Thursday, November 27, 2008

A strong dose of fear

Despite high expectations by the world, and Americans alike, that the election on Nov. 4 of Barack Obama would bring about a sea change in US policies — and by default an end to the disastrous past eight years of the George W. Bush administration — there are strong signs that continuity, rather than a fresh start, is what’s in store when the new administration comes into office in January. In fact, one need only look back at the transition from the Ike Eisenhower administration to that of John F. Kennedy in 1961 for another period of high hopes that were later deflated by more of the same (three words: Bay of Pigs). Back then, the enemy was communism; today, it is terrorism and nuclear proliferation, threats joined at the hip during the Bush presidency.

Just as then, fear — fear of the unknown, of an enemy “out there” but also among us — is being used to justify continuity or to undermine efforts to bring about change in policy direction. Under Kennedy, who inherited plans drawn up by the CIA under the Eisenhower administration for the invasion of Cuba, fears that the Caribbean country would serve as a forward base for communism in the Western hemisphere undermined whatever intent Kennedy and his administration may have had to create a better world, leading to a retention of Republican policies, government officials and advisers, by the Democrat government.

Fast-forward about half a century, and Cuba is now Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war” on terror into which all three have been subsumed.

It is certainly no surprise, then, that one of Obama’s first announcements regarding his foreign policy team was that he would ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to stay on the job — at least for a little while.

To ensure that a public with high expectations of change does not feel betrayed when those expectations are unfulfilled, the state will turn to fear and imponderables. One example will be former secretary of state Colin Powell’s hinting, during an interview on Oct. 19 with Meet the Press, that on Jan. 21 or Jan. 22 — just as Obama comes into office — a “generated crisis … that we don’t know about right now” would test the new leader. This vague assertion, which was quickly picked up by the media, left everybody wondering what the threat might be. An invasion of Iran? A terror attack? There was no way of telling, but everybody assumed that as a former government official and retired military officer, Powell had access to “special” information or “intelligence.”

As I have pointed out before on this site and in my book Smokescreen, intelligence is a powerful tool by which the state can manipulate public opinion, for three principal reasons: (a) it feeds on the assumption that intelligence officers know more than ordinary people; (b) in the name of secrecy, sources, corroboration and credibility cannot be shared; and (c) it exploits public fears.

Another example of this was provided today, with the US government warning that al-Qaeda suicide bombers were allegedly contemplating an attack on New York’s mass-transit system. The timing, less than two months before the new administration comes into office, could not be more conspicuous.

A closer look at the wording used in the warning is quite revealing.

We are told that an “internal memo” showed that the FBI had received a “plausible but unsubstantiated” report that al-Qaeda terrorists in late September may have discussed attacking the subway system and that they may also target passenger rail lines running through New York, such as Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road.

The problems with this report are many. We are not told what makes the threat “plausible,” or why it could be “plausible” if it is “unsubstantiated.” Another problem with this “memo,” of course, is the use of the word “may,” which in and of itself should be sufficient to make us question the credibility of the warning. An asteroid may collide with planet Earth tomorrow; you may get hit by a bus walking your doggie. The nature of the so-called “memo” is also left to our imagination. Is it an official threat assessment, operational notes, an intercept?

The report then goes on to say that “We have no specific details to confirm that this plot has developed beyond aspirational planning, but we are issuing this warning out of concern that such an attack could possibly be conducted during the forthcoming holiday season.” No specific details; no assessment of the individuals who may have discussed the plan; no reason to believe that it has moved beyond an idea; and no information that would indicate why, if the plotters actually met, they moved beyond planning or whether they have the capabilities (material, assets in the US) to carry out the plan, or why the attack would take place during the holiday season, are provided. Note, too, that the “persons” mentioned in the articles have all requested anonymity, ostensibly because we are dealing with intelligence matters, which adds a second layer blocking our ability to critically assess the information.

Finally, to ensure the threat prompts an emotional response, news reports conclude with references to foiled plans to attack various targets in the New York area — all plots whose credibility is also impossible to assess, given the dearth of information about them.

With the Obama cabinet-in-the-making’s connivance or via more obscure channels, fear is being used either to limit the possibility of change, or to ensure that those who stand to profit from the perpetuation of past policies (from the defense industry to imperialists to Israel to al-Qaeda itself) continue to do so.

Either way, expect more fear in the coming months.

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