples of organized crime. But consider the definition of a racketeer as someone who creates a threat and then charges for its reduction. Governments' provision of this protection, by this standard, often qualifies as racketeering. To the extent that the threats against which a government protects its citizens are imaginary or are consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket. Since governments themselves often constitute the largest current threats to the livelihoods of their own citizens, many governments operate in essentially the same ways as racketeers. [Tilly 1985: 171]

I disagree with Tilly in one respect. He seems to paint the government as an independent agent. I have been emphasizing that the government typically works at the behest of the rich and the powerful corporations. Otherwise, Tilly has caught much of the spirit of the War on Terror.

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