Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive and author of “You Have No Rights,” explains how our president became a “medieval king,” and why your civil liberties are in greater danger than ever.
Click here to listen to this interview.
James Harris: Here again on Truthdig this is James Harris with Josh Scheer. On the phone is Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive and the author of the new book “You Have No Rights.” I feel like I have some rights left, and so do other Americans. So why did you choose this title for your book?
Matthew Rothschild: I took the title of the book from a couple of brothers, Yasser and Hany Ibrahim, who were Egyptians living in the United States after 9/11 and they had the police come knock on their door, come in and drag them away and hold them in a pen for 24 hours where they weren’t allowed even to go to the bathroom. And then they dragged them through the Metropolitan Detention Center, banging their heads against the walls, especially on the wall that had an American flag on it. And then these guards played a little sadistic game, stepping on the chain between their legs, and then they’d fall down, and then the guards would say “Get up!” and then they’d step on the chain and then they’d say “Get up!” again. Ultimately, one of the brothers said to the guards, “Look, don’t we have any rights here?” And the response came back, “You have no rights.” What rights do we have, actually, if the president can say, even of U.S. citizens, that you’re enemy combatants and throw you in jail as he did, into solitary confinement, of two American citizens: Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. And the Military Commissions Act allows them to identify any of us as an enemy combatant, and if you’re not a U.S. citizen, you can be thrown into jail and never have a right to talk to a lawyer or see a courtroom again for the rest of your lives.
Josh Scheer: Or they can outsource you for torture.
Rothschild: They can disappear you. I mean, Bush and Cheney—they act like we’re an Argentinean junta and they’re disappearing people here, or sending them overseas to secret CIA prisons.
Harris: Now, something—.
Rothschild: Now, just let me go on for a second.
Rothschild: What Fourth Amendment rights to privacy do we have if the NSA, the National Security Agency, can spy on us without a warrant when the law says they need to have a warrant to spy on us? What First Amendment rights do we have to protest if we can’t protest in front of the president or the vice president, but if we have to go to some free-speech zone a half-mile or a mile or a mile and a half away where they can’t even see us?
Harris: You’ve been called a madman. and I’m sure you’ve been called anti-American. I don’t know if you know, but an executive order was issued by the president, I believe on the 17th of July, and it said, basically, that if you protest or threaten what he calls “stabilization efforts in Iraq,” your property can be seized and you can be detained. Were you aware of that?
Rothschild: I have the order in my hand. I was just writing something on the computer to update our website with something on that. Yeah. If you are—in the mind of the secretary of the Treasury—posing a significant risk of committing an act of violence—you don’t have to have committed an act of violence. If he thinks you are at risk of committing an act of violence in order to protest the policies of the Iraqi government or the Bush administration’s policies to promote what it calls “economic reconstruction and political reform in Iraq,” then the secretary of the Treasury can put a freeze on all your assets. This is unbelievable. What Bush is trying to achieve here, by executive order, are things that he can’t achieve legislatively. Someone’s got to put a stop to this. Congress has got to put a stop to it because he is seizing all sorts of authoritarian powers right now by executive decree.
Harris: But Matthew, let’s be real for a second. Here we are, year four of this war. Given what you’ve seen so far from Congress, can they really make a change in this war? Can they really change the mind of George Bush?
Rothschild: They’re going to have to step up to the plate sometime, or we can kiss our Constitution goodbye, because Bush is trampling all over it. Cheney’s trampling all over it. What needs to happen, in my mind, is impeachment proceedings of the House Judiciary Committee against Bush and against Cheney, to make them know that they are going to be held accountable or at least there’s going to be a process to try to hold them accountable, that they can’t get away scot-free with all this stuff, and to tell the next president or the one after that that they can’t get away with this stuff.
Scheer: People talk about—you know, Bush has talked about this so many times—“They hate us for our freedom.” That was a line used long ago. People talk about, “Visit the free country, the free country, the free country.” Why don’t people realize that when you take away the Constitution, even the parts you dislike, you’re really hurting the freedom? Or is that just a word that’s being bantered around, like any kind of spin?
Rothschild: I wish more people in this country would really revere the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment and the Eighth Amendment. But Cheney and Bush themselves are intolerant of the freedoms that are enshrined in our Bill of Rights. In my book, “You Have No Rights,” I tell the story of a guy named Steve Howards who was walking through Beaver Creek, Colo., an open-air mall there and, of all people, Dick Cheney is there, shaking hands. And Steve Howards goes up to the vice president, about three feet away, and says, “Mr. Vice President, I think your policy in Iraq is reprehensible.” ... And then he walked away. But the Secret Service approached him 10 minutes later and said, “Did you assault the vice president of the United States?” And Steve Howards said, “No, I was just expressing my First Amendment rights.” And they responded, “No, you assaulted the vice president of the United States. You’re under arrest.”
Harris: They arrested him?
Rothschild: They arrested him.
Scheer: Do you think Cheney was the one who said, “He was the one who assaulted me”?
Rothschild: I don’t know. But the Secret Service has a policy now, not only of protecting the president and the vice president from assassination, but protecting the president and the vice president from dissent, and that’s not their job.
Scheer: ... Every time [Bush] speaks, he doesn’t seem to have an idea of what’s going on in the world and he doesn’t really care. Do you think that’s because he’s not hearing negatives when he goes out in his limos and with the Secret Service?
Rothschild: He’s almost completely shielded from protest right now. He’s like a medieval king who sends out his vassals to clear, you know, any scruffy peasants from the carriage route. There’s actually a White House manual that came out as a consequence of a couple of the people I profile in this book suing the White House and suing the Secret Service. The White House manual from the advance team of the White House tells people at the White House, when the president and the vice president go out somewhere, that they should be shielded from protests, that the advance team should do everything possible to keep the protesters out of earshot and eyesight of the president and vice president. If that doesn’t succeed, the advance team should get together a rally squad—what I would call a goon squad—to stand in front of anyone who has an anti-Bush or anti-Cheney protest sign. And if the protesters are making any noise, this rally squad, this goon squad, should shout down the protesters with chants of “USA, USA, USA!” And then the manual advises the White House advance team to recruit people for these rally squads from Young Republican associations, from athletic teams, and from fraternities and sororities. It’s really an incredible document.
Scheer: It sounds like Noriega’s youth squads from back in the day.
Rothschild: Or a brownshirt. That’s what it is; it’s just squads of intimidators.
Harris: How many people do you think are aware of these kinds of nuances?
Rothschild: The problem with the mainstream media is that it has not been reporting these cases in any kind of a systematic way. To the extent that they cover the stories, they cover it one at a time as if it’s just a crazy, isolated incident that has nothing to do with any other related incidents and nothing to do with this edifice of repression that Bush has constructed. Some people may remember the story, vaguely, of the guy with the T-shirt in New York, at a New York mall, who was a lawyer named Stephen Downs, and I profile here. All he did was, he went into the mall and he put on a T-shirt that said, “Give peace a chance” on one side and “Peace on Earth” on the other, and he was arrested in the shopping mall for putting on that shirt. So people may vaguely have remembered that, but they don’t connect it with all these other petty-to-really-scary acts of repression that have happened along the way, and so they don’t really see the picture. And then they forget.
Scheer: There was a book—we actually did an interview with the guy a few days ago and his book comes up behind yours on Amazon. It’s the same kind of thing about losing our democracy. He talks about some similar issues. I think you go more into the details with individual cases.
Harris: It’s “The Last Days of Democracy” is the title, but, yeah.
Scheer: He talks about how we’re becoming more like Nazis or fascists. Do you feel that way with the government? Do you think we’re going that path to fascism?
Rothschild: I’ve been very careful not to use the f-word here for about 27 years in public because I don’t think we’re a fascist state right now. Otherwise, you and I would not be having this conversation and I wouldn’t be able to publish this book, I wouldn’t be able to publish The Progressive magazine or go out and speak in public. But I do think there are clouds of neofascism in the sky and they’re not on the horizon; they’re getting closer to being overhead. And the problem is, if we don’t fight for our rights now, by the time a kind of neofascist government fully took over, it would be too late. And let’s be clear here: There are plans for martial law in this country. Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq, said that if we’re attacked again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction this time, we will have to set aside the Constitution. Then a guy who just died two days ago, Wayne Downing, who was Condoleezza Rice’s deputy at the National Security Council, he said the exact same thing, essentially: If we’re attacked again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, we’re going to have to impose martial law. That was a quote he had in the Washington Post. And so we need to be alert to that. I mean, just last week Barbara Boxer said to Ed Schultz on the Ed Schultz radio program that this is as close as this country has ever come to a dictatorship. Dictatorship was her word. A senator, Barbara Boxer.
Scheer: Strong words.
Harris: Very strong words. How much of this, Matthew, do you believe is the result of that initial seed of fear that Bush planted? And he reinforced it the other day in his news conference at the White House, saying simply, again and again, “If we leave Iraq, they’ll come to get us here.” This idea that something is looming, that if we don’t follow his path—.
Rothschild: It’s totally fear. That’s all he does. He’s a giant fear-monger, and that’s why he repeats al-Qaida’s name constantly. That’s why he resuscitated the name of Osama bin Laden, a name that didn’t want to slip past his lips for about three years there when it was so embarrassing to him that he hadn’t caught Osama bin Laden yet. But now it’s useful for him because he inculcates fear, and if people are so fearful, they will surrender their rights to him. He also loves this image that he uses constantly—and he used it last week again—that before 9/11 we were protected by the oceans, almost womb-like I think he wants us to think. Protected by the oceans. Well, we weren’t protected by the oceans in the War of 1812. We weren’t protected by the oceans on Pearl Harbor Day. We weren’t protected by the oceans on any single day of the Cold War when the Russians could launch an ICBM with nuclear weapons on top of them to destroy this country. So this is just a fake idea that we were safe before 9/11 and now we are imperiled in a way we’ve never been imperiled before. The Russians, the Soviets, could have incinerated this entire country. They still could. Al-Qaida can’t incinerate this country. Al-Qaida can attack and inflict some serious damage here, but they cannot destroy this country. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney can destroy our democracy, and they are in the process of destroying our democracy right now.
Scheer: Another guest we had on this show was Robert Higgs. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, with The Independent Institute. And he takes a radical view about government and he thinks that with crisis times, people run to government—in terms of 9/11, or the New Deal with the Depression. His point is trying to get rid of government altogether. Do you think that would be a good way to go? Do you think the government right now is just so power-hungry that they’ll grab at anything, they’ll cause fear, they’ll spend money wherever they like to spend money and the Senate and the House won’t do anything? Do you think it’s time we changed the government a little bit?
Rothschild: I believe in government as having a necessary role, both to protect people and also to buffer people from the forces, the cruel forces of the market—in this day and age, the cruel forces of huge corporations. Now, what Republicans and even some libertarians think is that government is there only to protect us, and what the Bush administration thinks it’s there for is to give the Pentagon a $700-billion annual allowance and to hand out $200-billion checks in corporate welfare every year. Now, that’s not my idea of a positive role for government.
Harris: It’s almost—at this point, in this war and at this stage in our history—cliché to say we have to stand up, because when I step back and look, I see fewer and fewer people standing up. So what are we left with?
Rothschild: We absolutely have got to stand up for our rights, right now, before it’s too late. Several of the people I profiled in this book, “You Have No Rights,” stood up for their rights after their rights were violated. They sued the government or they sued the city police or the Secret Service or the FBI. And they won. They won lawsuits and settlements. And so, that’s the way to go. Otherwise Bush is going to keep taking and taking and taking until we’ve got nothing left. We can’t be afraid that they’re going to spy on us or that they’re going to arrest us and therefore not exercise our rights out of fear, because if we do that, we’ve already surrendered our rights to them. They’ve already taken the rights away. The Bill of Rights [is] already shredded. We’ve got to make sure that they don’t continue to shred our rights. We’ve got to tell congresspeople, “Look, get these irresponsible, runaway president and vice president—get them to regard the law as something that they need to follow, and impeach them for not following it.
Scheer: And not just the vice president and president, but anyone—whether they are Democrat, Republican, libertarian, Green—.
Rothschild: And it’s not about payback against Bush and Cheney or anything. This is about whether we’re a democracy or not. We can’t have on the books all these oppressive and repressive bits of executive orders or precedents that these people have established already.
Scheer: The people you talked to, the people you interviewed—are they still happy to be American citizens? How angry are they? Did they leave the country?
Rothschild: I talked to a guy named Zakariya Muhammad Reed, whose given name was Edward Eugene Jr., Edward Eugene Reed Jr. He lived in Toledo, Ohio, for 20 years. He was in the National Guard. For 11 years he’s been a firefighter there in Toledo. He converted to Islam. He married a woman from Lebanon whose family went to Toronto. Five times in the last eight months he’s been stopped coming back from Canada by Immigration. He said it would’ve been OK to stop him once and see who he was. He understands the risks we face in this country. But to stop him and harass him five times—and this was harassment. One of the guards told him, “We should do with these guys what we do with them in Iraq. We should put hoods over their heads and zip-tie their hands.” And then another person who was asking him questions, interrogating him, said, “What about this letter to the editor you wrote to the Toledo Blade.” And the letter he had written to the Toledo Blade that the guy had in front of him was criticizing the Bush administration, saying, “If you want to know why the United States has a bad reputation overseas, why don’t you look at the Bush administration’s war against Iraq and the Bush Administration’s support for Israel’s war against Lebanon and its oppression of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza?” And so the guy, the interrogator, says, “So, you like to write letters to the editor?” Well, you can’t write a letter to the editor in this country? What’s that about?
And the fifth time he was stopped—I wrote about him after he was stopped four times. And then the fifth time he was stopped he was asked about that article on Progressive.org that Rothschild wrote. The guys are watching every word the guy is saying.
Scheer: Is this guy still happy?
Rothschild: No, he is not happy.
Rothschild: He is outraged about what’s happened to his country. He said this is not the country he believed in. This is not the country he served in the National Guard for. “What has become of our country?” he asks. And that’s a tough question to answer.
Scheer: It seems like we are creating even more enemies. You know, we talk about stupid things like little threats, sleeper cells, or whatever. We’re creating terrorism in this country by making these people feel like fifth-class citizens.
Rothschild: We’re really infuriating people in this country who are Muslim-American or Arab-American and are harassed repeatedly when they are crossing the borders. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit, a class-action suit, with many of these people who just can’t believe the way they’re being treated.
Harris: What has been the most consequential change, either in loss of freedom or just change in American citizenry in general?
Rothschild: Two of the most flagrant things that George W. Bush has done, impeachable offenses, are the NSA spying, the spying by the National Security Agency, and then these signing statements.
The spying by the National Security Agency: They’re not supposed to spy on American citizens here at home unless the exclusive means by which they are supposed to spy on us according to the law is by first getting a warrant at the FISA court. And Bush signed a document every 45 days that said that he didn’t need to follow that law. He was going to have the National Security Agency spy on U.S. citizens anyway. I mean, that is as flagrant a violation of the law as you can imagine.
And the other thing is these signing statements, so-called. More than 750 times Bush has signed the law but rather than see that that law is faithfully executed, he puts a little asterisk underneath his signature and says, “I’m going to enforce this law only to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with my powers as commander in chief as I interpret them or as I interpret the Constitution in other ways.”
Harris: There must have been an asterisk for Scooter Libby as well.
Rothschild: There’s that whole Scooter Libby commutation. There’s the U.S. prosecutors. I mean, he’s using the U.S. Attorney’s Office to file bogus charges against Democrats so that he can change the outcome of elections. This guy has no respect whatsoever for democracy.
Scheer: ... [W]ith 9/11 happening, not many people stood up and said maybe these—like the Patriot Act—maybe these things weren’t right. And the ones who did, some of them have left office. [Former U.S. Sen.] Max Cleland. And there’s [former Rep.] Helen Chenoweth, who has now passed away, but she fought the strip searches on airplanes, and things like that. These rights have been going away for a long, long time. It’s not just the four years in Iraq. Especially after 9/11, with the Muslims who couldn’t sue because of their jobs being lost. “Look, 9/11 has just happened. There’s nothing we’re going to do.” I would like more people to stand up, in Congress.
Rothschild: I’m happy to have Russ Feingold—most of the time—as my senator. He’s the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act, at 98 to 1. I’m a little upset right now because he just came out with a statement that he’s not for impeachment, even though he admits that Bush and Cheney probably have committed impeachable offenses. He doesn’t want to go forward because he says we’ve got more important things to do. In my mind, restoring our democracy is the most important thing we need to do.
Scheer: Is David Obey your congressman?
Rothschild: No, David Obey is north of here.
Rothschild: I’m happy with my congressman, too, Tammy Baldwin ...
Scheer: Oh, OK.
Rothschild: ... who’s the first out lesbian to be elected to the House of Representatives and a wonderful person and a big defender of civil liberty. She originally signed onto the John Conyers bill that he put forward when he was in the minority and the Democrats didn’t have the House, a bill to explore grounds of impeachment. But I don’t know that she’s on the impeachment bandwagon just yet. There’s a huge groundswell of support at the grass roots for impeachment. The latest poll I saw said that 45 percent of the American public wanted the impeachment of Bush and 54 percent were in favor of impeaching Cheney. And this is before any leading Democrat has come out for impeachment. Dennis Kucinich, of course, has filed a bill to impeach Dick Cheney, but Nancy Pelosi says it’s off the table, Harry Reid won’t talk about it, the other presidential leading candidates won’t talk about it. But the people want it, and that is a hopeful sign, because the people know what abuses—at least they have an idea of the kinds of abuses that Bush and Cheney have committed. So if 45 percent want to impeach Bush and 54 percent want to impeach Cheney without any leadership whatsoever from the Democratic Party muckety-mucks, you can imagine—. Once we turn over a few more stones and see some more of the ugly little squirmy things that these guys have done, I think there’s going to be even louder noises clamoring for impeachment.
Scheer: It’s funny because with the Democrats not taking leadership, they obviously don’t learn, or they can’t figure it out because this is how the Contract With America, Newt Gingrich, came about, and this is probably going to end up the same way.
Harris: Standing up is becoming an overlooked exercise, and as much as we sit here and talk about the need for the American public to stand up and stand together and speak out for your rights, it is becoming a difficult task, because we’re seeing that those people that stand up are often ignored and overlooked. But perhaps if the American public were more vocal in the days after 9/11, if we call to task those congressmen and women that were so willing to give George Bush the ability to start a war in Iraq, we wouldn’t be in this situation that we’re in today. So we can’t forget about the power of standing up and speaking out. It is so important.
Rothschild: Right. And where were the Democrats when the Military Commissions Act was passed just last fall. They could’ve filibustered that bill. That bill passed only by a couple of votes, three votes. They decided not to, and that is a hugely reactionary piece of legislation that gives the president the right to call anybody in this country an enemy combatant, and if you’re not a U.S. citizen, you’re thrown into jail and you never get to see a lawyer or a judge again. You can languish there forever. And that really is not our system of government. We need to get back to a democratic system of government. We’re getting increasingly close to a monarchical form of government where we have a king and the king does whatever he wants.
Scheer: I just want to say something about impeachment, though, to go against that. Because the term is ending very soon we should also make very sure that the candidate that you are electing, that our vote’s going to, that they’re not for taking away our rights. Because we know with Hillary Clinton, her stands on war. She’s playing the tough card, and people like that. That we should focus our energy and find out what these people really stand for and make sure those questions are asked. And hopefully some journalist out there will ask them.
Rothschild: Yeah. I would hope in some of these debates that these huge civil liberties issues that are right staring us in the eye would get some attention from the people who would be president, who are running for president.
Harris: Matthew Rothschild, author of the new book “You Have No Rights.” Matthew, I told you you were going to get us fired up tonight.
Rothschild: Well, it didn’t take much to get me going. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you on this really crucial issue, though.
Harris: Thank you for joining us and good luck with your book.
Rothschild: Thanks so much.
Harris: For Matthew Rothschild, for Josh Scheer, this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.
AP Photo / John Marshall Mantel