Terrorism to end terrorism

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This article was first published as "Terrorism to End Terrorism" in PR Watch, Volume 8, No. 4, 4th Quarter 2001. The article is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


Both internationally and in the United States, the "war against terrorism" has provided propaganda cover for crackdowns on human rights and civil liberties. Like other PR efforts to capitalize on the September 11 tragedy, this rhetorical use of terrorism has a long prehistory.

As early as 1976, a media plan developed by the Burson-Marsteller PR firm advised Argentina's brutal military junta--then in the process of murdering thousands of Jews and leftists--to make over its image by "calling a meeting to examine terrorism and means of eliminating it," thereby identifying "Argentina as a member of a group of free world nations condemning all classes of terrorism," which "would immediately unite it with those countries which respect human rights and civil liberties." In the wake of September 11, countries throughout the world have resorted to similar ploys:

  • O'Dwyer's PR Daily reported that Saudi Arabia hired PR giant Burson-Marsteller on September 14 to provide "issues counseling and crisis management" and to place ads in the New York Times expressing Saudi support for the U.S. in its time of crisis. The Saudis have been rewarded with a seat at the table as an ally in the fight against terrorism, even though much of Osama Bin Laden's terror network (including Bin Laden himself and 15 of the 19 hijackers who flew the planes on September 11) came from Saudi Arabia and drew their inspiration and funding specifically from Saudi Arabian Wahhabi fundamentalists. The Wahhabi religious movement is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, the ideological underpinnings of the absolute monarchy which governs the country with an iron fist. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have pointed to Saudi Arabia's numerous cases of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention and physical abuse of prisoners, which security forces commit with the acquiescence of the government. In addition, the government prohibits or restricts freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, and religion.
  • The dictatorship that governs Pakistan has also gotten an image makeover. It was held in contempt by the West prior to September 11, first for its repression of democracy at home and second for its ties with terrorists. (The Taliban's rise to power was sponsored by Pakistan's security forces.) Now that Pakistan has become our ally against Afghanistan, however, the song has changed. "It may be a good thing that Pakistan is ruled by a friendly military dictator," opined Newsweek magazine, "rather than what could well be a hostile democracy." Writing in the Independent of London, journalist Robert Fisk pointed out that this attitude "is the very policy that dictates Washington's relations with the Arab world. Far better to have a Mubarak or a King Abdullah or a King Fahd running the show than to let the Arabs vote for a real government that might oppose US policies in the region. ... Future peace and stability requires sustained investment in solid secular democracies -- not in stable dictatorships. Yet the United States is now laying the foundations of a long-term autocracy in Pakistan, a dictatorship not unlike those that lie like a cancer across the Middle East."
  • Australia's defense ministry cited the attacks in the United States to justify his government's effort to prevent asylum-seekers from entering the country.
  • In England, a PR advisor to the UK Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions sent a memo to senior colleagues within an hour after the second hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center. "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury," the memo suggested. The following day, the British government issued a proposal on new expenses for local councillors--one of the items mentioned in the PR memo as something "to bury."
  • China linked its support for the global campaign against terrorism to US support for China's campaign against those advocating independence for Tibet and the Muslim province of Xinjiang.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin linked global efforts against terrorism to Russia's brutal military campaign in Chechnya, where Russian forces continue to engage in extrajudicial executions, arrests, and extortion of civilians.
  • In Egypt, Prime Minister Atef Abeid lashed out at human rights groups for "calling on us to give these terrorists their 'human rights,'" referring to documented reports of Egyptian torture and unfair trials. "After these horrible crimes committed in New York and Virginia, maybe Western countries should begin to think of Egypt's own fight against terror as their new model," Abeid said.
  • In Israel, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Elizier bragged on September 14, "It is a fact that we have killed 14 Palestinians in Jenin, Kabatyeh and Tammum, with the world remaining absolutely silent."
  • The government of Colombia, which has a horrific, long-standing history of human rights violations perpetrated by members of the Colombian military and "illegal" paramilitary groups with close military ties, scored a victory in October when U.S. State Department official Francis Taylor publicly linked counter-insurgency in Latin America to the war on terrorism. U.S. military and economic aid to Colombia has climbed in recent years, including a recent $1.3 billion U.S. aid package.

Terrorism has provided similar cover for the Bush administration in the United States. While the country was still reeling from the September 11 tragedy, Congress quietly approved the Bush administration's nomination of John Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. During his term as ambassador to Honduras under the Reagan administration, Negroponte covered up human rights abuses by the CIA-trained Battallion 316. The Bush administration had already appointed two other individuals to government posts with extensive involvement in the Reagan administration's war in Central America:

  • Otto Reich has become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the top post for Latin America. Reich is the former head of now-defunct Office for Public Diplomacy (OPD), which was disbanded after the House Committee on Foreign Affairs censured it for "prohibited, covert propaganda activities" inside the United States aimed at winning domestic support for the Contra war. The OPD's activities as part of "Operation White Propaganda" included dirty tricks such as falsely accusing reporters of trading pro-Sandinista stories for sexual favors from Sandinista-supplied prostitutes.

U.S. policymakers and even the news media itself have also used the terror of September 11 as a pretext for substantial restrictions at home on freedom of information and civil liberties. Pro-war commentators have been merciless in their attacks on the dissenters from the Bush administration's military campaign, describing them as a "cult of national suicide" or as "fifth column" allies of Osama bin Laden, and calling for action to suppress "anti-American rallies" on college campuses.

In mid-October, Congress passed the ambitiously-named USA PATRIOT Act, which stands for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." In addition to authorizing unprecedented levels of surveillance and incarceration of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, several provisions of USA PATRIOT explicitly target people simply for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. It expands the ability of police to spy on telephone and internet correspondence in anti-terrorism investigations and in routine criminal investigations unrelated to terrorism; makes the payment of membership dues to political organizations a deportable offense; and creates a broad new definition of "domestic terrorism" that could target people who engage in acts of political protest and subject them to wiretapping and enhanced penalties.

The USA PATRIOT act was followed in November by a new executive order from President Bush, authoring himself to order a trial in a military court for any non-citizen he designates, without a right of appeal or the protection of the Bill of Rights.

"Mr. Bush has authorized military justice as an option for the government in a far wider array of cases than could ever be necessary," commented the Washington Post. "Any non-citizen whom the president deems to be a member of al Qaeda, or to be engaged in international terrorism of virtually any kind, or even to be harboring such people, can be detained indefinitely under his order and tried. The trials could take place using largely secret evidence.

Depending solely on how the Defense Department further refines the rules, the military officers conducting the trials might insist on proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or might use some far lesser standard. The accused can be convicted without a unanimous verdict but with a two-thirds majority. Those found guilty would have no appeal to any court; and if found guilty, they could be executed. Such a process is only a hair's breadth from a policy of summary justice. The potential to imprison or execute many innocent people is large, the chances that such mistakes would become known much smaller."

If We Tell You, Terrorists Will Kill You

These rollbacks in civil liberties have encountered only token peeps of protest from the news media, which can barely bring itself to complain about Bush administration efforts to muzzle the media itself. "There's been a collective decision to re-image the president, and the media is fully cooperating," observed magazine writer David Carr. "Journalists are very anxious to help him construct a wartime presidency, because we may be at war and he's the only president we have. When you have people with agendas serving as your eyes and ears, I just don't think you're necessarily getting the truth. It's just a more patriotic version of spin."

When the White House, via National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, requested that the networks not air any future unedited videos of Osama bin Laden, the broadcast media's top managers meekly complied. "Thanks to the White House and its high-level courtiers in the media, we Americans--or those of us without the proper hardware--are now the only people in the whole developed world who can't actually hear what our enemy is saying about us. That's an odd distinction, considering we are also his main targets," observed New York University professor Mark Crispin Miller. "Although it was the terrorists who brought on this climate of official hostility to information, it is not they who are to blame for our surrender to it. With their box-cutters and barbaric zeal, they wrought destruction on our lives, property, and economy. But they could not hurt America's democracy. That is something that Americans alone can do."

The American Chemistry Council (formerly known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association) made the threat of terrorism the centerpiece of its own newly aggressive campaign to roll back "public right-to-know" policies that enable citizens to learn about toxic hazards in their communities. Shortly after September 11, the National Review published an article by Jonathan Adler of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), calling on federal agencies to reconsider provisions of the Clean Air Act which require companies to prepare risk-management plans that detail potential chemical accidents and worst-case scenarios for what could happen to neighboring communities. By law, this information must be made available to the public--a practice that Adler now describes as "assisting terrorists." Such laws "actually promise to do more harm than good," stated a separate CEI editorial. "This information is only useful to groups that want to scare the public about chemical risks, or those who might use it for selecting targets."

This attempt to link right-to-know with terrorism has been ongoing since 1998, when the ACC hired former security agency personnel to write a report titled "The Terrorist Threat in America." The ACC's report, combined with aggressive lobbying, had already eroded public right-to-know laws even before the September 11 attack. The willingness of the U.S. Department of Justice to support these rollbacks (but not to reduce chemical hazards) prompted a August 14, 2000 letter to then-Attorney General Janet Reno from a number of leading environmental and public interest groups such as the National Environmental Trust and Sierra Club, along with labor representatives such as the Chemical Workers Union Council/UFCW, the United Steelworkers of America and the Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union. "We are dismayed with the Department's role in impeding community right-to-know about chemical industry dangers while taking no apparent steps to eliminate these hazards at the source," the letter stated.

Many right-to-know rollbacks have focused on the Internet. Shortly after September 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completely shut down its website. The state of Pennsylvania has decided to remove environmental information from its site. Risk Management Plans, which provide information about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, have been removed from the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry dropped from its website a report on chemical site security which notes that "security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor" and that "security around chemical transportation assets ranged from poor to non-existent."

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has also issued a new statement of policy that encourages federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The new statement supersedes a 1993 memorandum from Attorney General Janet Reno which promoted disclosure of government information through the FOIA unless it was "reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful." The new Ashcroft doctrine rejects this "foreseeable harm" standard and instructs agencies to withhold information whenever there is a "sound legal basis" for doing so. "As with many of the Bush Administration's new restrictions on public information, the new policy is only peripherally related to the fight against terrorism," notes Secrecy News, a publication of the Federation of American Scientists. "Rather, it appears to exploit the current circumstances to advance a predisposition toward official secrecy."

The new climate in America prompted an eerily close-to-life parody in The Onion, a humorous newspaper that publishes satirical false news items. In the parody, Ashcroft is quoted saying, "We live in a land governed by plurality of opinion in an open electorate, but we are now under siege by adherents of a fundamentalist, totalitarian belief system that tolerates no dissent. Our most basic American values are threatened by an enemy opposed to everything for which our flag stands. That is why I call upon all Americans to submit to wiretaps, e-mail monitoring, and racial profiling. Now is not the time to allow simplistic, romantic notions of 'civil liberties' and 'equal protection under the law' to get in the way of our battle with the enemies of freedom."