Immediately after 9/11, the American Vice President, Dick Cheney, began revamping the American intelligence agencies, which had till then worked inside a stovepipe configuration – each agency channeling vital information up and down, insulated from the other. Cheney changed that by creating a Homeland Security Council within the White House that would run parallel to the already established National Security Council.
The Department of Homeland Security was headed by a cabinet level officer. In justifying the new department, the ventriloquist’s puppet, George W. Bush, announced,“ A new wave of terrorism, involving new weapons, looms in America’s future. It is a challenge unlike any ever faced by our nation. The changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.”
It should have been named Department of Homeland Paranoia instead, given the vastly exaggerated threat perceptions that were bandied about at regular intervals in order to keep this wholly redundant department alive, sucking up valuable resources – billions of dollars – for no reason at all. Till date there is no evidence that America is any safer. In fact, it is only blind luck that helped catch some really bad guys, like the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber to name just a few.
In both cases, the terrorist creeps who were using entirely novel means to get their deadly message across – Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, had plastic explosives stuffed into his shoes, while Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, had a device that consisted of an explosive powder PETN, sewn into his underwear, which became a plastic explosive when mixed with the high explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP) and a syringe containing liquid acid that he had on him. Abdulmutallab created the explosive by mixing PETN with TATP and other ingredients – methods that the intelligence agencies had no clue about. These loonies were nabbed and restrained by passengers on the same flights.
While he was thinking up more stupid ideas on how to chuck tax-payer dollars down the drain, the VP rewrote the terms of engagement for the National Security Agency, by instituting the Presidential Surveillance Program (PSP), under which the NSA could begin conducting secret large-scale warrantless domestic surveillance of American citizens, an otherwise criminal act as per the US Constitution. The ostensible aim was to catch terrorists who were already on American soil, before they could commit terrorist strikes against American targets and civilians, just like the 9/11 hijackers did.
That aim may well have been real and justifiable. After all, it is a no-brainer that, in order to find out what the bad guys are up to in a situation where the government has no clue who the bad guys are, mass electronic eavesdropping can be an effective tool. One cannot wiretap after the fact and therefore, the authorization has to be available prior.
There were only two problems there. Firstly, the deluge of info coming in was so immense that there was simply no way to track each and every perceived threat, by even the most sophisticated keyword or key-phrase search. By opening the floodgates, the NSA had actually shot itself in the foot.
Secondly, as it turned out with private security contractors like Blackwater on the battlefield, the private contractors to whom the NSA hired out the job of electronic surveillance were folk with zero morals. Their employees were happy earning overtime double pay and 250,000 dollars a year salaries and laughing over scandalous phone conversations that had nothing to do with terrorism, while they sat at their desks and munched on cheese-burgers.
In any case, history has shown that, in spite of expenditure on wanton eavesdropping that was several times the GDP of many countries, American intelligence agencies have been notoriously inept at detecting and foreseeing world changing events, starting with Pearl Harbor, the first large-scale invasion by North Korean troops into South Korean territory in 1951, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, the 1979 Iranian revolution, Israel’s acquiring the nuclear bomb, the leaking of nuclear bomb secrets first to Britain and then to the Soviets, the Indian nuclear bomb tests of 1974 and 1998, the Pakistani nuclear bomb tests of 1998, the outbreak of the Bangladesh War, the 9/11 WTC attacks and the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, one of the planners of which, David Coleman Headley, was not only in American custody but said to have been on the FBI’s payroll.
And of course there were those sundry loonies – Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the 9/11 mastermind and last but not the least – Zacharias Moussaoui (believed to be the 20th 9/11 hijacker), to name just a few.
The American people have never been safe. They have just been very lucky.
Dick Cheney’s fertile mind didn’t stop at intelligence gathering. After having caught a terrorist on American soil, what could they do to him? Make him talk of course. But how? By extraordinary rendition and extraordinary interrogation techniques, such as water-boarding and other terrifying procedures.
But before he could begin, Cheney had to find a patsy, a so-called legal expert within the Justice Department who would be willing to certify the warrant-less snooping and the extra-judicial torture, as legal and within the rule of American law. He established backdoor contact with a mid-level legal counsel named John Yoo, in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The OLC is an office within the Executive Branch whose job is to tell the President and his immediate subordinates what they can and cannot do under the existing laws of the land.
With the indulging encouragement and a most probably promises of a speedy career advancement from the Vice President and his Chief Legal Counsel David Addington (a rabid Cheney groupie), Yoo wrote out a legal opinion that authorized torture and domestic snooping, without seeking the approval of the courts. Everything was legal, he said.
Now Cheney was in business. Given the American penchant for naming everything, the covert NSA program to monitor phone and internet browsing and communications without a warrant was codenamed Operation Stellar Wind. After the Edward Snowden revelations, we are now wise to the sickening extent to which our private lives have been under the NSA’s scrutiny.
The PSP completely circumvented a special ‘FISA’ court already set up by the US Congress specifically to oversee surveillance carried out by the government with the issuance of a warrant, in order to ensure it was not misused. Not that a FISA court would have stopped the surveillance, though. It was only a show, meant to assure the American public who are desperate to believe that they live in a nation that abides by the rule of law.
Over the entire 33-year period since the FISA court was set up, up until 2014, it has granted around 33989 of the 34000 warrant applications, with only 11 refusals – a rejection rate of 0.03 percent of the total requests. It is no wonder that there is a word that analysts use to refer to the FISA -a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp.
Armed with John Yoo’s personal ambition-drenched legal go-ahead, large-scale surveillance began in 2003 and within six months it became apparent to any conscientious official in the Justice Department that Yoo’s legal opinion was a house built on cards and way outside the law. Cheney had meanwhile kept most of the nitty-gritty of the PSP from the President and given Bush to believe that the procedure had been followed and a legal opinion from the Legal Counsel’s office had been obtained.
Two things helped to push Stellar Wind through nice and easy – Bush’s delegate and forget mindset and the nationalistic fervor that gripped America at that point in time. Bush could have gotten anything passed, so desperate were the law-makers, to be seen making a contribution toward fighting terrorism.
The terms of Stellar Wind mandated it to be re-authorized every 45 days and therefore, when the program came up for renewal, things began to unravel. The Attorney General, John Ashcroft, the one who would have to sign off on any extension of Stellar Wind, was in a hospital bed, critical, with acute pancreatis and his deputy, James Comey, was officiating.
By then, there was a new head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, who had begun examining many of John Yoo’s opinions and found them deeply flawed. Cheney’s blindly loyal Chief of Staff, David Addington, had hired Goldsmith knowing him to be deeply conservative libertarian, seemingly of the same feather as the rest of the Cheney crew. Addington however didn’t count on the possibility that Goldsmith might have a social conscience and morals and would never do anything outside that law.
Meanwhile, James Comey revoked the torture authorization, leaving Cheney and his goons screaming bloody murder. As to the Stellar Wind renewal authorization, Comey and his other senior colleagues within the Justice Department agreed that the President was exceeding his constitutional authority. With Ashcroft critically ill in the hospital, Comey, as acting Attorney General, refused to reauthorize the program.
This was early 2004 and Bush’s first term was drawing to a close.
The Justice Department’s refusal to extend Stellar Wind led to the now famous hospital scene in which a handful of top White House officials made America look like just another hick banana republic, for a while.
One evening in March 2004, just a few days before Stellar Wind was to lapse, White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, and Counsel, Alberto Gonzales, visited the ailing Ashcroft in his hospital room and with no regard to the critical state of his health, shoved a paper under the Attorney General’s nose and demanded that he sign it, extending the illegal program.
But there were others, conscientious men due to whom America is the great country that it is, who were determined not to let the drugged and bleary AG be pressurized. They were Deputy AG, James Comey and FBI Director, Robert Mueller. They arrived at about the same instant and stood by resolutely until the AG rose, in spite of the pain that racked his body and told the two White House goons that he would not sign the paper.
Not that the defiance really helped in the long run. Intensive large-scale surveillance continued and remained in place even after Obama took over, till it became public knowledge through the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations. As of this date Americans (and every other human being in the world) are still being watched, their emails read, their internet clicks pursued, while bank and social media accounts are being hacked into and undersea internet hubs being tapped into, by the democratically elected government of the most powerful nation in the world.
Back in 2004, all through the Justice Department revolt, Cheney is believed to have kept his boss, President Bush, in the dark. Summoned by the President, when Comey finally made it to the White House after the hospital scene, he was in for a rude shock. George Bush was essentially unaware that his Justice Department believed that Stellar Wind was illegal.
The president said to the acting attorney general, ‘I just wish you weren’t bringing this objection at the last minute’. It was Bush’s turn to hit the ceiling when Comey told him that the Justice Department’s refusal to extend Stellar Wind had been known for over three months to not only the VP, but even his own Chief of Staff.
A year after the hospital bed fiasco, James Comey left the Justice Department and served as a senior vice president and general counsel at the defense contractor Lockheed Martin until 2010. In June 2010, Comey joined Bridgewater Associates, a Connecticut-based hedge fund with $75 billion in investments for clients including universities and foreign governments. In July 2013, the US Senate confirmed James Comey as the new director of the FBI by a 93 to 1 margin. Americans have to thank Barack Obama for nominating an upright officer like Comey. He continues to serve in that capacity. (Photo:Wikimedia)
Somehow, I don’t buy the notion that Bush was unaware. At critical points through history, US Presidents have been known to either have lost their memory or be completely unaware of stuff that went down under their very noses.
At the same meeting, Comey told the President that it wasn’t just him who was objecting to Stellar Wind, but the entire top ranks at Justice and that even the FBI director was ready to resign. Robert Mueller promptly confirmed this in a later meeting with Bush.
Now the American President was faced with a situation where the Director of the FBI, the entire five topmost levels of the Justice Department, the General Counsel of the CIA and the General Counsel of the FBI were all threatening to resign because they believed that Stellar Wind was unlawful.
And George Bush claims to not have known until an hour before the mass resignations were going to happen, an action that would have made Watergate look like a bunch of pre-schoolers caught with their hands inside a cookie jar.
Bush relented, withdrawing his authorization for the ostentatiously named Presidential Surveillance Program (PSP). Had he not done so, it is very likely that President George W Bush would have been impeached.
From that moment, Bush understood more clearly than before that he had to take Cheney’s advice at an arm’s length, realizing that his VP had the potential to lead him off a cliff. It was the beginning of a gradual waning of the influence that Cheney had been exercising over the President.
Dick Cheney was a tamer Vice President in the second Bush term. However, the protein-degrading enzymes in a viper’s venom lose their toxicity only when it’s head is lopped clean off.