Empire is the cancer on our civil liberties

May 22, 2013

Joe Allen tells the history of Watergate and the collapse of the Nixon presidency--and explains why a scandal that peaked 40 years ago this summer is still relevant.

"IT'S NIXON week at the White House," declared the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson in a very perceptive column on the Obama's cascading scandals. Is this really "Obama's Watergate"? Is that analogy too harsh to comtemplate? Liberals will instinctively reject the comparison, but I think there's a lot more in common here than they would admit.

I understand why people might find the Republican outrage over the IRS auditing of its Tea Party wing hard to take seriously. After all, the Republicans are the party of Watergate, and their hypocrisy has only grown more shrill with the hard-line right running the show. But the left should never minimize any form of political repression or harassment carried out by the U.S. government.

The Department of Justice's seizure of Associated Press phone records as part of an investigation into leaks of classified information should be unambiguous. It is clearly a dangerous attack on press freedom and dissent that should cost Attorney General Eric Holder and his top aides their jobs. But will it?

The Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.
The Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. (Allen Lew)

Though the mainstream media have focused on these scandals most of all, there's the more frightening backdrop of the Obama adminstration--which millions of people voted for in the belief that it would end the abuses of the Bush administration--carrying out the same attacks on civil liberties and rights that its predecessors did.

Rather than change course, a Democratic White House has continued and even escalated Bush-era policies on indefinite detention of detainees of the "war on terror," warrantless wiretapping, prosecution of whistleblowers and invoking "state secrets" as an excuse for keeping information hidden from the public, to name just a few issues.

"WATERGATE" HAS become such a ubiquitous term that it doesn't have much content for most people. It's largely remembered--with the help of mainstream historians--as an incompetently handled scandal arising out of the 1972 presidential election that resulted in Richard Nixon's resignation from office--making him the first president to do so.

But Watergate was always much more than Nixon and his re-election campaign--appropriately named CREEP, for Committee to Re-Elect the President--engaging in "dirty tricks" against their Democratic opponents.

That was the tip of the iceberg of a massive domestic espionage operation created to, first and foremost, protect the dirty secrets of the Vietnam War. "Without the Vietnam War, there would have been no Watergate," said H.R. Haldeman--and as Nixon's chief of staff who went to prison for Watergate, he should know.

Nixon's predecessor, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had been spying on and harassing antiwar and civil rights activists for years--most notoriously, with COINTELPRO operations that attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King and that orchestrated the assassination of Chicago Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Once Nixon took office, though, the level of political repression escalated across the board.

Nixon's former law partner, John Mitchell, became attorney general and unleashed the full resources of his department to crush the antiwar movement, using newly created policies and legislation, or old "conspiracy" laws. The bizarre trial of the Chicago 8--antiwar activists put on trial in a Chicago courtroom--is probably the best remembered, but there were many others, including the prosecution of Dr. Benjamin Spock, "America's Baby Doctor," for conspiracy to evade the draft.

There was, however, an important shift in the focus of Nixon's repression after the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

"You know they could hang people for what's in here," former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said of the Pentagon Papers, a secret study of the history of the decision-making related to the Vietnam War. McNamara had commissioned the study and then had it shelved for fear of political embarrassment and scandal if it emerged. The Pentagon Papers revealed three decades of deception at the highest levels of the U.S. government. All of the lies that justified the war were exposed.

McNamara wasn't exaggerating. The hanging that so quickly came to McNamara's mind was a youthful memory of Nazis hung for war crimes following the Second World War. There had already been significant discussion, in the U.S. and internationally, about U.S. government officials being charged with war crimes over Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers were a massive body of evidence to back up such charges.

Daniel Ellsberg, one of McNamara's former "Whiz Kids" in the Pentagon, copied and leaked the "top secret" history to the New York Times in June 1971. The Pentagon Papers were a bombshell that drove the Nixon White House into a frenzy.

The administration created a secret covert operations unit called "The Plumbers," whose job was to "plug leaks" from federal officials to the media. The Plumbers' focus was on "disloyal" elements in the U.S. government and Nixon's enemies in the Democratic Party. The Plumbers burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist and carried out wide-ranging crimes across the country, financed in large part by money funneled through the CREEP campaign.

In 1972, the Plumbers broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., with plans to plant listening devices--but they were caught, and their connections to the White House were eventually revealed, despite attempts at a cover-up.

In a moment of high drama in June 1973, John Dean, a special counsel to Nixon, appeared before the Senate Watergate Committee and recounted a meeting with the president and others in the Oval Office in which he said that the Watergate cover-up was "a cancer on the presidency" that must be removed, or Nixon would be in jeopardy. Nixon ignored Dean's advice and was later forced to resign in disgrace.

DEAN WAS right, but only in the narrowest sense. I agree with Haldeman that the root cause of Watergate was the Vietnam War--a war that the U.S. was prosecuting illegally and with utmost brutality, and that had stirred the opposition of tens of millions of people around the world. Prosecuting an illegal and unjust war required a systematic attack on the civil liberties of the vast majority of Americans who came to hate the war and to march in their millions against it.

Every major imperialist war waged by the U.S. has been accompanied by an assault on civil liberties, especially freedom of speech, even while it was proclaimed that these wars were being fought for freedom and democracy. The Espionage Act was created during the First World War and primarily directed at socialist opponents of the war; Japanese Americans were interned during the Second World War; the witch-hunt of Communists and other radicals reached a fever pitch during the Korean War; and we have seen what the Vietnam War did for civil liberties.

The ten-plus years of the "war on terror" has made the U.S. a more far-flung empire than ever, with much to hide from its people. As journalist Jeremy Scahill writes in the opening line of his frightening new book Dirty Wars, "This is a story about how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy."

Bradley Manning is today's Daniel Ellsberg, and WikiLeaks is today's Pentagon Papers. No wonder Barack Obama is paranoid about "leaks," like Nixon before him, and his administration is obsessed with curtailing the press. Empire is the real cancer on our civil liberties.

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