May 25, 2013
The American Lockdown State
Posted on Feb 5, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
In the process, they oversaw the building of a National Security Complex with powers that boggle the imagination and freed themselves from the last shreds of accountability for their actions. They established or strengthened the power of the executive to: torture at will (and create the “legal” justification for it); imprison at will, indefinitely and without trial; assassinate at will (including American citizens); kidnap at will anywhere in the world and “render” the captive into the hands of allied torturers; turn any mundane government document (at least 92 million of them in 2011 alone) into a classified object and so help spread a penumbra of secrecy over the workings of the American government; surveil Americans in ways never before attempted (and only “legalized” by Congress after the fact, the way you might backdate a check); make war perpetually on their own say-so; and transform whistleblowing—that is, revealing anything about the inner workings of the lockdown state to other Americans—into the only prosecutable crime that anyone in the Complex can commit.
It’s true that some version of a number of these powers existed before 9/11. “Renditions” of terror suspects, for instance, first ramped up in the Clinton years; the FBI conducted illegal surveillance of antiwar organizations and other groups in the 1960s; the classification of government documents had long been on the rise; the congressional power to make war had long been on the wane; and prosecution of those who acted illegally while in government service was probably never a commonplace. (Both the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, however, did involve actual convictions or guilty pleas for illegal acts, followed in some of the Iran-Contra cases by presidential pardons.) Still, in each case, after 9/11, the national security state gained new or greatly magnified powers, including an unprecedented capacity to lockdown the country (and American liberties as well).
What it means to be in such a post-legal world—to know that, no matter what acts a government official commits, he or she will never be brought to court or have a chance of being put in jail—has yet to fully sink in. This is true even of critics of the Obama administration, who, as in the case of its drone wars, continue to focus on questions of legality, as if that issue weren’t settled. In this sense, they continue to live in an increasingly fantasy-based version of America in which the rule of law still applies to everyone.
In reality, in the Bush and Obama years, the United States has become a nation not of laws but of legal memos, not of legality but of legalisms—and you don’t have to be a lawyer to know it. The result? Secret armies, secret wars, secret surveillance, and spreading state secrecy, which meant a government of the bureaucrats about which the American people could know next to nothing. And it’s all “legal.”
Those “legal principles” are, of course, being written up by lawyers working for people like Obama counterterrorism “tsar” John O. Brennan; that is, officials who want the greatest possible latitude when it comes to knocking off “terrorist suspects,” American or otherwise. Imagine, for instance, lawyers hired by a group of neighborhood thieves creating a “playbook” outlining which kinds of houses they considered it legal to break into and just why that might be so. Would the “principles” in that document be written up in the press as “legal” ones?
Here’s the kicker. According to the Post, the “legal principles” a White House with no intention of seriously limiting, no less shutting down, America’s drone wars has painstakingly established as “law” are not, for the foreseeable future, going to be applied to Pakistan’s tribal borderlands where the most intense drone strikes still take place. The CIA’s secret drone war there is instead going to be given a free pass for a year or more to blast away as it pleases—the White House equivalent of Monopoly’s get-out-of-jail-free card.
In other words, even by the White House’s definition of legality, what the CIA is doing in Pakistan should be considered illegal. But these days when it comes to anything connected to American war-making, legality is whatever the White House says it is (and you won’t find their legalisms seriously challenged by American courts).
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