Spyhopping the Right.
David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America, (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for MSNBC.com on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000. His freelance work can be found at Salon.com, the Washington Post, MSNBC and various other publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara Robinson has worked as an editor or columnist for several national magazines, on beats as varied as sports, travel, and the Olympics; and has contributed to over 80 computer games for EA, Lucasfilm, Disney, and many other companies. A native of California's High Sierra, she spent 20 years in Silicon Valley before moving to Vancouver, BC in 2004. Her lifelong interest in the social effects of authoritarianism have most recently led her to pursue the MS in Futures Studies at the University of Houston. She's also a student member of the Association of Professional Futurists, and member of the Accelerated Studies Foundation advisory board on social and cultural issues. For fun, she raises kids and travels. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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Orcinus Principium No. 1
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More on MAGIC
Wednesday, August 04, 2004
I've been somewhat remiss in failing to cite Tetsuden Kashima's definitive text, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II, which I mentioned earlier in my post responding to Michelle Malkin's text on the Japanese-American internment. In fact, let me recommend it strongly to all my readers as a potent antidote to Malkin's nonsense.
Kashima, as I explained, thoroughly examines the evidence regarding the long-term plans for internment that ultimately led to the incarceration of 122,000 Nikkei during World War II. Unlike Malkin's agenda-driven work, Kashima examines the entire array of prewar planning, including the Special Defense Unit's prewar investigations and classifications of potential suspects and Office of Naval Intelligence work -- as well as the MAGIC cables, about which he writes (pp. 38-39):
- American cryptoanalysts had successfully decoded one of the highest-level Japanese foreign office diplomatic codes by fall 1940. This project, named Magic, was so sensitive that only a handful of people in the U.S. government knew of its existence, and fewer still were privy to the information derived from it. The distribution of the information was limited to nine: the secretary of war, the army chief of staff, the director of military intelligence, the secretary of the navy, the chief of naval operations, the chief of the navy's war plans division, the director of naval operations, the secretary of state, and President Roosevelt.
A few of these messages dealt with intelligence agents. Few Japanese names are mentioned: one is "Iwasaki," who "had been in touch with William Dudley Pelley, leader of the Silver Shirts, a fascist organization in the United States." Iwasaki was apparently an agent sent by Japan who returned home prior to December 7; he was not a permanent resident Issei.
There is no indication among all the messages of any plan to organize sabotage activities. The messages emphasize the gathering of information from available sources such as publications and journals. Of the nineteen suspects convicted of committing acts of espionage in the United States in the years before and during World War II, none had a recognizably Japanese name.
Malkin makes much of FDR's keen interest in the MAGIC cables, but there's nothing extraordinary in this, given what we know about FDR's predilection for 'Yellow Peril' and related theories (an unsurprising fact, incidentally, given that many liberals, including much of the labor movement up through the 1920s, were intimately involved in anti-Asian racial agitation).
It's important to understand that the evacuation and incarceration of citizens was a plan cooked up not by FDR but under the purview of War Secretary Henry Stimson and his Assistant Secretary John McCloy, primarily at the behest of a trio of officers: Lt. Gen John L. DeWitt (head of the Western Command), Lt. Col. Karl Bendetsen (the "architect" of the internment), and Provost General Allen Gullion, who for some time had been looking to establish a precedent regarding military control of civilian populations in non-combat situations. It was this coterie that largely made the internment a reality; the only cabinet officer who stood up to them was Attorney General Francis Biddle, who argued consistently against it. However, FDR overruled him and agreed to the Bendetsen/DeWitt plan. Of all these men, only FDR and Stimson had access to the MAGIC cables.
Moreover, as I previously noted, and as Kashima thoroughly documents, the MAGIC cables were hardly the only intelligence influencing FDR's decisions. Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that they played any significant role in FDR's decisions -- except, perhaps, to buttress his well-established prejudices.
Kashima has more on this, particularly details on the Curtis Munson intelligence report (mentioned previously) that concluded that "We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war." Kashima concludes (p. 41):
- The president and his cabinet thus had reports on the "Japanese situation" from a trained navy intelligence officer and a trusted civilian investigator months before war was declared. Both Ringle's and Munson's reports exonerated the majority of the Japanese American population of constituting a threat to national security. Yet, this had little effect in sparing them the onus of being labeled a suspect group. President Roosevelt made no such effort to keep watch on Americans of German and Italian ancestry. Greg Robinson [By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, Harvard University Press, 2001] argues convincingly that Roosevelt's anti-Japanese views from the early 1930s carried over to persons of Japanese ancestry in the United States and resulted in his making no distinction between the Issei and the Nisei. For this reason, "during the prewar years the President consistently regarded Japanese Americans as adjuncts of Japan and therefore as potential enemies, despite their American birth or decades-long residence in the United States."
FDR indeed was fascinated by the MAGIC cables, and evidently read them avidly. But this does not, as Malkin suggests, exonerate him of the charge of racism in his decision to incarcerate 120,000 people in concentration camps.
[UPDATE: Eric Muller has obtained a copy of the text and is now reviewing it at Volokh Conspiracy, where he's guest-blogging. And be sure to check out Greg Robinson's withering response.]
Michelle Malkin's revisionism
Is Michelle Malkin "gutsy" and "fearless" and "courageous"?
Sure. The same way David Irving is "gutsy" and "fearless" and "courageous."
Malkin has a new book out titled In Defense of Internment: The Case for "Racial Profiling" in World War II and the War on Terror that seemingly cannot be described by various conservatives (and, of course, her own Web site) without lots of fortitudinous encomia. I haven't yet read it, but a survey of her own material and the promotional work -- and not to mention that it's published by the right-wing Regnery Press, a publishing house with origins in McCarthyism and other extreme right-wing activities -- suggests the book is seems more tailored to attract a readership through controversy than to seriously address the Japanese-American internment and the issues raised by it.
But then, Malkin is not playing the historian here, but the propagandist. Her agenda is pretty clear, laid out in the promotional blurb:
- Malkin is not advocating rounding up all Arabs or Muslims and tossing them into camps -- but she brings a bracing dose of desperately needed common sense and fearlessness to the ongoing debate about the balance between civil liberties and national security. Says Malkin: "A nation paralyzed in wartime by political correctness is a nation in peril." She provides conclusive proof that wartime presidents can't afford to indulge pandering nonsense from those who would make our security secondary to anything: a nation can't stand for anything unless it is still standing.
I'm still awaiting my copy of it, but it's reasonable to assume we can glean the essence of its contents from the Town Hall.com (where Malkin is a columnist) review:
- But the most important factor in the decision to relocate and eventually intern the Japanese was an espionage network discovered in the western United States. As part of MAGIC, a top-secret project, over 5,000 cables were decrypted by the finest code-breakers in the government -- just a sliver of the communication estimated overall. These messages revealed a clear, extensive, pro-Axis mole system in key industrial and military areas in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. In addition, investigators found detailed maps of Oahu in the cockpits of downed Japanese fighter planes in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Empire relied on internal agents in the Philippines and other territories it conquered as well.
This information was released in 1977, and though it was just as damning as the Venona papers released eighteen years later, it has been greatly ignored by current-day historians. Malkin apparently wants to reverse that neglect: she includes the documents that have been declassified in her appendix, which makes up half the book. Her point-by-point deconstruction of the racist-paranoid school on internment is also well-footnoted, and full of credible and well-respected sources. Detractors will have a hard time shooting her out of the sky on the basis of her non-academic credentials.
Well, my credentials are almost entirely non-academic as well. But it's clear that if this is indeed Malkin's thesis, it can be shot down quite readily by simply applying a well-rounded dose of facts and the complete evidence.
As an amateur historian, Malkin would have been well advised to take a real survey of the historical material available on this subject, because there is a wealth of work that would have readily refuted many of her most basic tenets. (The bibliographic page at the Densho project would have been a good place to start.) Meanwhile, it's worth noting that the only previously published text that she appears to cite as support for her thesis regarding the MAGIC cables is a self-published conspiracy tome by David Lowman that clearly did not pass peer review at any respected house. With Regnery, Malkin evidently didn't have to try.
I'll run a full review of the book after I read it. But in the meantime, there's an abundance of material available that gives us the full flavor of the book, including her Web site, as well as an op-ed column (currently unavailable online) that ran this morning in the King County Journal (my former employer, sort of), titled "Rethinking the Japanese-American internment." Some key excerpts:
- Contrary to historical conventional wisdom, the internment of Japanese, German, Italian and other enemy aliens, and the relocation of and evacuation of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast, were not the product of irrational hatred or conspiratorial bigotry. With Japanese submarines roaming free off the coastline, the U.S. government's national security concerns -- in particular, the threat of espionage -- were real and urgent.
More than any other source of intelligence, it was the so-called "MAGIC" messages -- Japan's diplomatic communications that were surreptitiously intercepted and decoded by American signal intelligence officers -- that influenced top decision-makers within the Roosevelt administration.
It's clear that this is Malkin's central thesis. And the problem is that it's simply, demonstrably false.
Longtime readers will recall that I discussed these and related topics a lot last year, mostly revolving around Howard Coble's nonsensical defense of the internment. You'll forgive me, I hope, if I wind up reiterating myself here, but the core facts are difficult to refute, and bear repeating.
Personal Justice Denied: The Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, addresses the MAGIC cables quite thoroughly (pp. 471-475):
- In fact, review of the "Magic" cables does not alter the Commission's position. Rather, it confirms the views expressed by the Commission. Personal Justice Denied devoted several pages to analyzing the American intelligence views of Japan's espionage, sabotage, and fifth column capabilities on the West Coast in late 1941 and 1942. Several relevant points were made in that discussion. First, the intelligence sources reviewed assumed that Japan had a modest number of intelligence agents and perhaps potential saboteurs on the West Coast in 1942. Second, people familiar with the intelligence activities of Japan believed that the Japanese intelligence network employed many who were not ethnic Japanese. Third, the intelligence experts believed that any threat of sabotage, espionage or fifth-column activity was limited and controllable and did not justify mass exclusion of the ethnic Japanese from the West Coast. Nothing in the 'Magic' cables contradicts these basic points.
What the "Magic" cables show is an effort by Japan to develop an intelligence capability in the United States made up of both non-ethnic Japanese and ethnic Japanese. In fact, in sending instructions about who should be used in such an effort, the cables emphasize groups other than the Issei and Nisei [because they would be less likely to raise suspicions] ...
Among the more than 4,000 "Magic" cables in 1941, only a very small number reflect the collection of intelligence which was not clearly public information or data obtainable by legal observation ...
Next, there is no indication in the "Magic" cables of a sabotage or fifth column organization. The likelihood of sabotage and fifth column aid in case of an attack were, of course, major arguments advanced in support of the exclusion. ...
One reason that the documents were not located and reviewed is that there is no clear evidence that they played any part in the decision to issue Executive Order 9066 or to pursue the policy of exclusion and detention of the West Coast Japanese. ...
The report then cites the congressional testimony of internment architect John McCloy, the Assistant War Secretary, who indicated no known intelligence or evidence about sabotage or espionage actually played a role in the decision: "Whether it was espionage or not, I can't say. But this wasn't such a motivating factor with us ... There were suspicions and rumors but that's as far as I can go."
Malkin's op-ed piece cites later testimony by McCloy to the effect that "'MAGIC' was instrumental in shaping the policies of the administration's homeland security policies." Yet this claim is dubious at best; McCloy's own earlier testimony further indicates he was unaware of the MAGIC cables; and it is likewise clear that FDR signed off on the internment not so much by his own initiative but by that of McCloy and his cohorts. Though FDR was aware of the MAGIC cables, there is nothing in any of the documents regarding his discussions with others within the chain of command that they influenced his thinking at all. Instead, it's clear the primary rationalization for the internment came from Lt. Gen. John DeWitt's finding of "military necessity" -- which was built upon an amazing paucity of evidence and a large mountain of racist stereotypes.
"The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become Americanized, the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects, ready to fight, and if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents," DeWitt argued in the "military necessity" memorandum.
DeWitt's reasoning also had a distinctly Kafkaesque quality: "There are indications that these [Japanese] are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken."
As the commission's report states, the MAGIC cables had already played a role in the early steps taken by authorities in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Quoting John Hersey from his essay, " 'A Mistake of Terrifically Horrible Proportions' " (from the book Manzanar):
- With great speed and efficiency, beginning the very night of the attack, the Justice Department arrested certain marked enemy aliens of all three belligerent nations. Within three days, 857 Germans, 147 Italians, and 1,291 Japanese (367 of them rounded up in Hawaii, 924 on the continent) had been rounded up. The arrests were made on the basis of remarkably thorough -- though in some cases inaccurate -- prior information that had been compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Military Intelligence Service. With respect to the Japanese, it was evidently of enormous help that United States cryptologists has, a year earlier, in an intiative called Magic, broken all the Japanese diplomatic codes and ciphers. Intercepted Magic messages had designated certain Japanese patriotic organizations in the United States as potential sources of intelligence for the enemy, and many of the Japanese aliens arrested in the first sweeps were leaders of those groups.
Indeed, this -- and the fact that he knew the evidence of Japanese-American espionage and sabotage was nonexistent -- was a large part of why J. Edgar Hoover opposed the internment. According to Hoover, all of the potential spies had in fact already been identified and arrested by the FBI.
Malkin goes on to cite a number of the MAGIC cables referring to efforts to recruit ethnic Japanese. These are accurate insofar as they go, but they ignore the most salient fact: As Personal Justice Denied points out, the MAGIC cables, in devising ways to create this intelligence network, actually recommended that members of the Nikkei community be used for espionage only as a final resort, because they would be highly likely to raise suspicions and wind up getting caught and perhaps betraying the network. The cables instead suggested recruiting whites to perform the espionage.
An example was this cable:
- We are doing everything in our power to establish outside contacts in connection with our efforts to gather intelligence material. In this regard, we have decided to make use of white persons and Negroes, through Japanese persons whom we can't trust completely.
That's largely what happened. By war's end, exactly seven American citizens had been convicted of spying of for Japan. All of them were Caucasians. The only Japanese spies caught were nationals, all of them in the employ of consulates.
Finally, even if everything Malkin said were accurate (and obviously it isn't), then at some point she must answer the most basic question of all: Does wartime justify the suspension of the basic American right to a presumption of innocence?
Because even if the MAGIC cables were the primary source of the motivation to intern the Nikkei, they at best showed that only a tiny portion of that community were a sabotage/espionage risk. That would mean the United States incarcerated 70,000 citizens based on the presumption that a few of them were guilty of spying.
Perhaps the most noxious part of Malkin's argument, however, is the contention that the internment, evacuation and relocation "were not the result of irrational hatred and conspiratorial bigotry." This is nothing short of a simple falsification of history.
As I've explored in depth before, the Japanese-American internment, viewed in the longer context of the preceding half-century, was the culmination of an extended and relentless campaign of undiluted racism aimed at driving the Japanese from the American national fabric. As Eric Muller previously observed:
- I have never been much taken by the politically correct notion that it was entirely irrational to fear disloyalty among some Japanese aliens and even some Japanese American citizens. What I have maintained is that the scope of the government's program, the enormity of its deprivations--that is, the essence of the tragedy of the Japanese American internment--can be explained only by reference to racism.
In other words, it is entirely possible that, in early February of 1942, FDR had a valid reason to worry about the presence in the USA of some disloyal people of Japanese ancestry. But that fact doesn't even begin to explain the policy that the administration chose to implement.
Recall, too, that (as Monkey Media Report demonstrated) FDR himself was an avid subscriber to the patently racist "Yellow Peril" conspiracy theories that provided the grist for so much of the anti-Japanese mill.
Moreover, it is abundantly clear that the racist stereotypes to which not only FDR but most of the rest of the nation subscribed were in fact prerequisites for the internment. Americans believed that Japanese-Americans would betray them because racist propaganda had been assuring them of this for the preceding half-century. This was especially clear in the nature of the hysteria that swept the Pacific Coast after Pearl Harbor, which (as I recently described) was not only unusually vicious, but constantly referenced these well-established beliefs in a nonexistent conspiracy.
Central to these beliefs was the notion that the immigrant Japanese (the majority of whom were engaged in agriculture) were secretly "shock troops" sent by the Emperor to serve as a "fifth column" on American shores; they supposedly only awaited the signal to spring into action at the right moment to act as a linchpin of the long-planned invasion of the Pacific Coast.
Of course, in retrospect, we know now that no invasion of the coast was ever contemplated by Japan; their entire purpose was to establish hegemony in the Asian Pacific. But the reality is that even at the time, the military was fully aware that no invasion was even remotely likely. Nor even was a full-scale attack, a la Pearl Harbor, even feasible. At the worst, scattered raids were primarily the threat faced by the Pacific Coast.
Indeed, federal authorities already had made the assessment that the Japanese living in America posed no threat to the security of the nation. Some months before the war arrived, President Roosevelt had secured the services of Chicago businessman Curtis Munson in coordinating an intelligence report on Japanese in the United States. Munson's report, delivered on Nov. 7, 1941, couldn't have been more clear: "There will be no armed uprising of Japanese [in the United States] ... For the most part the Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war."
Military strategists at the War Department were well aware that the Pacific Coast was under no serious threat of being invaded or under any kind of sustained attack. General Mark Clark, then the deputy chief of staff of Army Ground Forces, and Admiral Harold Stark, chief of naval operations, both ridiculed the notion of any kind of serious Japanese attack on the Pacific Coast when they testified that spring before a Senate committee, though Clark (who had spent several years as an officer at Fort Lewis, Washington) did admit that the possibility of an occasional air raid or a sustained attack on the Aleutian Islands "was not a fantastic idea."
Secondarily, DeWitt’s clamorous appeals for devoting badly needed troops for the defense of the West Coast were dismissed by War Department officials who knew better; to the planners there, preparing an offensive army for operations in Europe and the Pacific, such requests were self-indulgent wastes of their time.
However, the justification of the evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans, at least in the popular mind, was not because of fears of mere sabotage, but because of fears of invasion, to which DeWitt in his proclamations made frequent reference.
It is important to understand that, as Tetsuden Kashima explores thoroughly in his definitive text, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II, the incarceration of the Nikkei in World War II was not simply the result of hysteria. In fact, as he demonstrates, it had been planned and well in the bureaucratic works for quite some time, beginning as early as the late 1920s.
However, allowing the military to incarcerate citizens en masse -- which in the end was the underlying bureaucratic purpose of the episode -- obviously raised real civil-liberties issues. And these almost certainly would have been raised immediately had anyone suggested evacuating and placing in concentration camps the nation's Italian-American or German-American populations.
The Nikkei, however, offered a unique opportunity in this regard, particularly since they represented a relatively smaller ethnic population -- one which was, moreover, popularly reviled and almost completely marginalized. The hysteria was already latent in the cultural landscape, and government officials and politicians at all levels -- local, state and federal -- readily whipped it higher at nearly every opportunity.
The race-driven hysteria, in essence, did not in itself cause the internment -- but it was the linchpin in convincing the public to proceed with it. And indeed, the public not only approved, it demanded it.
The result was a horrific episode in our history, a permanent black mark, and in the end a tremendous waste of the nation's resources and energies. As I've remarked previously:
- The overwhelming weight of the postwar evidence is that the internment prevented very little, if any, sabotage or espionage. Moreover, even beyond its transparent unjustness, the damage to the integrity of the Constitution, and the dangerous precedents it set, the internment of the Japanese Americans was an unfathomable waste. It demonstrably undermined the war effort, and proved not to be worth a penny of the billions of taxpayer dollars it wasted.
In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars the actual enterprise itself cost -- rounding up 120,000 people by rail car and shipping them first to "assembly centers"; building ten "relocation centers" in remote locales, and then shipping the evacuees into them; maintaining and administering the centers for another three years, which included overseeing programs to help internees find work outside the camps; feeding the entire population of internees during this time; and then helping them to relocate near their former homes once the camps closed -- there were $37 million more in initial reparations costs in 1948, and then $1.2 billion more in the later reparations approved by Congress in 1988.
At the same time, the Japanese on the Pacific Coast, who occupied some 7,000 farms in the "Military Exclusion Zone," actually were responsible for the production of nearly half of all the fresh produce that was grown for consumption on the Coast (the Japanese also shipped out a great deal of produce to the Midwest and East). Indeed, Nikkei farms held virtual monopolies in a number of crops, including peppers, snap beans, celery and strawberries, and a large portion of the lettuce market.
When these farmers were rounded up and interned, a handful of enterprising whites decided to try running their farms with the hope of making a killing from the crops. But labor was so short that not one of these enterprises lasted beyond about five weeks, and none of them had a successful harvest. Nearly all of these farms lay fallow for the next four years. This major loss of production of fresh vegetables clearly harmed the war effort on the home front, and played a significant role in triggering the rationing that came during the war years.
Evidently, this is what Michelle Malkin thinks is worth defending in the context of the "war on terror." But the Japanese American episode in fact only demonstrates, in detail and blazing color, what a real waste "racial profiling" really is.
Incidentally, Malkin is speaking this weekend in the Seattle area at Cedar Park Church in Bothell, sponsored by the right-wing radio station KVI-AM. The church, it's worth noting, was recently in the local news for its campaign to sign up 60,000 voters with the clear intent of getting them to vote Republican.
You can also check out Malkin's Web site for her supporting documents and a roundup of "subversives." You'll note what's missing, including any indication she has even attempted to survey the contravening literature.
Strangely enough, Malkin appears to be a relatively recent convert to her position vis a vis the internment. In a previous column, she had this to say:
- There is no denying that what happened to Japanese-American internees was abhorrent and wrong.
You know, she was right the first time.
[Looks like Eric Muller is on the case too. I'll look forward to his review.]
[Thanks to Alice Ito at Densho for the heads-up.]
The early reviews
Monday, August 02, 2004
A couple of reviews of Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America came out this weekend. Notably, the Seattle Times led its weekend book section with this review:
- 'Death on the Fourth of July': Violent intolerance, American style
It was, as you can see, a thoroughly positive and really very flattering review. Thanks to Tim McNulty and the Times' Books Editor, Mary Ann Gwinn.
Decidedly not as flattering was the review from Michael McGregor in the Oregonian. Of course, any author has to be understand that he's not going to connect with everyone, and certainly not every critic, so I'll leave it at that and let everyone judge for themselves. However, I will say that if he wanted another Hundred Little Hitlers, he's barking up the wrong author.
Also, an earlier, largely positive review appeared last month in The Olympian from Barbara McMichael (it also appeared in The Bremerton Sun).
In the meantime, readers may want to note my schedule for book-related appearances so far:
- -- Friday, Aug. 7, Idaho Falls, Idaho: Barnes & Noble, 2385 East 17th Street.
-- 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600).
-- 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400).
-- 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at Tacoma's Wheelock Library, sponsored by the Tacoma Branch of the University Book Store (253-591-5640).
I'm planning to make appearances in Portland, Eugene, San Francisco and San Diego as well. I'll announce details when they're firm.
Playing politics with terror
Sunday, August 01, 2004
It's bad enough that John Ashcroft's Justice Department treats domestic terrorism like an afterthought. What's outrageous is that it now appears to have raised the threat of such terrorism -- groundlessly -- to put a cloud over the Democratic National Convention.
And in the meantime, evidence continues to mount that the FBI's actual handling of domestic terrorism is dangerously inadequate.
I previously mentioned that the press reaction to the FBI's warnings that right-wing extremists might target media vehicles in Boston last week was strangely muted. But what wasn't immediately apparent was the likelihood that the reports themselves actually constituted a kind of disinformation.
Now questions are being raised about the warnings, and the reasons for the FBI circulating them in the first place. The most significant of these is from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mark Potok, who was interviewed at length by Glynn Wilson about these warnings:
- "We have had no indication whatsoever, not an inkling, that there is any kind of violent action planned by the radical right in Boston," Potok said. "We follow these groups quite closely."
How did the story -- that right-wing extremists planned to attack media vehicles -- get circulated in the first place?
- Special Agent Gail A. Marcinkiewicz, Public Affairs Coordinator for the Boston FBI office, said the report on a "radical domestic terrorist group" planning an attack on media trucks in Boston was an "unconfirmed" report.
Unconfirmed reports are not usually released to the public, she said. But in this case, according to FBI guidelines on releasing information, the media was the so-called "victim." The policy is to warn potential victims even in unconfirmed cases, and since the media got the information, it was inevitably released to the public, she said.
Reading between the lines, it seems clear that news organizations internally were deeply concerned about the warnings and took various measures to reduce their exposure to the threats. According to James Ridgeway in Village Voice, Fox News went so far as to paint over all the logos on their trucks.
Strangely enough, while the warnings clearly were taken seriously, the news organizations themselves failed to investigate their grounding or question the FBI's sources. Instead, their response was oddly muted altogether, only briefly mentioning the threats and continuing to behave on-air as though they didn't exist.
And yet there were many reasons in fact to question the warnings:
- Actions like the one the FBI announced in Boston do not usually come from groups like this, neo-Nazi groups that ultimately contemplate genocide as their path to power, Potok said.
"Actions like this come almost exclusively from individuals. These things are not planned in smoky rooms by hate group leaders and their lieutenants," he said. "It doesn't happen that way."
Of course, I've discussed several times the problems with the current administration's handling of domestic terrorism, particularly within the larger context of the so-called "war on terror." What's become clear is that domestic terrorism has been shoved to a back burner by Ashcroft & Co. because it interferes too directly with the administration's larger agenda -- it undercuts the administration's position that terrorism is primarily a state-supported activity that deserves a mostly military response, and moreover, many of the most serious right-wing extremists come from the same Christian fundamentalist bloc that constitutes the GOP's electoral base.
Much of that assessment is possible from a simple review of the FBI's behavior in handling key domestic-terrorism cases so far, notably that of cyanide-bomb maker William Krar.
Now comes a New York Times report that makes the same charge from within the agency:
- So in early 2002, when Mr. German got word that a group of Americans might be plotting support for an overseas Islamic terrorist group, he proposed to his bosses what he thought was an obvious plan: go undercover and infiltrate the group.
But Mr. German says F.B.I. officials sat on his request, botched the investigation, falsified documents to discredit their own sources, then froze him out and made him a "pariah." He left the bureau in mid-June after 16 years and is now going public for the first time - the latest in a string of F.B.I. whistle-blowers who claim they were retaliated against after voicing concerns about how management problems had impeded terrorism investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"What's so frustrating for me," Mr. German said in an interview, a copy of the Sept. 11 commission report at his side, "is that what I hear the F.B.I. saying every day on TV when I get home, about how it's remaking itself to fight terrorism, is not the reality of what I saw every day in the field."
I've had some personal experience with Mike German. He is a tall, athletic blonde man who looks like the straight arrow he is but whose features let him pass readily as a white supremacist; moreover, he's well versed in the culture and highly skilled at passing off his undercover persona.
He played a key role in a trial I covered in 1996, involving the Washington State Militia. Readers of In God's Country may recall the story: The WSM, which liked to pass itself off as a civic-minded public-interest group, also had members in leadership positions who, behind closed doors, liked to talk about blowing things up and attacking the FBI. They went so far as to hold private bomb-building classes for members. German infiltrated them by posing as an underground arms dealer, and helped them set up an "office" that allowed the FBI to record their every meeting and discussion.
When it became clear that some of their members were on the verge of violent action, the FBI decided to spring the trap:
- By July 1996, mere months after their big meeting in Mount Vernon, the WSM's members had come a long way from talking about forming a big friendly neighborhood-watchdog group and manning the sandbags during floods. Now they were building bombs.
The militiamen had bought a warehouse space for stashing supplies and holding training sessions. Those sessions had quickly turned to a favorite topic: pipe bombs. By the middle of that summer, they were building the devices. Indeed, they seemed obsessed with them; it was all they talked about, just about everything they trained for.
There was one important change-up, though. When the class on July 27 had finished learning new ways to build pipe bombs, it turned its attention to learning how to get out of handcuffs. Or so the students thought.
It was a hot summer day, and the converted warehouse was still warm and stuffy for the late-afternoon gathering. But the eight participants all dutifully gathered to hear more about bomb-building techniques from the group's instructor, John Kirk.
Kirk was not merely a member of the militia. He called himself a Freeman; he had filed "sovereign citizen" papers and had served as a juror when a group of Seattle Patriots organized its own common-law court. The leader of his Seattle-based Freemen group, William Smith, was a longtime friend of LeRoy Schweitzer and, like the Montanan, was considered a guru of "constitutional law" among Patriots throughout the Northwest. Smith was one of the participants that afternoon. The four Freemen had driven up together from Seattle to Bellingham for the class. There was the usual small talk, and then Kirk dove right in, spending the better part of a half-hour outlining techniques for building a short, squat pipe bomb comprised mostly of cap ends.
There was a kind of excitement that ran through the group that afternoon, a product of the danger lurking behind what they were learning. It was all preparation for the eventuality of the United Nations invasion, the conflict they all were certain was coming.
When Kirk was done, "Rock" spoke up. Everyone knew Rock as the young, bearded ex-skinhead who was in the military-surplus business and was providing the money for the bombs to be built. He was kind of quiet-spoken, but everyone trusted him, and some were hoping he'd move up as a leader for the group -- something the militiamen had been lacking lately.
Rock, excited like the rest of the group, said it was his turn now to show the group his own special skill: how to get out of handcuffs without a key. The militiamen's eyes lit up. Now, that was a skill worth having.
Rock pulled out a boxful of handcuffs and handed a pair out to everybody. When everyone had one cuff clipped onto one arm, Rock went around the room and clipped the second one behind each of the students' backs.
Then he stepped to the front of the class and gave the group its final lesson -- namely, that they'd been had.
"You are all under arrest," Rock announced, holding up his FBI badge. He walked over to the warehouse's single door and opened it, and in walked a cluster of more FBI agents, some with guns drawn. The militiamen were all too stunned to resist. Classtime, once again, was over.
German, as this instance demonstrated, was also rather inventive in coming up with ways to arrest his subjects with a minimum of risk. He was also, as anyone who worked with him would eagerly inform you, a real "straight shooter" when it came to his work, someone scrupulous about avoiding entrapment but skilled at drawing real threats out of the woodwork.
Unfortunately, straight shooters seem not a welcome commodity under the current regime, as the NYT story goes on to explain:
- Mr. German, in his letter to lawmakers, cited "a continuing failure in the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism program," which he said was "not the result of a lack of intelligence, but a lack of action."
Officials said Mr. German also complained internally about a second case in the Portland, Ore., area in 2002 in which he said he was blocked from going undercover to pursue a domestic terrorism lead. That case was also thought to center on a militia group suspected of plotting violence.
In the Tampa case, officials said Mr. German complained that F.B.I. officials had mishandled evidence concerning a suspected domestic terrorist group and failed to act for months on his request in early 2002 to conduct an undercover operation. That failure, he said, allowed the investigation to "die on the vine."
While Mr. German would not confirm the location of the investigation, he said in an interview at the office of his Washington lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, that his problems intensified after he complained about the management of the case in September 2002. He said F.B.I. officials whom he would not name backdated documents in the case, falsified evidence and falsely discredited witnesses in an apparent effort to justify their approach to the investigation. He cited institutional inertia, even after Sept. 11.
"Trying to get approval for an operation like this is a bureaucratic nightmare at the F.B.I.," he said.
Mr. German said that beginning in late 2002, he took his concerns to his supervisors at the F.B.I. and to officials at headquarters in Washington, including Mr. Mueller himself, in an e-mail message that he said went unanswered. He also went to the Justice Department's inspector general and, frustrated by what he saw as a languishing investigation, brought his concerns this spring to several members of Congress and the Sept. 11 commission.
In the meantime, Mr. German said, his career at the F.B.I. stalled, despite what he said was an "unblemished" record and an award for his work in the Los Angeles skinhead case.
Soon after raising his complaints about the 2002 terrorism investigation, he was removed from the case. And, he said, F.B.I. officials wrongly accused him of conducting unauthorized travel, stopped using him to train agents in "proactive techniques" and shut him out of important domestic terrorism assignments.
German's case is only the latest piece in a clearly emerging portrait of an administration once again so enamored of its "official story" that it fails to respond adequately to a serious threat and creates a culture in which information about such threats is officially suppressed.
There's probably nothing more disturbing than realizing that the people who are supposed to be making us safe are more preoccupied with playing political games.
This is the administration that now wants us to believe that, once again, international terrorists are planning to attack financial institutions? Why should we believe them?
And the fact that it's increasingly difficult to do so is a truly terrifying thought.
[Cross-posted at The American Street.]