The high price of ‘dark fusion’

The US government can already detain citizens as enemy combatants; now it wants to deploy propaganda across the country.

Adam Smith
Rep. Adam Smith (Democrat of Washington) along with Rep. Max Thornberry (Republican of Texas) co-sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act called the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 [AP]

Irvine, CA – It was the height of the dot-com boom in the United States, but the bubble that fuelled the Clinton years wasn’t fooling the American military. The top strategic planners of the day were still worried about potential threats to the US in the still young post-Cold War era – not despite, but because of the rapid spread of a still poorly understood globalisation.

Projecting ahead to the year 2020, the military planners and dozens of major corporations who were involved in the research argued that globalisation was making the world a more dangerous place precisely because it would widen the gap “between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots'” . This situation demanded that the US establish a “full spectrum dominance” over literally every plane of human existence – under and on the sea, on land, in the air and even in space.

This situation demanded that the US establish a ‘full spectrum dominance’ over literally every plane of human existence – under and on the sea, on land, in the air and even in space.

Four years later, the September 11 attacks provided the pretext for launching a full spectrum war for global dominance that could not be launched during the “peace dividend” years of the Clinton presidency.

What documents such as the US Space Command’s “Vision 2020” did not discuss was that the launching of a new “global war” would ultimately involve turning the American military, judicial and diplomatic machines on American citizens. It happened before: during the Vietnam and civil rights eras with the deployment of military-inspired SWAT units and COINTELPRO monitoring and infiltrations tactics against activist and minority communities.

During the last decade, more than 15 million Americans have entered the ranks of the global “have nots” whom Pentagon planners were, and no doubt remain, so worried about. It’s no wonder that the militarisation of law enforcement, coupled with the reduction of constitutional protections for American citizens, have served as natural complements to large-scale incarceration and military recruitment as the best strategies for dealing with the problem of the unassimilable poor.

Yet at some point, gung-ho, ignorance-is-bliss patriotism, large scale imprisonment, foreign wars, even 1,000 TV channels and high speed internet won’t keep people off the streets – especially in the wake of the worst recession in 70 years and a decade filled with multiple wars. And thus, the Occupy movement burst to life: inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt and ultimately sparked by the same underlying global neoliberal system that has concentrated wealth and power and increasingly criminalised dissent everywhere.

Full spectrum propaganda

In Tunisia and Egypt, the “secret” or “security” police were infamous for ensuring that regime propaganda was put out as truth, and worse, for spying on citizens and abductions and long-term detention of anyone deemed a threat to the state. And yet now, as these countries struggle to create states that will be less inclined to inflict these practices on their citizens, the United States is moving in the direction they are trying to leave behind.

There are three new and interrelated threats to fundamental freedoms that are directly related to the ongoing war on terror; they involve attempts to permit the US government to deploy propaganda inside the United States, to increase the ability to spy on American citizens and to detain Americans indefinitely without trial for involvement in what until now have been constitutionally protected activities.

“The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012… would overturn a 64-year-old prohibition against the US government directly deploying propaganda material towards American citizens inside the United States.

All three are direct results of a war on terror abroad that has morphed into a war on the have-nots and the want-nots – those who no longer want to be part of the existing system – at home. While the Obama Administration has not wholly embraced all three tactics, the groundwork is being laid for a full scale assault on the American people should the Republicans strengthen their control of the Congress and even win back the presidency this year.

Beginning with increased propaganda efforts, the most recent National Defense Authorization Act includes an amendment sponsored by Republican Representative Max Thornberry of Texas and Adam Smith, a Democrat from the state of Washington, referred to variously as the “Dissemination of Information Abroad” amendment, and as a separate bill, HR 5736, “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012.” Whatever one calls it, this legislation would overturn a 64-year old prohibition against the US government directly deploying propaganda material towards American citizens inside the United States, thereby “wiping out the distinction between domestic and foreign audiences“.

Supporters of the change argue that it merely gets rid of an “artificial handicap to US global engagement while creating domestic awareness of international affairs”. But in fact it does much more. It expands the authority to develop and disseminate propaganda from the Office of Public Diplomacy to the State Department as a whole and the Broadcasting Board of Governors – a presidentially-appointed body that includes entertainment executives, investment bankers and former White House press secretaries. These are people who have no institutional history of providing truthful or accurate information to the public, in or outside the United States.

Inside Story Americas – Is spying on Muslims legal in the US?

Whatever the supposedly liberal pretension of Hollywood, the relationship between the entertainment industry and the military complex has been anything but adversarial or even neutral. The recent revelations of the close relationship between Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and the CIA in the production of a film depicting the killing of Osama bin Laden is just the latest evidence of how the government and the entertainment industry collude to ensure profits and propaganda over truth and critical engagement with political power .

If this legislation becomes law the heads of some of the biggest entertainment conglomerates could have a direct say in producing propaganda directly for the American people. It’s “Wag the Dog” in real life, only Robert DeNiro’s CIA-veteran doesn’t need to kill Dustin Hoffman’s movie producer to hide the truth about the latest war because he’s already a fully vetted and vested player in the system. The US government could routinely lie to citizens about policies which are themselves based on or involve misleading – in Pentagon-speak, “influencing” – the population, creating a vicious circle of lies and manipulation that would make even the most seasoned pre-Uprising Arab information minister green with envy.

What’s more, the bill would specifically require the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors to “maximise the use of private resources” in developing and disseminating their propaganda (the Pentagon alone reportedly spends US $4 billion a year on public opinion efforts, from producing propaganda that is often passed off as actual “news” to utilising sophisticated software to monitor Twitter and other social media).

This not only insures the funnelling of hundreds of millions of dollars to the same private companies who’ve wasted billions of tax-payer dollars disseminating propaganda in Iraq and Afghanistan, it provides no oversight to check the accuracy of the propaganda, which by definition, has little regard for the truth.

At a moment when mainstream news organisations are faced with ever-tightening budgets and the internet allows for the proliferation of information without any controls or filters, there would be little to stop direct government propaganda about crucial domestic and foreign policy issues being passed onto the American people as sober analysis – Rupert Murdoch’s wildest dreams come true.

Lies, and damnable lies

It is true, as some argue, that the US, like all governments, already lies to their citizens – particularly in wartime (as the infamous WMD claims used to support invading Iraq makes clear) – while lobbyists have long been instrumental into writing and defending legislation that protects their interests. But in order for arguments to be lies, there must be some sort of truth against which they can and will be measured, often by other, non-partisan government agencies that can hold politicians to account for their claims.

Propaganda has no relationship to the truth… allowing the US government… directly to target American citizens at home would leave them as vulnerable as people around the world already are to the long arm of American disinformation.

Propaganda has no relationship to the truth, which is in fact irrelevant to its purpose. Allowing the US government, and especially the military and State Department, directly to target American citizens at home would leave them as vulnerable as people around the world already are to the long arm of American disinformation. A Pentagon official explained it off the record this way, saying that the bill would “remove protection for Americans [and] oversight from the people who want to put out this information… No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

The Media and Outreach Coordinator for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs stated the problem even more directly and on the record, arguing that “if we tear down that firewall, it will only be a matter of time before resources and personnel who focus on talking about American overseas are diverted in favour of domestic ‘public affairs'”.

Indeed, when Representative Thornberry declared that “we continue to face a multitude of threats and we need to be able to counter them in a multiple of ways. Communication is among the most important”, it’s hard to know if the threat he was describing was from supposed enemies in the Muslim world, or from the Occupy movement at home. Not surprisingly, reporters investigating the bill have already been targeted by military contractors with a social media slander campaign.

Spying, from 10,000 to 10 feet away

The second and related arena where political and civil rights are under increasing threat involves domestic spying by various intelligence and law enforcement agencies on the public. Here the threat is both technological and tactical. On the one hand, the Patriot Act and similar post-9/11 laws have allowed the US government and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies much wider latitude to monitor and even infiltrate religious, ethnic and various political groups and communities – even journalists – who are considered a potential threat to the system.

At the same time, through the use of supercomputers to monitor phone and internet usage and increasingly the use of unmanned drones for domestic surveillance (which have recently been approved for local use by the FAA), the technologies at the disposal of the US government provide it with an unprecedented ability to spy on Americans engaged in what have been until now Constitutionally protected activities.

Technology-driven spying is not the most dangerous activity in which the US government is engaging. The more traditional types of surveillance, monitoring and infiltration of ethnic, religious and political communities are even more troubling. With large municipal police forces such as the NYPD now boasting their own intelligence divisions and more legal leeway to monitor civilians than the Federal government, it’s not surprising that such activities have increased in the last decade to levels not seen since the Vietnam and civil rights eras.

The latest technologies combine with a coordinated range of intelligence-gathering activities sponsored by Federal and local law enforcement agencies to create a dense network, or web of monitoring, surveillance and infiltration that has been deployed against Muslim communities (who remain the single biggest target) as well as anti-war protesters and now the Occupy movement.

The close collaboration between various agencies is epitomised by the so-called “fusion centres” established under a joint project between Homeland Security and the Justice Department in many large American cities, where they can share intelligence and coordinate responses to protests – not just within one city, but across the country. What makes the fusion centres, and the larger federal and local policies they support, so dangerous is not merely that they operate without proper oversight or clarification about the legal limits of their spying. As important is the larger knowledge environment in which personnel operate, one in which police and intelligence gathering agencies from the local to the Federal law enforcement, intelligence and military organisations routinely utilise the most rabidly anti-Muslim propaganda imaginable as part of their core training programs.

Of course, if the the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 becomes law, then the situation would be demonstrably worse. Not only could various agencies of the US government – and as important, their corporate contractors – spy on, monitor and penetrate various communities with impunity, they could justify their actions through the use of even more spurious propaganda. This would leave American citizens with little clue as to whether they were being told the truth, or whether those disseminating “public information” represented a well-connected contractors’ bottom-line and economic interests.

This scenario is already falling into place, as private contractors with ties to senior Republican lawmakers are already vying to win contracts to smear the Occupy movement, while both Homeland Security and military personnel are admittedly spying on peace and justice activists. If the current laws are upheld soon these activities will be justified by the best corporate-concocted half-truths, lies and damnable lies that tax-payer money can buy.

An even darker Orwellianism

The combination of government-by-propaganda and full spectrum surveillance, monitoring and infiltration of suspected “threats” is dangerous enough. But on top of these developments, changes to the wording of the National Defense Authorization Act, first signed by President Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and reauthorised last year, gives the US government the ability to detain American citizens as enemy combatants, without trial and without limit, merely based on an accusation of supporting groups deemed threats to US security.

[The NDAA] gives the US government the ability to detain American citizens as enemy combatants, without trial and without limit, merely based on an accusation of supporting groups deemed threats to US security.

A main provision of the original law was the authorisation of the president to detain indefinitely and without trial any member of al-Qaeda or the Taliban whom the US accused of having participated in the September 11 attacks. However, changes to the section 1021 of the Act, where this authority is detailed, expanded the definition of who could be detained beyond just al-Qaeda or Taliban members who participated in the September 11 attacks.

Now it includes anyone who is “part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces“.

These changes might seem minor, until you consider who gets to determine how ambiguous are terms like “substantially support” or “belligerent act”. The use of such broad terms has frightened journalists and activists such as Chris Hedges and Tangerine Bolen to the point of filing a request for a preliminary injunction against Section 1021 of the law. They argue that the new wording was “radically different” than the original text, substantially expanded the scope of who could be detained and would threaten both their free speech, associational and due process rights guaranteed by the First and Fifth Amendments. Indeed, both provided evidence that the new wording already forced them to curtail their constitutionally protected activities for fear of running afoul of the law.

A US district judge for eastern New York, Katherine Forrest, agreed with their claim, delivering a blistering decision declaring Section 1021 to be “constitutionally infirm“, in good measure because government attorneys refused to declare that the new wording would not be interpreted by the government as covering the activities of journalists or civil society activists. Unfortunately, her ruling could well be overturned on appeal.

Writing on his well-known blog “Informed Comment,” University of Michigan professor Juan Cole decried the “Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012,” arguing that “nothing speaks more urgently to the creeping fascism of American politics” than the belief by our leaders that the best way to “protect” Americans is to allow the unfettered use of propaganda against them . It remains to be seen whether, as with Italians and Germans in the 1930s, Americans will increasingly opt for fantasy and militarism over confronting the hard truth of just how hard it will be to accomplish the kind of radical political and economic reform necessary to recover the prosperity, rights and hopes for the future that have been steadily eroded in the last generation.

As of now, the ongoing march towards a surveillance-propaganda-incarceration state continues apace. If this dangerous fusion becomes self-sustaining, the once great experiment of American democracy will officially pass into the dustbin of history.

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming