Friday, February 4, 2011

1998: Civil Libertarian of the Year

Following is the text of my acceptance speech to the Arizona Civil Liberties Union for the honor of being named "Civil Libertarian of the Year:"

It was George Bernard Shaw who said "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most people dread it." And it was Benjamin Franklin who said, after the constitutional convention: "Well, you've got yourselves a republic, if you can keep it." All of us in this room have taken upon ourselves the dread responsibility of trying to keep it. I've tried to do my part using the time-honored method of ridicule.

As most of you probably know from the ACLU newsletter, I've written three books - on the 38th President, the CIA, and on welfare for the rich. My first target was the great Quaker philosopher, Richard Nixon. Because in terms of those worthy of ridicule, there was no bigger target. I don't have to tell you folks that Richard Nixon was no friend of civil liberties. It was under his administration that we saw the first attempt at prior restraint of the press, in the Pentagon Papers case. Under Nixon we saw ten thousand Moritorium Day demonstrators rounded up and incarcerated in a sports stadium without being charged. Under Nixon we saw the advancement of the Huston plan to combat so-called "subversives", which called for wiretapping, mail-opening, break-ins, no-knock searches, and 'selective assassinations.'

Now, Nixon's apologists like to argue that none of this was new. And maybe there is nothing new under the sun. But in no administration, before or since, have we seen an attempt to plant evidence tying a political opponent to an accused assassin, as we did when Nixon's henchmen tried to smuggle McGovern literature into the apartment of the man who shot George Wallace. In no administration, before or since, has the Attorney General been indicted and convicted for obstruction of justice (though maybe some of them should have been). And while other presidents may well have harbored thoughts of firebombing the Brookings Institution, it was only Richard Nixon who actually ordered it to be carried out. And on tape, no less.*

Nixon really was a special case. Plenty of other presidents have shown a certain disrespect for individual rights. But Nixon simply had no respect for individuals, period. At state dinners, he would have his guests served an inexpensive brand of wine, while he saved the good stuff for himself, wrapped in a towel, so no one would notice. Only Nixon could reduce a couple of Young Republicans to tears by saying "Delegates? I thought they were hookers!" And only Nixon could exploit his father's death by hitting the campaign trail in 1956, saying "My father would have loved to be here tonight. He always said that -choke- Poughkeepsie was his favorite town."

But while few politicians are as ripe for mocking as Nixon, many -if not most- can be just as dangerous. My studies of the life and crimes of Dick Nixon led inevitably to a closer look at one of his indispensible tools for stomping on human liberty, the Central Intelligence Agency. Now again, apologists for the CIA will argue that it is just that - the tool of individual presidents. The CIA does the dirty work, and if they're successful, no one knows about it. If not, they take the blame, not the politicians. The higher-ups always maintain what is called "plausible deniability." This can often be the thinnest of fig leaves, but in a culture where there's not much profit in pointing out the nakedness of the emperor, it can suffice.

But the thing is, the doctrine of plausible deniability can work both ways. If government agencies can tape conversations, open mail, burglarize offices, bust down doors and engage in 'selective assassinations,' and maintain the fiction that the president or his aides knew nothing about it... well, those same agencies can get away with doing those same things when it really is on their own initiative. And it's exactly that lack of accountability that makes these agencies so dangerous to our democracy. In fact, under the National Security Act of 1947, the executive branch can break any law they see fit, under the rubric of "national security," a suitably vague phrase, the meaning of which is defined by that same executive! So it turns out that Nixon was simply stating the obvious when he said that "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal."

This is a blatant loophole in our constitution. As long as the National Security Act of 1947 is allowed to stand, we will continue to have a series of very ugly and very naked emperors on our hands. To quote Ben Franklin again: "They that can give up essential liberty for a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," But this is in fact what was intended in 1947 - a circumvention of constitutional authority. The CIA was modeled on the British intelligence services, and in emulating them, it initially drew its personnel from the American aristocracy, from the sons of Wall Street and the Ivy League. In fact, it was Wall Street law firms who lobbied for the creation of a centralized intelligence agency in the first place, for the express purpose of evading the law through the covert action capability. They may have been knaves, but they weren't fools; they knew exactly what they were doing.

So in effect, it really doesn't matter whether Nixon was responsible for the death of Salvador Allende, if LBJ was responsible for the killing of Rafael Trujillo, if JFK was responsible for the death of Ngo Dinh Diem, or if Eisenhower was responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. All these presidents, and the agencies who worked with them, came from a political culture that regarded 'selective assassination' as just one more tool in pursuit of "national security."

Which brings to mind two questions: First, if these men are willing, in pursuit of their objectives, to spread propaganda, steal elections, use chemical and biological weapons, assassinate political leaders, not to mention civilians by the millions - in other countries - exactly what would they stop at here in the United States of America? And second, exactly how do they define that amorphous "national security" for which they would go to such lengths?

For the answer to the first question, we have the late CIA Director William Colby, who said, "We are honorable men, and you just have to trust us." For the answer to the second, I turn to the topic of my third book, Taking the Rich Off Welfare.

The links between 'wealthfare' and the CIA are twofold. First, as Oliver North demonstrated, the lack of accountability afforded by the covert action capability allows intelligence operatives to generate small fortunes for themselves, using the US Treasury as seed money. North was neither the first or the last to set up front companies and make a few bucks on the side. And to this day the Justice Department is still trying to extract millions of dollars from Swiss bank accounts set up by North and his associates.

The second link is the fact that, from the very beginning, the actions of the CIA - like much of our foreign policy - have been on behalf of huge multinational corporations. Nixon overthrew Chilean democracy on behalf of ITT and Anaconda Copper. Eisenhower overthrew Iranian democracy on behalf of the oil companies, and overthrew Guatemalan democracy on behalf of the United Fruit Company. And none of this should come as any surprise, since Mr. Eisenhower's Secretary of State and CIA Director came from one of those same Wall Street law firms that lobbied for the CIA in the first place. And among the clients of that firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, were the big oil companies and the United Fruit Company.

So what does any of that have to do with the erosion of civil liberties? Just about everything. Because just as our foreign policies are auctioned off to the highest bidder, so too are our domestic policies. And the people who are doing the buying, it seems, tend to find the Bill of Rights to be awfully inconvenient. My co-author and I found that around a third of the federal budget - approximately a half a trillion dollars every year - is recycled back to the overpriveleged, whether in the form of outright subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes, or sweetheart deals. But one of the things we didn't include in our half-trillion estimate was the effect of the lax enforcement of white collar crime, which costs us another $200 billion a year - fifty times the annual cost of all burglaries, robberies and muggings in the country.

This is what the wealthy are buying with their campaign contributions. It turns out that investing in the stock market or real estate is just chump change. You can get from 100 to 1000 times your money back by investing in politicians. To take just one example, the American Barrick corporation is in the process of extracting some $10 billion in minerals from federal land in Nevada, for which it paid Uncle Sam about $5000. This deal was cut back during the Bush Administration. And just coincidentally, I'm sure, former President Bush now sits on the board of directors of that company. It's nice to see he's finally found honest work.

As the saying goes, the real scandal in Washington is what's legal. And another form of welfare for the rich which is almost impossible to quantify is deregulation, the process by which what used to be illegal suddenly becomes legal. So one of the policies the wealthy have been investing in lately is the deregulation of antitrust law as it applies to the media. Most of the censorship in this country doesn't come from the government imposing prior restraint, as Nixon did, but from omission, from corporate ownership narrowing the range of public debate. And the First Amendment can't really help us in that regard. Only our tradition of anti-trust legislation, now largely abandoned, can secure for us the freedom of information that Jefferson deemed so vital to democracy.

That's why it was so disheartening to see Bill Clinton sign the Telecommunications law of 1996. Not only was it an assault on the First Amendment, as even the Rehnquist Court quickly realized, but it was an assault on the diversity of our media. And that's where the real battleground is today. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the Fourth Amendment is pretty much dead and buried. After NSA '47 chewed such a big hole in our Constitution, and pretty much without a fight, those forces who find democracy too messy haven't rested on their laurels. Other bills like the Omnibus Drug Act of 1988 and the Crime Bill of 1994 have further chipped away at the right of habeus corpus, and the rights to be secure in our homes, and against unreasonable search and seizure.

And Bill Clinton has cheerfully signed away the right of death row prisoners to make most federal appeals. Not that it would matter if they could, since we now have a Supreme Court that has ruled that there is nothing in the Constitution that precludes the execution of the innocent, as long as all the paperwork is in order. This is the same Court that ruled that torture by the Chicago Police Department was constitutional, since it may be cruel, but it isn't unusual, and it has to be both! If the founding fathers had proscribed cruel or unusual punishment, that would be another matter enitirely.

I don't want to tell you that the battle is lost on this front. All of us here will keep fighting for the rights that, as Ollie North puts it, men have died face down in the mud for. And we'll keep fighting for them, even if we have to pass the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution all over again! But I am saying that this battle is going to be a lot harder unless we can ensure the diversity of viewpoints in our media. The NRA likes to argue that all other Constitutional rights flow from the Second Amendment. Well, I say that there's a reason the Founding Fathers put the First Amendment First!

So I want to applaud you here in the ACLU for your long and honorable history of working to maintain our Constitutional liberties in the face of a tireless opposition. And we in the media will keep saying unpopular things, as long as there's an ACLU around to make sure we can. Because, if you can stand one more quotation, it was the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, junior who said, "In this Revolution, no plans have been written for a retreat."

* To be precise, the tape showed that Nixon ordered the think tank to be burglarized, and emphasized to his staff that "any means necessary" should be employed in order to remove the files he desired. It was Charles Colson who ordered a firebombing to cover the tracks of the burglars. My apologies to Nixon's family for misrepresenting his treachery.

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