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The Hypocritical War on Terrorism

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President Clinton is continuing to agitate for new powers to suppress terrorists. He is demanding more powers for wiretaps, more powers to prevent people from using encryption for their e-mail, more powers to classify normal crimes as terrorist offenses, and so forth. As usual, Clinton’s solution to every problem is more power for himself and his cronies. Clinton has scorned opponents of his terrorist proposals, claiming that they want to “turn America into a safe house for terrorists.”

It is difficult to understand how politicians can denounce any private opposition to increased federal power when the government is already rampaging in many areas of the nation. The drug war has resulted in a pervasive use of National Guard units for oppressive search-and-destroy missions against suspected marijuana growers in many states. Using the military for law-enforcement purposes is very effective, since soldiers are more efficient than regular police because they often openly scorn the Fourth Amendment and other constitutional rights.

It is important to recognize the hypocrisy of government officials regarding illegal actions that result in the deaths of many civilians. In the days after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Clinton administration launched a full-court press to whitewash federal action at Waco. When a journalist stated in April 1995 on Cable Network News that he considered the 1993 Waco federal attack a terrorist act, Labor Secretary Robert Reich rushed to distinguish between what the feds did at Waco and the bombing at Oklahoma City: “We are talking about acts of violence that are not sanctioned by the government — that are not official.” Reich sounded as if the government has a moral magic wand that can automatically absolve law-enforcement officials of any abuse, regardless of how many dead babies are left when the smoke clears. Atrocities committed by the government cannot really be considered to be atrocities — instead, they are merely policy errors — or, more accurately, public-relations mistakes.

Clinton, in the days after the Oklahoma City bombing, called for Americans to “all be careful about the kind of language that we use and the kind of incendiary talk we have.” Yet it was federal officials who demonized the “cult members” at Waco long before the feds themselves were demonized over their actions at Waco. At the 1994 trial of the Davidian survivors, federal prosecutors compared David Koresh to Hitler and Stalin and declared that the 11 defendants “are as much religious terrorists as the people who blew up the barracks in Lebanon, the people who blew up the World Trade Center in New York and Pan Am 103.” Yet, four ATF agents stated after the raid that federal agents may have fired first at the Davidians at the original 1993 raid. The government’s vilification of the defendants was rejected by the jury and contributed to the perception that the government, like some right-wing zealots, was fanatical about Waco.

Neither the BATF nor the FBI ever made any efforts to apologize for their abuses at Waco. Indeed, the BATF last year rehired two agents (with back pay) who had been fired for lying about whether they knew that Koresh was expecting the initial BATF raid. And no one should forget that, before the embers of the dead children had a chance to cool at Waco, BATF officials raced in and proudly planted their flag atop the smoldering ruins.

The Clinton administration’s attitude towards terrorism — massive, deadly force used against innocent civilians — was epitomized at the House Waco hearings in the summer of 1995. The highlight of Attorney General Janet Reno’s eight hours of testimony on August 1, 1995, was her revelation that the 54-ton tank that smashed through the Davidian compound should not be considered a military vehicle — instead, it was just “like a good rent-a-car.” Apparently the Justice Department had purchased the damage waiver and didn’t worry about getting a few scratches or blood stains on those tanks.

Such an observation by Reno does not inspire confidence in the Justice Department’s moderation in its future operations. The news media fawned all over Reno for her testimony and almost all the journalists failed to report Reno’s “rent-a-car” comment. Yet, this comment goes to the heart of why Waco continues to outrage millions of Americans. The federal government used military force against American women and children — and then tried to cover up its violence and to pooh-pooh any critics. What are a few 54-ton tanks smashing into a home and gassing children among friends, anyhow?

Further evidence of the political abuse of the terrorist issue comes from comments by FBI Director Louis Freeh last year. Freeh repeatedly portrayed the new wiretap powers as vital in the fight against terrorism. But a report by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in May revealed that the FBI and other federal agencies have dismally failed to use existing legal authority against domestic terrorist groups. Though the federal and state governments imposed a record number of wiretaps in 1994 (1,154), not a single wiretap was installed in the pursuit of arsonists, bombers, or gun-law violators. No such wiretap against alleged terrorists has been requested since 1988. The vast majority of wiretaps were targeted against drug and gambling criminals.

Further evidence of Clinton’s hunger for more power is clear in his proposed antiterrorism bill. David Kopel and Joseph Olson recently observed in theOklahoma City Law Review :

“The new terrorism bill defines virtually any crime as ‘terrorism,’ whether or not related to actual terrorism. ‘Terrorist’ offenses are defined as follows: any assault with a dangerous weapon, assault causing serious bodily injury, or any killing, kidnapping, or maiming, or any unlawful destruction of property. Snapping someone’s pencil, breaking someone’s arm in a bar fight, threatening someone with a knife, or burning down an outhouse would all be considered ‘terrorist’ offenses. Any attempt to perpetrate any of these terrorist crimes would be subject to the same punishment as a completed offense. Even a threat to commit the offense (i.e., ‘One of these days, I’m going to snap your pencil’) is likewise labeled ‘terrorism.’ The extra federal power created by the legislation is superfluous to genuine anti-terrorism. It was already a serious federal felony to make a real terrorist threat, as by threatening to set off a bomb, or to assassinate the president.”

Clinton and Democratic congressional candidates this year are making political hay over the fact that the Republicans have not yet kowtowed to this particular Clinton power-grab.

Clinton’s proposed antiterrorism legislation also greatly expands federal wiretap authority. The Clinton administration wiretap legislation would allow the use of illegal wiretaps in federal court and would also allow “roving wiretaps” — covering a large number of pay phones in the hopes of catching some lawbreaker. There is widespread fear among both liberals and conservatives that the Clinton administration could use the new wiretap authority to go after vast numbers of critics of government policy who pose no threat of violence.

Clinton’s proposed legislation would allow wiretaps against suspected violators of any federal law. Jamie Gorelick, a deputy assistant attorney general, fanned such flames on May 3, 1995, when she told House International Relations Committee that tax protesters could be one type of “criminal” targeted by the expanded wiretap authority. Democratic Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia, questioning Louis Freeh on the same subject, asked, “Where would you have drawn the line to differentiate that tax protester from any other person that’s just mad about paying taxes? I mean, are you going to subject them all to wiretaps to find out?” Freeh responded, “No, we wouldn’t have the resources to do that.” Yet, since the antiterrorism legislation will greatly expand the FBI’s resources, far more tax protesters could presumably be tapped in the future. Private-property advocates who denounce the abuses of the Fish and Wildlife Service could be another easy target for the expanded wiretap authority.

The Clinton administration also announced that it had issued a new interpretation of the guidelines under which the FBI surveils domestic political organizations. The revised guidelines will give the FBI a green light to infiltrate far more private groups and political organizations. Assistant Attorney General Gorelick told the Senate Judiciary Committee that even “without a reasonable indication of a crime, a preliminary indication can be undertaken” and “you could use informants and you could collect information, and then determine whether you have reasonable indication for a full-fledged investigation.”

Freeh gave a most expansive definition of terrorism in a speech last year to the American Jewish Committee: “Terrorism is the work of people and groups seeking to further their causes through fear and intimidation.” By this definition, vast numbers of cynical Americans — for instance, individuals who call talk radio shows and denounce government abuses — could be classified as terrorists. And the payments to all the potential informants could really drive up the old federal budget deficit.

And Freeh has been either manipulative or naive when he speaks of public concern about government abuses. Freeh declared on May 13, “To my amazement, there are voices that . . . claim repression by government — and fear of government. . . . Sadly, I am astounded at these developments, as I think most Americans are.” Once again, Freeh implies that the only decent attitude any American should have toward his government is blind trust, if not blind adoration. It is especially ludicrous for an FBI chief to express amazement at people’s fear of the government, when the FBI itself trampled many citizens’ rights in the 1950s and 1960s with burglaries, illegal wiretaps, character assassination, and intimidation, and when the FBI has yet to admit any misconduct in the cold-blooded killing of Vicki Weaver.

Another example of politicians’ hunger to increase federal power over terrorism comes from a bill by Rep. Charles Schumer to create new mandatory minimum prison penalties for alleged terrorists. Kopel noted:

“Some of the new proposed mandatory minimums for ‘violent antigovernment extremists’ would impose a two-year mandatory minimum on someone who shoved a policeman during an argument over a traffic ticket, a two-year mandatory minimum on a jilted teenage girl who sent her rival an anonymous letter ‘I’m going to tear your eyes out,’ and an eight-year mandatory minimum on a homeowner who waved a baseball bat at a zoning inspector.”

As far as Oklahoma City goes — I am all in favor of the death penalty for the people who carried out that bombing. Certainly, there is no excuse for killing innocent human beings in the name of any principle of politics. But there is nothing that the Oklahoma City bomber(s) could have done that would have somehow ex post facto validated what the federal government did at Waco, as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin implied before the 1995 Waco hearings. The crimes of private citizens cannot absolve the previous and future crimes of federal agents. It is important for critics of government to act responsibly, but it is important for the government to keep one thing in mind: We shall not be silenced.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.