Homeland Security just issued its fourth danger bulletin this year. And both the weapons and rhetorical tactics of the first War on Terror are increasingly visible.
The Department of Homeland Security on Friday issued a new warning bulletin, alerting Americans that domestic extremists may well use violence on the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. This was at least the fourth such bulletin issued this year by Homeland Security (DHS) warning of the same danger and, thus far, none of the fears it is trying to instill into the American population has materialized.
The first was a January 14 warning, from numerous federal agencies including DHS, about violence in Washington, DC and all fifty state capitols that was likely to explode in protest of Inauguration Day (a threat which did not materialize). Then came a January 27 bulletin warning of “a heightened threat environment across the United States that is likely to persist over the coming weeks” from “ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority” (that warning also was not realized). Then there was a May 14 bulletin warning of right-wing violence “to attack higher-capacity targets,” exacerbated by the lifting of COVID lockdowns (which also never happened). And now we are treated to this new DHS warning about domestic extremists preparing violent attacks over Tulsa (it remains to be seen if a DHS fear is finally realized).
Just like the first War on Terror, these threats are issued with virtually no specificity. They are just generalized warnings designed to put people in fear about their fellow citizens and to justify aggressive deployment of military and law enforcement officers in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country. A CNN article which wildly hyped the latest danger bulletin about domestic extremists at Tulsa had to be edited with what the cable network, in an “update,” called “the additional information from the Department of Homeland Security that there is no specific or credible threats at this time.” And the supposed dangers from domestic extremists on Inauguration Day was such a flop that even The Washington Post — one of the outlets most vocal about lurking national security dangers in general and this one in particular — had to explicitly acknowledge the failure:
Thousands [of National Guard troops] had been deployed to capitals across the country late last week, ahead of a weekend in which potentially violent demonstrations were predicted by the FBI — but never materialized.
Once again on Wednesday, security officials’ worst fears weren’t borne out: In some states, it was close to business as usual. In others, demonstrations were small and peaceful, with only occasional tense moments.
Americans have seen this scam before. Throughout the first War on Terror, DHS, which was created in 2002, was frequently used to keep fear levels high and thus foster support for draconian government powers of spying, detention, and war. Even prior to the Department’s creation, its first Secretary, Tom Ridge, when he was still the White House’s Homeland Security Chief in early 2002, created an elaborate color-coded warning system to supply a constant alert to Americans about the evolving threat levels they faced from Islamic extremists.
In 2004, Ridge admitted that he had been repeatedly pressured by Bush officials to elevate the warnings and threat levels for political gain and to keep the population in fear. He claims that he, in particular, was coerced against his will to raise the threat level just prior to the 2004 presidential election and resigned for that reason shortly thereafter. DHS’s color scheme became “the brunt of endless jokes and derision,” concluded a 2007 scholarly study in the journal International Security, noting that it “became perceived as being politically motivated” largely due to the complete lack of specific information about what Americans were supposed to fear or avoid. Moreover, “its designers assumed that the population would trust in the national leadership and believe in the utility of the system’s information.” It failed because of how often the alleged threats failed to materialize, and because the warnings were rarely accompanied by any specificity that could permit action to be taken or avoided.
Though Obama scrapped the unpopular color-coded system in 2011, he — in a classic Obama gesture — merely replaced it with an equally vague and fear-generating bureaucratic alternative that was also subject to political manipulation. National security writers at Lawfare ultimately acknowledged that “like the [Bush/Ridge] system, there were no clear triggers for alerts [under Obama’s new scheme,] so the system remained objective and opaque.” As a result, they said, “the lack of specificity over time has resulted in similar levels of confusion as surrounded the [Bush/Ridge] color alerts.”
Fear is crucial for state authority. When the population is filled with it, they will acquiesce to virtually any power the government seeks to acquire in the name of keeping them safe. But when fear is lacking, citizens will crave liberty more than control, and that is when they question official claims and actions. When that starts to happen, when the public feels too secure, institutions of authority will reflexively find new ways to ensure they stay engulfed by fear and thus quiescent.
I saw first-hand how this dynamic functions when doing the Snowden-enabled reporting on mass domestic NSA surveillance under the Obama administration. By the time we broke the stories of mass domestic surveillance on Americans — twelve years after the 9/11 attack — fear levels over Al Qaeda in the U.S. had diminished greatly, especially after the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. As a result, anger over Obama’s sprawling domestic surveillance programs was pervasive and bipartisan. A bill jointly sponsored by then-Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) — which would have greatly reined in NSA domestic spying powers — was on its way to easy, bipartisan victory as a result of that anger over NSA spying. But suddenly, the Obama White House convinced Nancy Pelosi to whip enough Democratic votes to ensure its defeat and save NSA domestic spying from reform. But the momentum which that bill had — it would have been the first since 9/11 to rollback rather than expand government powers — along with anti-surveillance-and-pro-privacy polling data, proved how significantly the playing field had shifted as a result of those revelations and, especially, the reduction in fear levels experienced by Americans.
But shortly thereafter, a new group — ISIS — emerged to replace Al Qaeda. It had a two-year stint with middling success in scaring Americans, but it was sufficient to turn back the tide of pro-privacy sentiment (at one point in 2014, the U.S. intelligence community claimed out of nowhere that a Syria-based group that virtually nobody in the U.S. had ever heard of previously or since — “the Khorasan Group” — was “a more direct and imminent threat to the United States,” but that new villain disappeared as quickly as it materialized). After ISIS’s star turn in the role of existential threat, the Democrats, during the 2016 campaign, elevated Russia, Putin and the Kremlin to that role, abandoning without explanation Obama’s eight-year argument that Russia was merely a regional power of no threat to the U.S. This revolving carousel of scary villains ensured that the pressure to reduce the powers and secrecy of the U.S. security state eroded in the name of staying safe.
Before Joe Biden was even inaugurated, he and his allies knew they needed a new villain. Putin never generated much fear in anyone beyond MSNBC panels, the CNN Green Room, and the newsrooms and op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. While negative views of Russia increased in the U.S. during Russiagate mania, few outside of hard-core Democratic partisans viewed that country as a genuine threat or primary enemy. Few Americans woke up shaking in fear about what the Kremlin might do to them.
The search for a new enemy around which the Biden administration could coalesce and in whose name they could keep fear levels high was quickly settled. Cast in that role would be right-wing domestic extremists. In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that “Biden has said he plans to make a priority of passing a law against domestic terrorism, and he has been urged to create a White House post overseeing the fight against ideologically inspired violent extremists and increasing funding to combat them.”
Pending Domestic War on Terror legislation favored by the White House — sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) — would simply amend the old War on Terror laws, which permitted a wide range of powers to fight foreign terrorist organizations, so as to now allow the U.S. government to also use those powers against groups designated as domestic terror organizations. Just as was true of the first War on Terror, this second one would thus vest the government with new, wide-ranging powers of surveillance, detention, prosecution and imprisonment, though this time for use against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.
Even while that legislation is pending, the U.S. government is already waging an aggressive new domestic war on terror that has largely flown under the radar. Grave warnings from DHS are now just as common, vague and unreliable — but also fear-inducing — as they were in the days of Tom Ridge. Domestic surveillance is also on the rise. Last month, CNN reported that “the Biden administration is considering using outside firms to track extremist chatter by Americans online, an effort that would expand the government’s ability to gather intelligence but could draw criticism over surveillance of US citizens.”
The security mindset has subsumed the Democratic Party in particular. Just last week, the same Party that spent the summer of 2020 denouncing the police approved $1.9 billion in additional spending for Capitol security and police. The very faction of that party which chanted “Defund the Police” — the Squad — had the power to stop that expenditure, but half of them instead voted “present,” ensuring its passage.
Meanwhile, one of the most repressive features of the first War on Terror — due-process-free no-fly lists against American citizens — is now back in full force. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) have both been demanding that the FBI ban January 6 protesters and other “domestic extremists” from air travel without being convicted of any crime or even given a hearing to determine whether this prohibition is justified. Rep. Thompson even demanded that Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) be put on the no-fly list, then took to Twitter to boast of how proud he was of this demand:
I am not ashamed. However, they should be. https://t.co/yvqkgfzcpy
— Bennie G. Thompson (@BennieGThompson) January 11, 2021
Beyond the DHS bulletins, that agency and other intelligence operatives continue to issue reports, for both public and classified consumption, warning that the greatest national security threat the U.S now faces is domestic extremism. As we reported here last month, that “domestic extremist” designation includes not just anti-Biden and anti-government protesters on the right but also leftist groups including animal rights activists — essentially anyone who objects to prevailing ruling class dogma and wants to use their constitutional rights to advance those views. To compile these reports, the CIA appears clearly to be breaking the law in using its vast intelligence weapons for domestic monitoring and control.
Online censorship, of course, is also rapidly increasing in the name of stopping the threat of domestic extremism. The extraordinary destruction of Parler in January by three Silicon Valley monopolies — Apple, Google and Amazon — occurred after leading Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — publicly demanded the platform’s removal from the internet. And Democratic-led Congressional committees continue to summon Silicon Valley executives to demand they impose greater degrees of political censorship against their political adversaries or else face legislative and regulatory reprisals.
These are all the same weapons as the ones invoked for the first War on Terror. Yet what is perhaps most notable about comparing this new domestic War on Terror to the first one is not the common weapons invoked to fight it but rather how identical are the rhetorical strategies used to demand submission to it.
No nuance or questioning is permitted when it comes to discussions of how much danger America really faces from domestic extremists. The parallels with the first War on Terror are manifest.
I know of nobody who dismissed the significance of the 9/11 attacks. A one-day attack that wipes out 3,000 human beings and crashes four passenger jets into three large buildings is a gravely serious event. But there were plenty of people — including myself — who spent years arguing that the threat reflected by that attack was being aggressively and deliberately exaggerated by U.S. officials and both political parties in order to justify extraordinary power grabs for themselves.
In response, a standard tactic was deployed against those who, after 9/11, urged that the threat be placed in rational context rather than melodramatically and cynically inflated. Anyone urging sober restraint was instantly accused of being sympathetic toward if not outright supportive of anti-American terrorism. The Bush administration demanded a binary framework most vividly expressed by the then-president’s decree in his late September, 2001, address to the Congress: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” And thus was any middle ground — I condemn the 9/11 attack but oppose dangerous overreaction or authoritarian power grabs in the name of combatting it — abolished.
That Bush “with-us-or-with-the-terrorists” directive provoked a fair amount of outrage at the time but is now the prevailing mentality within U.S. liberalism and the broader Democratic Party. I do not know a single prominent commentator or political figure who, after seeing what transpired, expressed support for the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Quite the contrary: all of them, at least to my knowledge, condemned the conduct of at least some of the protesters on that day. From the start, that group certainly included me (on January 7, I wrote: “It is not hard to understand why [the Capitol riot] has generated intense political passion and pervasive rage: the introduction of physical force into political protest is always lamentable, usually dangerous, and, except in the rarest of circumstances that are plainly inapplicable here, unjustifiable”). That is still my view, even as I denounce the Biden administration’s expansive domestic powers and attempts to exaggerate the threats and dangers that protest illustrated.
But that position is disallowed, or at least not recognized. Just as was true of the first War on Terror, any attempt to place the actual lingering threat in context (by rejecting the claim that the danger is so grave that it requires vast new powers), or to suggest it is being manipulatively exaggerated (by calling it The Insurrection), or to document actual lies being told in service of the prevailing narrative (such as the ongoing lie that a pro-Trump crowd murdered Officer Brian Sicknick) provokes furious accusations that one must be sympathetic to if not supportive of the January 6 rioters and any groups associated with them. Attempts to suggest that those charged in connection with the January 6 riot are being excessively prosecuted and punished provoke even greater rage — despite the fact that not a single one of them has been charged with treason, sedition, insurrection or domestic terrorism, and despite the fact that concerns about overzelaous prosecutors and the carceral state are supposed to be staples of liberals politics (though ones which, like anti-police sentiment and opposition to killing unarmed protesters, instantly disappear when convenient, such as when it comes time to exploit Officer Sicknick or cheer the fatal point-blank shooting of the unarmed Ashli Babbitt).
Objections to new powers vested in the U.S. security state in the name of fighting domestic terrorism are met with still greater scorn. If you oppose new anti-terrorism legislation for use on U.S. soil or are deeply concerned about the invocation of civil-liberties-destroying weapons such as no-fly lists, online censorship, and heightened domestic surveillance, then it is assumed that you must support domestic extremists — just as those who opposed the war in Iraq or the Patriot Act or NSA spying or torture were accused of supporting Al Qaeda.
It is a shoddy, anti-intellectual and deceitful tactic, to be sure, but it is now commonplace. And that is particularly concerning as the Democrats’ devotion to a new War on Terror continues to grow. On Monday, President Biden, citing “the intelligence community,” asserted that white supremacist terrorism is “the most lethal threat to the Homeland today.”
Opposing this new domestic War on Terror and all those new powers and secrecy authorities that go with it does not require support for or even indifference toward what happened at the Capitol on January 6. It merely requires a basic knowledge of recent U.S. history and how these powers are invariably used by the secretive U.S. security state when government-generated fears lead to their widespread enactment. The dangers of the first War on Terror were grave enough. Transferring it to “the Homeland,” as President Biden calls it, is bound to be far more dangerous still.
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