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Officially Terrifying America: The Rhetoric of Homeland Security
T.J. Newton

The months and years following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks have brought a diverse assortment of antiterrorism measures taken by various departments, agencies, and individuals representing the United States government. And with every step taken by the government, there have been people who were upset with one thing or another, and who questioned the government's actions. Republicans, Democrats, and civil libertarians representing the entire political spectrum have been disturbed by at least some of the antiterrorism measures taken by the government. Of course, it is impossible to please everyone, especially in America. But when the assortment of antiterrorism measures employed by the government is considered collectively, rather than individually, a frightening scenario emerges that should concern all Americans.

As Attorney General Ashcroft pointed out in his December 6th, 2001 testimony before the Senate, Americans can't allow themselves to become driven apart by fear (1). But the Attorney General also said that "...to those who scare ...people with phantoms of lost liberty, ...[y]our tactics only aid terrorists ...[and] erode our national unity..." (1). Essentially, Ashcroft is saying that expressing dissent over the policies of the administration weakens America and aids terrorists (1). The statement has been echoed in similar quotes from vice president Cheney, and most recently by a Bush spokeswoman interviewed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer during the presidential election of 2004, when the Bush administration accused filmmaker Michael Moore of "providing aid and comfort" to terrorists. It isn't clear that dissent can be equated with weakness, since political dissent is one of America's strengths. Our Declaration of Independence essentially expresses political dissent. And it isn't clear that pointing out frightening scenarios aids terrorists, since all Americans want antiterrorism measures that do not involve the frightening prospect of lost liberty. After all, are we going to ban the story of "Big Brother" (1984 by George Orwell) because it is too scary?

There was a lot of fuss made over Ashcroft's statement, and similar statements made by others in the Bush administration, and many Americans didn't understand why it was such a big deal. Some Congressional Democrats and Republicans came to Ashcroft's defense, asking people to lighten up on the Attorney General (1). It isn't as though Ashcroft passed a law banning dissent; he just made an awkward statement. What's the big deal? To understand what all the fuss was about, we must understand the statement as part of a larger picture.

The problem with statements like Ashcroft's is the language accusing dissenters of "aiding terrorists. In Ashcroft's case, he said "[y]our tactics only aid terrorists." According to the USA-PATRIOT Act passed shortly after 9/11, as well as the Homeland Security Act of 2002, anyone who "aids a terrorist" (HSA) can be monitored by authorities, imprisoned indefinitely, or both. The problem with the legislation is that "aiding a terrorist" is not defined (HSA), and such a statement by the Attorney General and others can have terrifying consequences. It seems ridiculous, but if you criticize the government, your phone can be tapped, your Internet usage tracked, your bank account monitored, your purchasing habits recorded, and your healthcare records seized (HSA). It provides a way for the administration to eliminate political enemies, or anyone that disagrees with the administration and possesses sufficient power to undermine the administration's politics. It starts to sound like the picture many of us envisioned in the former Soviet Union or currently envision in modern-day China.

While "aiding a terrorist" isn't defined at all, the definition of "terrorism" offered in the Homeland Security Act does not provide specific criteria that clearly identify terrorist activity beyond the subjective opinion of the administration (HSA). The phrases "potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources" and "appears to be intended" are highly subjective, and do not adequately define terrorist activity. According to Section 2, Number 15:

The term 'terrorism' means any activity that--
(A) involves an act that--
(i) is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources; and
(ii) is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State or other subdivision of the United States; and

(B) appears to be intended--
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping (HSA Sec 2).

If this sounds reasonable to you, consider the following: The WorldCom moral bankruptcy could be interpreted as "potentially destructive of critical infrastructure" and the actions of the company certainly "violate criminal laws." Their request to creditors "appears to be intended to influence the policy of a government by coercion" because failure to help WorldCom may result in slow-downs on the Internet, and may jeopardize government contracts and secrets. In a moment the reason WorldCom isn't considered a terrorist group will be discussed.

But first, consider the opposite extreme: Someone who says something negative about the administration while drinking in a bar may also be considered a terrorist by the Director of Homeland Security, even if no act of terrorism is committed. As discussed previously, this involves the provision for "aiding a terrorist" in the USA-PATRIOT Act. Similar language appears in Section 863 of the Homeland Security Act (HSA). As terrifying as that prospect sounds, some people may roll their eyes and wonder why anyone would bother with someone in a bar or at the mall. Who cares? But that person drinking their beer or strolling around the mall might have information that could undermine the administration's policies, such as information about a corporate scandal. Depending on what kind of political power someone possesses, there are other provisions in the Homeland Security Act for dealing with enemies of the administration that have more power than an ordinary bar patron (see Why Should You Care if the Government Spies on You?)

The difference between ordinary bar patrons and WorldCom can be found in sections 101 and 892 of the Homeland Security Act. The difference is that WorldCom has a large stake in the "economic security" of the United States, and a bar patron does not. Thus, WorldCom's activities won't be considered terrorism, while the bar patron's could be. The political ideals of equal protection under the law, and fair justice, are forced to take a backseat to economic interests. Of course, neither WorldCom nor the bar patron should be considered terrorists, but not for economic reasons. The criteria for defining a terrorist should be a part of any legislation that defines terrorism to ensure that the political ideals of democracy are applied to everyone equally and fairly - global corporation or bar patron. The Act should not be written in a way that forces political philosophy and the ideals of democracy to take a backseat to economic philosophy by giving an advantage to those wealthy individuals and corporations with a stake in the economy.

Because the definition of terrorism does not provide such criteria, there is nothing beyond the argument of the Director of Homeland Security needed for access to information about anything ranging from corporate bankruptcies to barroom chat recorded by the new proactive FBI, all of which may be used to eliminate the administration's political enemies (HSA).

The FBI has been granted broad authority to gather intelligence from any public source, without possessing any evidence of wrongdoing. As part of the reorganization of the FBI, the bureau has instituted plans for increasing their use of corporate buzzwords, referring to spying without evidence as "proactive" (2). It really sounds like a whole new "paradigm": "The FBI will be able to do what any ...cop on the beat can do, which is go anywhere the public can go for information" (3,4). The real problem with this is that you might be considered a "terrorist" if an agent overhears you say something negative about the administration while sitting in a bar or shopping in a mall. Once you're classified as a "terrorist," you can be monitored in private, too.

As shocking as all this seems, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 actually permits the monitoring of everyone in the country, whether they are suspected of anything or not. You don't have to go out to a bar and publicly disagree with the administration to be monitored. According to Section 201 of the Homeland Security Act, the Department of Homeland Security will gather information from anyone ranging from your doctor to your local bank, as well as the databases of the FBI and CIA (HSA). If you buy a book that a credit card company, or the administration, doesn't like, you're in trouble.

Subject to the direction and control of the Secretary, the responsibilities of the Under Secretary for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection shall be [...] [t]o request additional information from other agencies of the Federal Government, State and local government agencies, and the private sector relating to threats of terrorism in the United States, or relating to other areas of responsibility assigned by the Secretary, including the entry into cooperative agreements through the Secretary to obtain such information. [Additional responsibilities shall be] [t]o establish and utilize, in conjunction with the chief information officer of the Department, a secure communications and information technology infrastructure, including data-mining and other advanced analytical tools, in order to access, receive, and analyze data and information in furtherance of the responsibilities under this section, and to disseminate information acquired and analyzed by the Department, as appropriate (HSA Sec 201).

These kinds of monitoring and other programs are being helped along by a "preemptive" military (5). How does one "preempt" a terrorist? Well, first, Americans must understand that anyone could be a terrorist - just look at Tim McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. Once that reality has set in, there are several options. The first is to spy on all Americans, and everyone in the world, much like Orwell described in his book about "Big Brother" entitled 1984. The government's Echelon computer system goes part of the way toward that goal by intercepting the world's electronic communications (6,7).

The Homeland Security Act actually endorses such activity, and the Total Information Awareness program very nearly completes the goals of spying on everyone through electronic analysis, and expressly states that the information will be used in policy decisions (HSA, TIA).

Total Information Awareness of transnational threats requires keeping track of individuals and understanding how they fit into models [...] so that analysts can hypothesize, test and propose theories and mitigating strategies about possible futures, so [politicians] can effectively evaluate the impact of current or future policies and prospective courses of action (TIA 11/25/2002).

But there is evidence that new approaches may streamline the operation and reduce bureaucracy. Chips could be implanted in all humans, or at least potential dissenters, to "preempt" thoughts about dissent or terrorism. Similar chips are being developed in monkeys and rats (8,9). Though such technology is at least a few years away, Attorney General Ashcroft could potentially include the implant procedure as part of his fingerprinting and photographing campaign (10). (Let's hope he doesn't force foreigners to wear a star on their sleeve.) The military has also sponsored a "Cyc" (pronounced "psych") computer that may be able to analyze the information in the same way that humans do (11).

If you don't like brain implants, another option is to use the military and economic power of the United States and wage a "war of ideas." In September of 2002, the administration's National Security Strategy actually showed that the strategy of pre-emption does indeed include a "war on ideas" (see The War Against Freedom). But ideas about terrorism must be addressed using ideas about freedom, not military and economic control or a "war of ideas." And even the best ideas and the strongest economy cannot give us absolute certainty against terrorism. If we truly believe in the idea of freedom, we must practice it and hope for the best. Anyone who cares about freedom should reject strategies that involve control over society and ideas. That is the only way to "preempt" the possibility that the war on "terror" becomes a war on freedom - a political war against any ideas contrary to those of the administration.

The President's National Security Strategy argues that in order to "pre-empt" the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction ("WMD's"), the social, political, economic, and moral policies and principles of all nations, including our own, must be controlled using the economic and military power of the United States, under the direction of the Commander in Chief. In the case of disagreements, the administration will act decisively and exercise its own will, using any means necessary, to maintain its power and control over all ideas, in all nations, including the U.S. This strategy, it is argued, is the only way to protect freedom and liberty. But in fact, such a strategy can only produce the complete and total destruction of the principles we cherish, producing a world in which the will of the administration is carried out using the economic and military power of the United States (see The War Against Freedom).

Must social, political, economic, and moral policies be controlled to "pre-empt" the spread of weapons of mass destruction? Doesn't such a stance undermine the idea of freedom we hold dear? Doesn't such a policy provoke terrorism? Trying to stop "the Bomb" before it goes off is certainly "common sense," but if pre-emption means pre-empting social, political, economic, and moral thought that the administration believes leads to the development of weapons of mass destruction, I'm not sure "pre-emption" is the word to use for trying to keep bombs from going off. We cannot suppress ideologies in an attempt to protect ourselves. The conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism cannot be cured with the threat of military force and social control; they must be addressed using ideas.

President Bush said the following in his televised speech of June 6th, 2002: "If you are a front-line worker for the FBI, the CIA, [or] some other law enforcement or intelligence agency, and you see something that raises suspicions, I want you to report it immediately" (12). He added that "suspicions and insights of some of our front-line agents did not get enough attention" (13). Under the current plan, the "suspicions" or "speculations" of agents from the FBI and CIA won't be reported directly to the Department of Homeland Security, but the wording of Section 202 of the Homeland Security Act seems to suggest otherwise.

As Tom Ridge put it, "We'll want [the Department of Homeland Security] to pull in all that information and sort it out between rumor and suspicion and speculation and misinformation and do an assessment, do an analysis and then communicate it - if it's a real threat - communicate that to state and local governments" (14). According to Bush, the Department of Homeland Security need only "imagine the worst" before acting: "Analysts will be responsible for imagining the worst and planning to counter it" (15). So what's the worst they can imagine if you say something negative about the administration? Well, they've already labeled dissenters as terrorists, but I'm sure it can get much worse.

Section 202 seems to allow the Department of Homeland Security access to any information possessed by other executive agencies, whether or not it is related to terrorism, provided the Secretary has reached an agreement with a particular agency. The extent to which the Department of Homeland Security may coerce such agreements is unknown. Regardless, information related to "terrorism" must be forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security, even though that information may include nothing more than the political views of opponents of the administration. Although there is no mention of "rumors and suspicions," the President is empowered to direct the transfer of any information he deems appropriate, even if it is politically motivated. In effect, this gives the President his own personal spy agency that can be used to suppress political dissent based on information collected by agencies employing systems similar to Total Information Awareness, as well as other means (see also Why Should You Care if the Government Spies on You?)

Except as otherwise directed by the President, with respect to information to which the Secretary has access pursuant to this section--
(1) the Secretary may obtain such material upon request, and may enter into cooperative arrangements with other executive agencies to provide such material or provide Department officials with access to it on a regular or routine basis, including requests or arrangements involving broad categories of material, access to electronic databases, or both; and
(2) regardless of whether the Secretary has made any request or entered into any cooperative arrangement pursuant to paragraph (1), all agencies of the Federal Government shall promptly provide to the Secretary--
(A) all reports (including information reports containing intelligence which has not been fully evaluated), assessments, and analytical information relating to threats of terrorism against the United States and to other areas of responsibility assigned by the Secretary;
(B) all information concerning the vulnerability of the infrastructure of the United States, or other vulnerabilities of the United States, to terrorism, whether or not such information has been analyzed;
(C) all other information relating to significant and credible threats of terrorism against the United States, whether or not such information has been analyzed; and
(D) such other information or material as the President may direct (HSA Sec 202).

Section 202 must be rewritten so that the Department of Homeland Security is more limited in its power to spread fear and suspicion. But this is not the only problem that needs to be fixed. Criteria that identify terrorist activity must be included in the definition of terrorism, and "aiding a terrorist" must be defined using equally complete criteria. Failure to make these corrections will result in the Director of Homeland Security, along with the executive branch of our government, increasing their power to erase democratic freedom and advance an agenda of paranoia, fear, and control over the lives of all Americans by micromanaging the most private details of every citizen's life.

Unfortunately, "the agencies that would be folded into the new department ...go well beyond policing the borders. They reach deep into American life, doing everything from coordinating disaster relief to tracking down foreigners working illegally in restaurants" (16). "[I]t blurs the boundaries between gathering intelligence on foreigners and doing the same with American citizens" (16). Even in its current form, the Department of Homeland Security can altogether sidestep the USA-PATRIOT Act, as well as the Constitution, and micromanage the lives of all Americans, utilizing a huge network of agents required only to "imagine" and "speculate." The Department of Homeland Security is Big Brother.

Vice President Dick Cheney has said, "Be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions" (17). He added, "Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible ...in a time of war" (18). Cheney was addressing government leaders, but his statements have frightened everyone who elected those leaders, and he has angered both Republicans and Democrats (17). Nevertheless, once this war on terrorism is over, it's back to normal, right? Wrong.

The Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, has extended the "time of war" indefinitely. If you have trouble accepting that, Ridge understands: "I'm not sure that 280 million Americans are ready to accept that [the war on terror] is a permanent condition..." (19). I don't think many Americans will be happy to learn that they are permanently banned from expressing dissent, at the risk of monitoring, imprisonment, or both.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist said recently, "in a time of war, the laws are silent" (20,21). He clearly doesn't understand what "the war on terror" has come to mean. His words are terrifying in light of Ridge's statement. In a "permanent war," the laws may be permanently silent.

Rehnquist's comments may have been in reference to military tribunals (20,21). The controversy over military tribunals is an issue in itself, but if the laws are silent in a time of war, something more than legal precedent and official assurance is needed to ensure that tribunals don't completely undermine the legal system.

It seems that in this "time of war," our laws have not proven much of an obstacle for the administration. President Bush has said that terrorists have "a competitive advantage," but we can't be forced into thinking of our government as a competitive terrorist organization. Our government is made up of human beings, and like all human beings, they can have well intended plans that are easily corruptible. Serious abuse has already occurred with the administration's National Security Strategy, which declares a "war on ideas" against everyone in the world (see Why Should You Care if the Government Spies on You?). The ACLU has also cited some examples that I cannot verify (22). The bottom line is that we must protect democratic freedom from potential abuse. Therefore, the provisions in the USA-PATRIOT Act for spying must come to an end, perhaps even sooner than the four year limit specified in the legislation, and the Homeland Security Act should be thoroughly rewritten. In addition, under no circumstances can "preemption" become a part of any policy, and military tribunals need something more than legal precedent and official assurance in order to avoid undermining the legal system. Let's hope Congress, or someone, will do everything possible to prevent potential abuses of freedom by the executive branch. A "permanent war" isn't an idea Americans should get used to, and it certainly shouldn't be used to justify the destruction of democratic freedom in order to carry out the will of the administration.


HSA: United States. (2002). Cong. House of Representatives. Homeland Security Act of 2002. 107th Congress, H.R. 5005. Washington: http://thomas.loc.gov.

TIA: United States (2002). DARPA Information Awareness Office. Total Information Awareness System. http://www.darpa.mil/iao/TIASystems.htm.


1) http://www.cnn.com/2001/ALLPOLITICS/12/07/inv.ashcroft.testimony/index.html
2) http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/05/30/fbi.reorganization/index.html
3) http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/05/30/ashcroft.fbi/index.html
4) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A30427-2002May29.html
5) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A22374-2002Jun9.html
6) http://www.cnn.com/2001/TECH/computing/01/23/dutch.echelon.hearing.idg/index.html
7) http://www.cnn.com/2001/TECH/internet/07/30/echelon.protest/index.html
8) http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/06/06/science.movement.reut/index.html
9) http://abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/DailyNews/rats020501.html
10) http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/06/05/justice.registering.aliens/index.html
11) http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/ptech/06/09/common.sense.computer.ap/index.html
12) http://www.reuters.com/printerfriendly.jhtml?type=topnews&StoryID=1060145
13) http://www.msnbc.com/news/762744.asp
14) http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/06/06/bush.security/index.html
15) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8545-2002Jun6.html
16) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A9111-2002Jun6.html
17) http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/05/columns/fl.dean.cheney.5.24/index.html
18) http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/05/21/column.billpress/index.html
19) http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/05/28/ridge.cnna/index.html
20) http://www.sunspot.net/news/custom/attack/bal-
21) Daily Press, June 15, 2002, p. A3.
22) http://www.aclu.org/congress/InsatiableAppetite.pdf (pages 9-10)
23) http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/06/06/security.factsheet.facts/index.html
24) http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/06/06/homeland.security.reax/
25) United States (2002). Cong. House of Representatives. Homeland Security Act of 2002. 107th Congress, H.R. 5005. Washington: http://thomas.loc.gov.

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