This book provides an excellent refresher about the first time that the US has been directly attacked, and how anxious our country — and Congress — were to guard our shores. But the bargain we made for security undermined many of our constitutional protections. “Basic building blocks of the country have been undermined and at times destroyed. In the name of retaliation, ‘justice,’ and prevention, fundamental values have been cast aside, among them the right to be safe from abusive powers by the state.” (Page 1)
Greenberg contends the “subtle tools” that slowly eroded our liberties began with the vague language of laws passed after the attacks, starting with the Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF) approved by Congress on September 18, 2001. (Page 17) The only “nay” was from Congresswoman Barbara Lee. The vague directive of that authorization was that the president could “use all necessary and appropriate force” with no limits specified. The President could order an attack on any individual or organization that he decides has some link to the 9/11 attacks. Even that limitation was transgressed, based on secret Justice Department memos that claimed for the President unlimited power to act against “future acts of terrorism.” Bush — and Vice President Dick Cheney — ran with that authorization to ignore long-established laws and conduct an ill-defined war on terror without clear objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The US Patriot Act of October 2001 took the violation of civil liberties even further. It “called for removing limits on unwarranted surveillance, extending secret ‘sneak and peek’ searches that did not require giving notice to the person, lowering the thresholds for criminal investigations, and expanding other powers.” (Page 28) Although its target was initially intended to be foreign or foreign-influenced terrorists, the expanded surveillance tools of the Patriot Act were soon being used on suspected drug traffickers, white collar criminals and other conventional law enforcement targets.
The use of alternative terms to avoid established norms was a common approach in the aftermath of the attacks. Captured prisoners were labeled “detainees,” allowing the US to place these people in a legal limbo that lacked the protections of either international law for armed combatants or US criminal law. Men would be imprisoned at the Guantanamo base in Cuba without being charged, some for up to 20 years (so far). They could be subjected to torture or “enhanced interrogation” techniques that had been condemned by all civilized nations, and which, as shown by experience, didn’t actually yield valuable information.
Under Obama, the term “war on terror” was replaced with “overseas contingency operations,” but drone attacks increased, sometimes killing innocent civilians. Obama did reduce troops in Afghanistan after increasing them and killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of the 9/11 attacks.
Trump then expanded the violation of established norms, with the assistance of his attorney generals, and fired many “advisors” who disagreed with him. He violated anti-nepotism laws to hire family members as advisors, fired the FBI Director in an unprecedented move, dismissed five inspector generals to avoid scrutiny of his policies, and fanned the flames of antiimmigrant attitudes by use of harsh rhetoric, a Muslim ban, and a child separation policy. (Page 85) He sent Homeland Security Department troops across the country to put down protests after the murder of George Floyd, starting with Portland, Oregon; they proceeded to conduct law enforcement operations without any legal authority and eventually had to be restrained by federal court order. He disassembled the US preparation mechanism for disaster preparedness while denying the seriousness of the coronavirus threat. He inspired an insurrection at the US capital that came with minutes of overthrowing our democracy.
Under Biden, vague language seems to be diminishing. He has used the word “terrorist,” but without relating it to Islam, executive orders are again more detailed with less language that could be used for expanded operations and unintended consequences. “When it came to COVID relief, Biden issued not one but eighteen executive orders, each one packed with specific instructions.” (Page 206) So we can hope that the broad, nonspecific terms that provided previous presidents nearly unlimited — and legally questionable — power may be diminishing.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.