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רשת אינדימדיה העולמית


Running Scared

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Dinnertime is the hour of the conspiracy theory here in Seattle. I've lost count of the times I've been told - always on excellent, but unnameable authority - that Osama bin Laden is already in American hands and that the Bush administration is waiting for the right moment to announce his capture. Ronald Reagan's body was on ice for many months, and his death was only announced when it became necessary to drive Abu Ghraib off the front page. Everybody knows, or thinks they know, that the administration will manipulate the intricate bells and whistles of homeland security to ensure the president's re-election. If terrorists don't strike in the run-up to November 2 (as most people assume they will) the level of alert will be jigged up to red, arrests will be made, the country will be declared saved from an evil plot and mass casualties, and Bush will storm past Kerry in the polls.
The latest theory comes hot from the mouths of anonymous agents in the Pakistan security service: the White House is putting immense pressure on the Musharraf regime to deliver "high-value targets", in the shape of Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, on July 26, 27, or 28, to spectacularly eclipse the opening of the Democratic party convention in Boston. Or, if that's too tall an order, they must be caught before polling day. My informant tells me that a senior Pakistani general, recently on a visit to DC, said: "If we don't find these guys by the election, they're going to stick this whole nuclear mess up our asshole."

Much the most interesting thing about this last story is the character of my informant - not, as usual, Jack talking from the barbecue pit, but the sober and conservative New Republic, a magazine fiercely pro-Israel, which enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq. A respected senior editor, John B Judis, is one of the three authors of the July Surprise? piece in the July 19 issue. Conspiracy theorising is coming out of the internet closet and going mainstream. Or, to put it another way, conspiracy theorising is fast becoming a legitimate means of reporting on a government so secretive that unnamed Pakistani security types may well be the best informed sources on the Bush administration's domestic policies and strategems.

Even before September 11, secrecy was this administration's hallmark, as when it invoked the principle of executive privilege to conceal from public view the proceedings of vice-president Cheney's energy taskforce. After 9/11, secrecy was advanced, proudly, as a guiding principle for a nation at war. In his address to the joint session of Congress on September 20 2001, Bush spoke of a new kind of war, "unlike any other we have ever known", that would include "covert operations, secret even in success." Donald Rumsfeld quoted Winston Churchill to the effect that in war "truth must be protected with a bodyguard of lies". Dick Cheney talked of a war to be fought "in the shadows: This is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business. We have to operate in that arena". The great fear, shared by people not customarily given to paranoia, is that the Bush administration has taken these tactics for conducting a secret, asymmetric war and applied them wholesale to the day-to-day governance of the US.

To live in America now - at least to live in a port city like Seattle - is to be surrounded by the machinery and rhetoric of covert war, in which everyone must be treated as a potential enemy until they can prove themselves a friend. Surveillance and security devices are everywhere: the spreading epidemic of razor wire, the warnings in public libraries that the FBI can demand to know what books you're borrowing, the Humvee laden with troops in combat fatigues, the Coast Guard gunboats patrolling the bay, the pat-down searches and x-ray machines, the nondescript grey boxes, equipped with radio antennae, that are meant to sniff out pathogens in the air. It's difficult to leave the house now without encountering at least one of these reminders that we are being watched and that we live in deadly peril - though in peril of quite what is hard to say.

On May 26 - a black day for sallow-skinned grocers and news vendors - the attorney general, John Ashcroft, flanked by FBI director, Robert S Mueller, called a press conference to tell the nation of some "disturbing intelligence" that he'd recently received: preparations for an attack on the mainland US were 90% complete; likely targets included the upcoming G8 summit in Georgia, July 4 celebrations, and the Democratic and Republican conventions in Boston and New York. Al-Qaida intended to "hit America hard". Mueller produced seven mugshots - six were of men of, as they say, Middle Eastern appearance - and told us to keep a sharp lookout for these "armed and dangerous" characters. For a few hours, the country shivered in anticipation of the horror about to descend on it, and phone lines to the FBI were jammed with excited descriptions of neighbourhood news vendors and grocers.

Yet the colour-coded alert system remained at yellow, and within the next couple of days it became clear that Ashcroft's disturbing new intelligence was many weeks old, and that much of it came from a discredited source - an Islamist propaganda site on the internet well known to journalists for its daily stream of bloodcurdling boasts. Because Ashcroft had trespassed on the turf of homeland security chief Tom Ridge, and his freelance terror warning wasn't supported by the rest of the administration, we caught a rare glimpse of government Wizard-of-Ozzery at work. Ashcroft, it turned out, knew no more than the rest of us. Like us, he or his flunkies passed their time surfing the net. When he told us that evidence for his grim warning had been "corroborated on a variety of levels", did he mean anything more than that it could be found on more than one website?

Ashcroft's performance confirmed the suspicion held by many that the Bush administration is in the cynical business of spreading generalised, promiscuous anxiety through the American populace, a sense of imminent but inexact catastrophe, for reasons that may have little to do with national security and much to do with political advantage. In the past three years, in the name of homeland security, a vast, coast-to-coast, combined surveillance and people-scaring apparatus has been assembled, on a scale, and with an intimate reach, never before seen in a democracy. The administration appears to be still learning to play this marvellous instrument, and wrong notes, such as those struck by Ashcroft, are common. But practice makes perfect.

Obsession with secrecy is a contagion directly transmitted from government to people. Just as the administration now moves in Cheney's arena of shadows, so masses of ordinary Americans are seeing themselves as self-appointed master-spies, keeping watch on their government in the same covert way that the government supposedly keeps watch on al-Qaida. The backyard barbecue sounds like a convention of spooks. "Chatter" has been heard, though its source can't be revealed ... In such talk, Bush, Cheney & co are held to be as scheming, devious and hard to catch as Bin Laden himself.

The same tone is to be heard in current American journalism. On July 15, the solemnly judicious New York Times began a front-page story with the sentence, "In the annals of Washington conspiracy theories, the latest one, about vice-president Dick Cheney's future on the Republican ticket, is as ingenious as it is far-fetched." Buttering its bread lavishly on both sides, the paper went on to expend 40 serious column inches on the far-fetched story. Since we can no longer get real news of the administration, we now get intelligence, which is something altogether different.

This accounts for liberal America's ready embrace of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's slapdash confection of strong documentary footage and connect-the-dots paranoia. Whenever Moore puts himself in the centre of the picture, he's pure Barbecue Man, brimming with "intel" that sounds even older and less reliable than that of Ashcroft. But Moore has rightly gauged the mood of his audience. People are hungry for classified information on their rulers, in part because their rulers are so busy collecting classified information on them, and Fahrenheit 9/11 promotes the happy illusion that, for once, the magnetometers and security cameras have been turned on the president and his gang.

This is an extraordinary moment in American history. Half the country - including all the people I know best - believes it is trembling on the very lip of outright tyranny, while the other half believes that only the Bush administration stands between it and national collapse into atheism, socialism, black helicopters, and gay marriage. November 2 looms as a date of dreadful consequence. A bumper sticker, popular among the sort of people I hang out with, reads: Bush-Cheney '04 - The Last Vote You'll Ever Have To Cast. That's funny, but it belongs to the genre of humour in which the laugh is likely to die in your throat - and none of the people who sport the sticker on their cars are smiling. They are too busy airing conspiracy theories, which may or may not turn out to be theories.

London Guardian 21/07/2004


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