Subject: ON THE POLITICS OF FEAR & REPRESSION AT HOME: FROM THE
FOR THE ADVANCED STUDY OF AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS.
19 July 2003
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
The Grenoble Center for the Advanced Study of American Institutions
Social Movements has received several articles describing the alarming
institutional changes that are affecting many democratic traditions within
the United States. The first item (A.) is an article published in the
Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), written by Laura Blumenfeld and
forwarded to us by Professor James Stevenson. The second two items (B. 1 &
2) were publshed in The Revolutionary Worker (Chicago) and were forwarded
to us by Mary Lagos, who is concerned with the represive measures that are
now being institutionalized in the US. Congress and by the US Department of
Justice. The third item (C.) is an interview with Professor Noam Chomsky,
published by ZNet (Boston), in which the domestic policies of the Bush
Administration are placed in historical perspective.
As usual, we encourage the friends and associates of the Grenoble research
center to comment on these essays and share with us any research they are
conducting on questions related to institutional changes and social
movements within the United States.
Professor of American Studies/
Director of Research
From: Professor James Stevenson.
"Former Aide Takes Aim at War on Terror"
By Laura Blumenfeld
copyright 2003, Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Five days before the war began in Iraq, as President Bush prepared to
the terrorism threat level to orange, a top White House counterterrorism
adviser unlocked the steel door to his office, an intelligence vault
secured by an electronic keypad, a combination lock and an alarm. He sat
down and turned to his inbox.
"Things were dicey," said Rand Beers, recalling the stack of classified
reports about plots to shoot, bomb, burn and poison Americans. He stared at
the color-coded threats for five minutes. Then he called his wife: I'm
Beers's resignation surprised Washington, but what he did next was even
more astounding. Eight weeks after leaving the Bush White House, he
volunteered as national security adviser for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), a
Democratic candidate for president, in a campaign to oust his former boss.
All of which points to a question: What does this intelligence insider know?
"The administration wasn't matching its deeds to its words in the war on
terrorism. They're making us less secure, not more secure," said Beers, who
until now has remained largely silent about leaving his National Security
Council job as special assistant to the president for combating terrorism.
"As an insider, I saw the things that weren't being done. And the longer I
sat and watched, the more concerned I became, until I got up and walked out."
No single issue has defined the Bush presidency more than fighting
terrorism. And no issue has both animated and intimidated Democrats. Into
this tricky intersection of terrorism, policy and politics steps Beers, a
lifelong bureaucrat, unassuming and tight-lipped until now. He is an
unlikely insurgent. He served on the NSC under Presidents Ronald Reagan,
George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the current Bush. The oath of office
hangs on the wall by his bed; he tears up when he watches "The West Wing."
Yet Beers decided that he wanted out, and he is offering a rare glimpse in.
"Counterterrorism is like a team sport. The game is deadly. There has to be
offense and defense," Beers said. "The Bush administration is primarily
offense, and not into teamwork."
In a series of interviews, Beers, 60, critiqued Bush's war on terrorism. He
is a man in transition, alternately reluctant about and empowered by his
criticism of the government. After 35 years of issuing measured statements
from inside intelligence circles, he speaks more like a public servant than
a public figure. Much of what he knows is classified and cannot be
discussed. Nevertheless, Beers will say that the administration is
"underestimating the enemy." It has failed to address the root causes of
terror, he said. "The difficult, long-term issues both at home and abroad
have been avoided, neglected or shortchanged and generally underfunded."
The focus on Iraq has robbed domestic security of manpower, brainpower and
money, he said. The Iraq war created fissures in the United States'
counterterrorism alliances, he said, and could breed a new generation of al
Qaeda recruits. Many of his government colleagues, he said, thought Iraq
was an "ill-conceived and poorly executed strategy."
"I continue to be puzzled by it," said Beers, who did not oppose the war
but thought it should have been fought with a broader coalition. "Why was
it such a policy priority?" The official rationale was the search for
weapons of mass destruction, he said, "although the evidence was pretty
qualified, if you listened carefully."
He thinks the war in Afghanistan was a job begun, then abandoned. Rather
than destroying al Qaeda terrorists, the fighting only dispersed them. The
flow of aid has been slow and the U.S. military presence is too small, he
said. "Terrorists move around the country with ease. We don't even know
what's going on. Osama bin Laden could be almost anywhere in Afghanistan,"
As for the Saudis, he said, the administration has not pushed them hard
enough to address their own problem with terrorism. Even last September, he
said, "attacks in Saudi Arabia sounded like they were going to happen
Within U.S. borders, homeland security is suffering from "policy
constipation. Nothing gets done," Beers said. "Fixing an agency management
problem doesn't make headlines or produce voter support. So if you're
looking at things from a political perspective, it's easier to go to war."
The Immigration and Naturalization Service, he said, needs further
reorganization. The Homeland Security Department is underfunded. There has
been little, if any, follow-through on cybersecurity, port security,
infrastructure protection and immigration management. Authorities don't
know where the sleeper cells are, he said. Vulnerable segments of the
economy, such as the chemical industry, "cry out for protection."
"We are asking our firemen, policemen, Customs and Coast Guard to do far
more with far less than we ever ask of our military," he said. Abroad, the
CIA has done a good job in targeting the al Qaeda leadership. But
domestically, the antiterrorism effort is one of talk, not action: "a
rhetorical policy. What else can you say -- 'We don't care about 3,000
people dying in New York City and Washington?' "
When asked about Beers, Sean McCormack, an NSC spokesman, said, "At the
time he submitted his resignation, he said he had decided to leave
government. We thanked him for his three decades of government service."
McCormack declined to comment further.
However it was viewed inside the administration, onlookers saw it as a rare
Washington event. "I can't think of a single example in the last 30 years
of a person who has done something so extreme," said Paul C. Light, a
scholar with the Brookings Institution. "He's not just declaring that he's
a Democrat. He's declaring that he's a Kerry Democrat, and the way he wants
to make a difference in the world is to get his former boss out of office."
Although Beers has worked in three Republican administrations, he is a
registered Democrat. He wanted to leave the NSC quietly, so when he
resigned, he said it was for "personal reasons." His friends called,
worried: "Are you sick?"
When Beers joined the White House counterterrorism team last August, the
unit had suffered several abrupt departures. People had warned him the job
was impossible, but Beers was upbeat. On Reagan's NSC staff, he had
replaced Oliver North as director for counterterrorism and
counternarcotics, known as the "office of drugs and thugs."
"Randy's your model government worker," said Wendy Chamberlin, a U.S.
Agency for International Development administrator for Iraq, who worked
with Beers on counterterrorism on the NSC of the first Bush administration.
"He works for the common good of the American people. He's fair, balanced,
honest. No one ever gets hurt feelings hearing the truth from Randy."
The first thing Beers noticed when he walked into his new office was the
pile of intelligence reports. The "threat stuff," as Beers calls it, was 10
times thicker than it had been before the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings.
He was in a job that would grind down anyone. Every day, 500 to 1,000
pieces of threat information crossed his desk. The typical mix included
suspicious surveillance at a U.S. embassy; surveillance of a nuclear power
plant or a bridge; a person caught by airport security with a weapon, or an
airplane flying too close to the CIA; a tanker truck, which might contain a
bomb, crossing the border and heading for a city; an intercepted phone call
between suspected terrorists. Most of the top-secret reports -- pumped into
his office from the White House Situation Room -- didn't pan out. Often
they came from a disgruntled employee or a spouse.
When the chemical agent ricin surfaced in the London subway, "we were
worried it might manifest here," he said. The challenge was: "Who do we
alert? How do you tell them to organize?"
Every time the government raises an alarm, it costs time and money.
"There's less filtering now because people don't want to make the mistake
of not warning," he said. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the office met three times
a week to discuss intelligence. Now, twice a day, at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., it
holds "threat matrix meetings," tracking the threats on CIA spreadsheets.
It was Beers's task to evaluate the warnings and to act on them. "It's a
monstrous responsibility," said William Wechsler, director for
transnational threats on Clinton's NSC staff. "You sit around every day,
thinking about how people want to kill thousands of Americans."
Steven Simon, director for counterterrorism in the Clinton White House,
said, "When we read a piece of intelligence, we'd apply the old
The government's first counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, who left his
White House job in February after more than 10 years, said officials judged
the human intelligence based on two factors: Would the source have access
to the information? How reliable was his previous reporting? They scored
access to information, 12345; previous reporting, abcd. "A score of D5, you
don't believe. A1 -- you do," Clarke said. "It's like a jolt of espresso,
and you feel like -- whoop -- it pumps you up, and wakes you up."
It's easier to raise the threat level -- from code yellow to code orange,
for example -- than to lower it, Beers said: "It's easier to see the
increase in intelligence suggesting something's going to happen. What do
you say when we're coming back down? Does nothing happening mean it's not
going to happen? It's still out there."
After spending all day wrestling with global jihad, Beers would go home to
his Adams Morgan townhouse. "You knew not to get the phone in the middle of
the night, because it was for Dad," said his son Benjamin, 28. When the
Situation Room called, Beers would switch to a black, secure phone that
scrambled the signal, after fishing the key out of his sock drawer. There
were times he would throw on sweats over his pajamas and drive downtown.
"The first day, I came in fresh and eager," he said. "On the last day, I
came home tired and burned out. And it only took seven months."
Part of that stemmed from his frustration with the culture of the White
House. He was loath to discuss it. His wife, Bonnie, a school
administrator, was not: "It's a very closed, small, controlled group. This
is an administration that determines what it thinks and then sets about to
prove it. There's almost a religious kind of certainty. There's no
curiosity about opposing points of view. It's very scary. There's kind of a
In the end, Beers was arriving at work each day with knots in his stomach.
He did not want to abandon his colleagues at such a critical, dangerous
time. When he finally decided to quit, he drove to a friend's house in
Arlington. Clarke, his old counterterrorism pal, took one look at the
haggard man on his stoop and opened a bottle of Russian River Pinot Noir.
Then he opened another bottle. Clarke toasted Beers, saying: You can still
fight the fight.
Shortly after that, Beers joined the Kerry campaign. He had briefly
considered a think tank or an academic job but realized that he "never felt
so strongly about something in my life" than he did about changing current
U.S. policies. Of the Democratic candidates, Kerry offered the greatest
expertise in foreign affairs and security issues, he decided. Like Beers,
Kerry had served in Vietnam. As a civil servant, Beers liked Kerry's
emphasis on national service.
On a recent hot night, at 10 o'clock, Beers sat by an open bedroom window,
wearing a T-shirt, his bare feet propped on a table.
Beers was on a three-hour conference call, the weekly Monday night foreign
policy briefing for the campaign. The black, secure phone by his bedside
was gone. Instead, there was a red, white and blue bumper sticker: "John
Kerry -- President." The buzz of helicopters blew through the window. Since
Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed, there were more helicopters circling the city.
"And we need to return to that kind of diplomatic effort . . . ," Beers was
saying, over the droning sound. His war goes on.
B-1) From: "mary lagos" <email@example.com>
"Warning! The USA Patriot Act and Other DangerousThings"
copyright 2003, The Revolutionary Worker, Chicago.
Hundreds of people held without charges for months at a time, secret
warrants issued for library records, U.S. citizens snatched by federal
agents on U.S. soil and held as "enemy combatants"-- waves of repression
since September 11 bring back memories of intense earlier repression--the
Palmer raids and mass deportations of the 1920s, the concentration camps
for Japanese Americans during WW2, McCarthyite witchhunts of the 1950s, and
COINTELPRO in the 1960s.
Many parallels come to mind. Nonetheless, some truly unprecedented changes
are under way today in the U.S. legal system. Constitutional principles
that were supposed to be bedrock to the U.S. system of justice are being
jettisoned in key respects--including due process, probable cause, right to
counsel, and judicial independence.
Limits placed on law enforcement spying on political activities in the
1960s and '70s have been lifted, and detention without charges, massive
surveillance without criminal suspicion, and prosecutorial overreaching are
now facts of life in America.
Non-citizens have been the first targets. The government has thrown
overboard the long-standing principle that non-citizens in the U.S.
generally have the same legal rights and protections as citizens (except
for the right to vote and laws governing their immigration status). And
then, the "logic of the logic" starts to extend the legal changes to
citizens as well.
USA Patriot Act
The single largest new piece of legislation so far is the USA Patriot Act.
It was passed barely six weeks after September 11 in an atmosphere of fear
and intimidation, as the anthrax scare forced many in Congress out of their
The USA Patriot Act breaks down old walls between domestic and foreign
intelligence, treating the "homeland" as another battleground of an
international war. It puts the powers of the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act (FISA) at the disposal of domestic law enforcement
agencies. It further undermines the Fourth Amendment protection against
unlawful search and seizure, along with the distinction between law
enforcement and political suppression. Everything from our e-mail traffic,
to the videoed images of our daily life, to formerly secret grand jury
testimony is now available to local cops and the CIA alike.
The Justice Department's June 2003 report to Congress on its use of these
powers revealed that 10 FBI field offices have monitored mosques in their
jurisdictions. It did not reveal how many agents have now infiltrated how
many religious communities. Information on other kinds of surveillance done
under the USA Patriot Act remains classified, so we don't know any details
of them either.
While the people are opened up to scrutiny, the government acts in secret.
The government has the power to prosecute anyone who reveals what records
government agents are taking or who they're targeting. Secret warrants,
secret detentions, secret court hearings, evidence secret even from the
defendants--the list is long and growing.
The alleged thoughts inside people's heads are now an element defining how
the state can prosecute various actions.
"Domestic terrorism," as defined in the USA Patriot Act, is a violation of
any criminal statute if that violation is "dangerous to human life" and
"appear[s] to be intended to influence the policy of a government by
intimidation or coercion." So intentions are key, and it's the government
who'll determine what those intentions are.
A wide range of activities could be seen as attempts to influence
government policy, including militant protests, strikes, and civil
disobedience. As a result, "terrorism" essentially means whatever the
government says it means.
People who plan or participate in determined protest actions could also
become targets of the spying and surveillance sanctioned by the USA Patriot
The crime of "harboring a terrorist" is defined in the USA Patriot Act as a
failure to notify the FBI if you have "reasonable grounds to believe" that
someone is about to commit a terrorist offense.
These two new crimes, "domestic terrorism" and "harboring a terrorist,"
will not expire automatically -- they are permanent features, blatantly
injecting the government's evaluations of the defendant's political
motivation into the Federal criminal code. And there is no statute of
limitations on prosecution; a person can be charged and tried at any time
for allegations of past actions.
Seizing Assets without Convictions
The Patriot Act opens up huge categories of financial records to government
surveillance, from credit reports to bank accounts.
The secretary of the treasury can now issue his own list of "suspected
terrorists" whose transactions banks are required to monitor and report
back on to the government, all without the knowledge of the targets.
The accounts of non-profit and charitable organizations are singled out as
particularly important to monitor.
All assets that the government claims will be used to support terrorist
activities can be seized under the Patriot Act, based at most on probable
cause that a crime had been or was about to be committed and without an
actual criminal conviction .
This can be a powerful tool for shutting down a wide range of political and
humanitarian organizations, especially those with international ties
In December 2001 the government seized the assets of the three largest
Muslim charities in the U.S.- -without any criminal charges, without a
judge's review, without a single "day in court."
The Patriot Act amended the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to
give the government the right to seize assets "pending investigation" of
any foreign person or organization that the President determines has
"planned, authorized, aided or engaged in" hostilities against the U.S.
The three Muslim charities were deemed to fit that description, even though
they were based in the U.S., because they were involved in charitable
projects overseas. Trucks pulled up to their offices and hauled away every
stick of furniture, every piece of paper and every computer hard drive on
their premises, putting them out of business and putting the names of
contributors in the government's hands.
Such complete seizure of assets was called a "general warrant" when the
King of England used it against the American colonists, and it has been
illegal since the Bill of Rights became law.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires that a warrant be based
on "probable cause" that a crime has been or is about to be committed (not
just a hunch). A warrant previously had to describe the place to be
searched and specifically mention the people or things to be seized. But
none of that applied in the raids on the charities.
When attorneys for one of the Muslim charities asked to see the warrant
against their client, they were told it was secret. This made it impossible
to challenge whatever allegations might have been made to obtain the
warrant. This is an extreme example of denial of due process--the principle
that legal proceedings must be conducted according to established rules,
including notice of charges--and the right to a fair hearing before a
tribunal with the power to decide the case.
Criminalizing International Ties
The criminalization of international political and humanitarian ties did
not begin with the USA Patriot Act. The 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective
Death Penalty Act resurrected guilt-by- association when it expanded the
definition of "material support" for international terrorism to include all
kinds of support to any organization designated as "terrorist."
A previous distinction between an organization's legal or humanitarian work
and its illegal or armed actions was abolished. So a donation to a hospital
in the West Bank that might have some affiliation to the Palestinian party
Hamas, for instance, now became "support for terrorism." And since Hamas is
deeply involved in providing social services to Palestinians, it is now
hard to know when a contribution to Palestinian social services risks a
criminal charge of "support for terrorism."
The 1996 law made an exception for medical or religious materials. The
Patriot Act abolishes even that distinction. It also expands the definition
of "support" to include "expert advice or assistance"--commentators have
pointed out that this could include any kind of humanitarian assistance,
even efforts at peace negotiation.
The secretary of state can designate a group as "terrorist" if its
activities "threaten the national security, foreign policy, or economy of
the U.S." This definition is so vague and so broad that it can include any
group not in favor with the government.
Most of the more than 30 groups designated to date have been Middle
Eastern, many Palestinian, but they have included the Communist Party of
Peru and the New People's Army of the Philippines as well.
The most serious post-9/11 prosecutions for "material support of terrorism"
have been under this 1996 statute, buttressed by expanded post-9/11 police
powers. The government does not need to prove that the defendants supported
any acts of violence, only that they are linked in some way to a group
alleged to have committed them.
The Lackawanna 6, Muslim men of Yemeni descent born in the U.S., were held
for months without bail on the evidence of foreign travel, Islamic beliefs,
and a statement by one of the accused that they had visited an al-Qaida
training camp. They were not charged with planning, let alone carrying out,
any specific act of violence. There was not even an allegation of
membership in al-Qaida. Their mere presence at the training camp was
considered "material support." Similar prosecutions against U.S. citizens
are underway in Oregon, Florida, California, and elsewhere.
B-2) From: "mary lagos" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"What About Our Safety?"
by Toby O'Ryan
copyright 2003, The Revolutionary Worker, Chicago.
I'm on the subway. A 30-ish Black man wearing a green bandana says he's
worried when he sees soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the streets.
He wonders aloud "if we're on a slippery slope to fascism." An older, nicely
dressed white woman says "but 9/11 changed everything-- we need to be safe
against terrorism." I get a feeling that the same basic conversation is
going on, in different ways, all over America.
And while we talk, the government seizes over a thousand immigrants
holds them without access to lawyers or family for months, and secretly
deports many of them. Some are beaten and held in solitary for months; one
man dies in custody. They are all suspects in 9/11, we are told--though none
are ever charged with that. Then the government forces tens of thousands
more immigrants to report for "registration"--and now threatens to deport
one of seven who showed up. Thus do entire groups of people lose their
rights to due process and even their freedom simply because of the country
they come from or the religion they profess...but it's all for our safety
Then the federal and state governments pass new laws that drastically
their power to tap people's phones and secretly break into and search
people's houses. Attorney General Ashcroft proclaims the right of the
government to secretly infiltrate political meetings or even religious
services, without any probable cause to suspect criminal activity. Police
departments in different cities either deny permits to antiwar marches, or
videotape everyone attending, or make wholesale arrests of people engaged in
lawful activity, or beat and even use rubber bullets against protesters.
They compile dossiers on demonstrators. Thus are people who dare to disagree
with the government deprived of their privacy, their political rights and
even their freedom...but it's all, no doubt, for our safety against
Then it leaks out that the Pentagon has set up a program called Total
Information Awareness to delve into every detail of everyone's life--from
health records to travel to job or school history right down to their daily
purchases. Government officials all the way up to Bush himself call on all
citizens to report "suspicious behavior." The press calmly discusses the
possible benefits of torturing "terrorist suspects." The FBI interrogates
librarians and booksellers to find out which people are reading what
books--and forbids them to tell anyone of it. Thus are the norms and
practices of a police state insinuated into society...but it's all, to be
sure, for our safety against terrorism.
Then the Justice Department drafts a bill that enables the president
strip people of their citizenship if they "materially support terrorism"--
which, by the definitions and procedures of the bill, could have applied to
someone who sent a printing press to the fighters against the apartheid
government of South Africa in the 1980s or who traveled to Northern Ireland
and met with Catholic activists. Thus could it happen that people who
organize political support for struggles abroad could be stripped of their
citizenship based on the unappealable decision of a president--but it would
all, you can bet, be for our safety against terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration draws up lists of countries for regime
change and institutes a policy of open-ended war, as the whole rest of the
planet smolders in anger at the "new Rome." Oh yes, but that too is all for
And so we find ourselves with a host of new repressive laws, with the
spying on and suppressing oppositional political activity, and with computer
programs that track everything from the books we read to our daily routines
of work and play and home. We feel the hot breath of xenophobia and the
chilled pressure to "watch what we say." We see the courts, the laws, and
the due process protections of centuries overruled by the strokes of a
presidential pen. We see U.S. troops occupying Iraq, "training" in the
Philippines, and getting ready to go who-knows-where next. But it's all,
every last bit of it, can't you see, for our safety against terrorism.
I know the woman on the subway is frightened; she watched from her window
when the towers came crashing down. She is not alone; millions are shook up
by every new emergency press conference or orange alert. The Bushes,
Ashcrofts, and Ridges make a cold calculation: the more measures they take
"for our safety," the more the fear grows; the more the fear spreads, the
more new measures they can force through. "Safety" becomes a button they can
push to serve a sinister agenda that has precious little to do with safety
and a whole lot to do with closing off the political and cultural space for
dissent and resistance.
But if people are to be scared--and there is scary stuff out
there--shouldn't they at least learn to fear the right thing? Do people
remember, or did anyone ever even tell them, that the very government we are
now supposed to trust absolutely imprisoned over 100,000 Japanese-Americans
in concentration camps during World War 2? That it hounded tens of thousands
of people out of the unions, the schools, and the arts during the McCarthy
witch-hunts of the 1950s because of their political beliefs? That it
conducted wholesale spying, disgusting harassment, and phony prosecutions
against civil rights activists in the 1960s, going so far as to murder Black
Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark as they slept in their beds? That it
even compiled "enemies lists" to go after other high government officials
and mainstream political opponents during Watergate? That it hounded church
people who provided sanctuary to Central American immigrants in the 1980s
and knowingly shipped immigrants back to certain death at the hands of death
squads in El Salvador or Guatemala? That today it holds over 2 million
people in prison, the highest number of any country, with more than half of
them Black, Latino, Native American, or immigrant? That it did all this
without the extraordinary and unprecedented new powers it has now seized for
itself, and without the science fiction technology it can now deploy? And
that this particular regime is headed by a president who came to power by
trampling on people's right to vote and overriding the actual election
results; that it has an attorney general who, among other things, lauds the
principles of the slave- society confederacy; that all its reasons for
invading Iraq are now exposed as lies?
This government has a track record of using its power in horrendous
caring for nothing and no one beyond their own power and profit. Now they
offer us a bargain: "trust us, cooperate with us, agree not to resist us as
we arrogate yet more power and ride roughshod over yet more countries, and
we will make you safe."
For a promise of safety, we're supposed to look the other way and forget
about everyone else. But who suffers in such a bargain? Who will be made
unsafe - in Baghdad and New York, in the West Bank and Los Angeles, in
Manila and Dearborn--in the name of such "safety"? What is being given up?
To whom? For what real purpose? And where is the safety in silence, blind
faith, and historical amnesia?
More--who put people in harm's way? And what will come of following
with all their "shock and awe" and threats of unending war?
I think again of the guy in the bandana and the woman on the subway.
is a conversation going on, often in whispers, among 300 million people.
These questions must find their way into the dialogue. How they are answered
will shape the history of our times.
From Michael Albert.
"Collateral Language: An Interview with Noam Chomsky"
by David Barsamian
copyright 2003, ZNet, Boston.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics
Philosophy at MIT. He is the author of scores of books-his latest are Power
and Terror and Middle East Illusions. His book 9-11 was an international
David Barsamian founder and director of Alternative Radio. He is the
of Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting as well as a number of books, such
as Propaganda & the Public Mind with Noam Chomsky, Confronting Empire with
Eqbal Ahmad and Culture & Resistance with Edward Said. He is a regular
contributor to Z, the Progressive, and other American journals.
BARSAMIAN: In recent years, the Pentagon, and then the media, have
adopted this term "collateral damage" to describe the death of
civilians. Talk about the role of language in shaping and forming
people's understanding of events.
CHOMSKY: Well, it's as old as history. It has nothing much to do with
language. Language is the way we interact and communicate, so,
naturally, the means of communication and the conceptual background
that's behind it, which is more important, are used to try to shape
attitudes and opinions and induce conformity and subordination. Not
surprisingly, it was created in the more democratic societies.
The first coordinated propaganda ministry, called the Ministry of
Information, was in Britain during World War I. It had the task, as they
put it, of controlling the mind of the world. What they were
particularly concerned with was the mind of America and, more
specifically, the mind of American intellectuals. They thought if they
could convince American intellectuals of the nobility of the British war
effort, then American intellectuals could succeed in driving the
basically pacifist population of the United States, which didn't want to
have anything to do with European wars, rightly, into a fit of
fanaticism and hysteria, which would get them to join the war. Britain
needed U.S. backing, so Britain had its Ministry of Information aimed
primarily at American opinion and opinion leaders. The Wilson
administration reacted by setting up the first state propaganda agency
here, called the Committee on Public Information.
It succeeded brilliantly, mainly with liberal American intellectuals,
people of the John Dewey circle, who actually took pride in the fact
that for the first time in history, according to their picture, a
wartime fanaticism was created, and not by military leaders and
politicians but by the more responsible, serious members of the
community, namely, thoughtful intellectuals. And they did organize a
campaign of propaganda, which within a few months did succeed in turning
a relatively pacifist population into raving anti-German fanatics who
wanted to destroy everything German. It reached the point where the
Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn't play Bach. The country was driven
The members of Wilson's propaganda agency included people like Edward
Bernays, who became the guru of the public relations industry, and
Walter Lippmann, the leading public intellectual of the 20th century,
the most respected media figure. They very explicitly drew from that
experience. If you look at their writings in the 1920s, they said, We
have learned from this that you can control the public mind, you can
control attitudes and opinions. That's where Lippmann said, "We can
manufacture consent by the means of propaganda." Bernays said, "The more
intelligent members of the community can drive the population into
whatever they want" by what he called "engineering of consent." It's the
"essence of democracy," he said.
It also led to the rise of the public relations industry. It's
interesting to look at the thinking in the 1920s, when it got started.
This was the period of Taylorism in industry, when workers were being
trained to become robots, every motion controlled. It created highly
efficient industry, with human beings turned into automata. The
Bolsheviks were very impressed with it, too. They tried to duplicate it.
In fact, they tried throughout the world.But the thought-control experts
realized that you could not only have what was called on-job control but
also off-job control. It's their phrase. Control them off job by
inducing a philosophy of futility, focusing people on the superficial
things of life, like fashionable consumption, and basically get them out
of our hair. Let the people who are supposed to run the show do it
without any interference from the mass of the population, who have no
business in the public arena. From that come enormous industries,
ranging from advertising to universities, all committed very consciously
to the conception that you must control attitudes and opinions because
the people are just too dangerous.
It's particularly striking that it developed in the more democratic
societies. They tried to duplicate it in Germany and Bolshevik Russia
and South Africa and elsewhere. But it was always quite explicitly a
mostly American model. There is a good reason for that. If you can
control people by force, it's not so important to control what they
think and feel. But if you lose the capacity to control people by force,
it becomes more necessary to control attitudes and opinions.
That brings us right up to the present. By now the public is no longer
willing to accept state propaganda agencies, so the Reagan Office of
Public Diplomacy was declared illegal and had to go in roundabout ways.
What took over instead was private tyrannies, basically, corporate
systems, which play the role of controlling opinion and attitudes, not
taking orders from the government, but closely linked to it, of course.