Barry Eisler

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Militarization and the Authoritarian Right

Yes, former Bush administration speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen's demand that "WikiLeaks Must Be Stopped" is, as his colleague Eva Rodriguez notes, "more than a little whacky." But it's useful, too, because an infatuation with the notion of using the military in non-military operations, particularly domestic ones, is a key aspect of the modern American right and of the rightwing authoritarian personality. Examining Thiessen is a good way to understand both.

Thiessen lays out his premise in his first sentence: "WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise." The premise is silly -- unless the Washington Post for whom Thiessen writes and every other news organization that seeks and publishes leaks is a criminal enterprise, too (apparently Thiessen didn't bother to read 18 USC 793, which he cites as the basis for his opinion about criminality, citing it instead just to sound authoritative). But as whacky as the premise is, it's nothing compared to Thiessen's conclusion.

Which is: that the government "employ not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets to bring [Wikileaks founder Julian] Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business." This notion -- that crime should be fought with the military -- is part of the creeping militarization of American society. You can see it, too, in rightist support for military tribunals to replace civilian courts in trying terror suspects; in the increasing militarization of our border with Mexico; in the numbers of soldiers deployed in American airports and train stations; and in then Vice President Cheney's attempt to have the military supplant the FBI in arresting terror suspects on American soil.

Thiessen tried to back away from his authoritarian argument when Rodriguez called him on it, but his disavowal rings false. First, Thiessen claims that when he said "military," he only really meant the National Security Agency, because (after all!) the NSA is part of the Department of Defense. But the NSA, which specializes in signals intelligence, would logically fall under the "intelligence assets" Thiessen had already called for is his op-ed. If all Thiessen had in mind was the NSA, the call for "military assets" on top of "intelligence assets" would be redundant. Second, Thiessen claims he was also merely referring to the Defense Department's Cyber Command. But if by "military assets" he meant only the NSA and the Cyber Command, why didn't he just specify these two in the first place?

Regardless, the Cyber Command has on its website the following (style, grammar, and clarity-challenged) mission statement:

USCYBERCOM plans, coordinates, integrates, synchronizes, and conducts activities to: direct the operations and defense of specified Department of Defense information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full-spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries.


This is one of the organizations Thiessen now wants to task with... law enforcement? That Thiessen believes it exculpatory to explain that he was merely calling for the use of the Cyber Command, in addition to the NSA and whatever other "military assets" he might have had in mind, to fight crime is as revealing as his argument itself.

In a probably futile attempt to forestall a barrage of partisan responses, I'll emphasize that the policies and views I describe above don't correlate neatly with either of America's two major political parties. President Obama, for example, has (in addition to escalating the war in Afghanistan and privatizing the one in Iraq) deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border, has secretly deployed special forces to 75 countries, and favors military commissions to try some terror suspects (and indefinite detentions and assassination for others, including American citizens). But the notion that Obama is by any meaningful policy definition liberal is at this point as laughable as it is baseless, and the popular view of Obama as a progressive is testament to the astonishing power of certain brands to outlast the loss of their underlying substance.

Still, my sense is that Republicans argue for authoritarian policies out of conviction, while Democrats cave in to them out of cowardice. The distinction is interesting, though of course in the end the result is the same. Either way, if you believe tasking America's military with investigating, pursuing, apprehending, holding, trying, and imprisoning criminal suspects and criminals is a profound and insidious threat to democracy, you'll fight this excrescence wherever you find it.
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