Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Potentially Dangerous"

Back in 1950, J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director for nearly half a century, had a plan for the "permanent detention" of 12,000 Americans at military bases, and domestic prisons, according to a document declassified on Friday and reported by The New York Times. His goal was to have then President Truman suspend habeas corpus, and arrest any person deemed "potentially dangerous."

So, you might find yourself unfortunate enough to be on J. Edgar's list only because you're thought to have the potential for being dangerous. One wonders what Mr. Hoover's definition of the word "dangerous" was, and how that might be instructive in light of today's political climate. Can it be said that danger, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder?

It was also Hoover's idea to construct a behemoth, all-encompassing arrest warrant, not unlike the ubiquitous National Security Agency spy program, which could be issued to facilitate the massive arrests stemming from years of investigations by the bureau. Evidently, "Hoover's list" took some time to prepare.

Should the plan to incarcerate more than ten thousand Americans have panned out, it would not have been the first time a debacle of this nature had occurred on native soil. In 1920, Hoover organized the Palmer Raids, in which thousands of people were rounded up, and labelled pinkos and radicals, providing precedent, if not impetus, for the Korean War game plan.

The Palmer Raids were the precursor to the Great Purge of Josef Stalin which has, interestingly, also come to be known as the "Great Terror." War sure comes in handy, not just for those fat, juicy war contracts, making the rich even richer, but for classifying those who don't get with the program as "potentially" risky, hence worthy of taxpayer expense to sweep them up, hole them up somewhere, divest them of their First Amendment rights, and disenfranchise them.

Hoover sent his proposal to Truman in July, 1950, in the first two weeks after combat began in Korea, and two months later, the president approved a measure which allowed for detaining "dangerous radicals." It is unknown what Truman's response to Hoover's plan was inasmuch as the plan itself was never implemented, even when the Chinese entered the Korean War, and the president felt compelled to declare a state of emergency. Wouldn't you just love to be a fly on that wall? No, not the Berlin wall, but the wall separating President Truman and J. Edgar Hoover!

It would be fascinating if a future document were to be discovered showing a debate between the president and director of what was the signature intelligence agency of the day. There could be no controversy when it came to Hoover's unilateral vision of those who posed the most egregious risk to national security, as well as his goal of protecting the country "against treason, espionage, and sabotage." By his own admission, 97% of those he deemed "potentially dangerous" were U.S. citizens, so his call to suspend habeas corpus was as unconstitutional then as it is now. Hoover's plan granted the right to a hearing, but the nuance of evidence was nowhere to be found.

We may not know much, but we can make an educated guess that J. Edgar would be a big fan of military tribunals, and having to enter a guilty plea before seeing counsel, as well as granting immunity to commanders-in-chief from war crime charges. Overall, one can imagine that Mr. Hoover would be a huge proponent of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and would tip the scales in favor of expanded surveillance powers for the N.S.A. . In fact, he'd probably have pedicures with Vladimir Putin, then go back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and blitz the server containing millions of "deleted" White House emails, some of which may even prove that the president conferred with counsel before ordering the destruction of "enhanced interrogation" videotapes. Not only does presidente 43 allow for indefinite detention of prisoners without redress, or access to counsel, but he rubber stamps methods of interrogation which wouldn't even pass J. Edgar Hoover's smell test.

One can only hope that Congress doesn't roll over for President Bush again, in this investigation, as it did a year ago September, when it allowed the president to suspend habeas corpus for anyone classified as an "unlawful enemy combatant," a phrase coined by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Ostensibly, Mr. Rumsfeld never read the Constitution any more than his colleagues, in Congress, as the Constitution clearly states that habeas corpus may only be suspended when public safety is jeopardized by "rebellion or invasion."

The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the habeas corpus right of U.S. citizens, but is only now hearing arguments about whether non-citizens, at Guantanamo Bay, should be entitled to the same rights as were granted by the Magna Carta some five hundred years ago, but who's counting? So, here we are, fifty years later, in the midst of a "war on terror," and only now coming to learn that the intelligence arm of our own government was about to perpetrate a "Great Terror" on 12,000 of its own citizens.

What is the purpose of the past if not to be instructive? We must never again allow canibalist abstractions like "potentially dangerous," and war on terror, to infect us with the kind of arrogance, and self-righteousness which, in trying to pass itself off as patriotism, is little more than thinly disguised abuse of power.