The prolonged September 11 remembrances have largely wrapped up—the weekend saw everything from current and former presidents remembering the tragedy to the garish commercials featuring Budweiser Clydesdales bowing before Ground Zero.
But as the rest of Washington moved on, Ralph Nader and a panel of experts who saw much of the fallout from September 11 up close held a panel in northwest DC to talk about how the government responded to the tragedies—and how that response continues to undermine crucial democratic institutions.
Nader was joined by retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former State Department chief of staff and outspoken critic of the Iraq War; the ACLU’s Michael German, a former FBI agent who left the agency in 2004 and has spoken out against post-9/11 intelligence abuses; and constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, who led the American Bar Association’s astonishing and largely unnoticed rebuke of President George W. Bush’s legal abuses while Bush was still in office.
The message was simple: the September 11 attacks were tragic, but the expansive and disproportional government reaction is the continuing threat. Wilkerson cited commonly used statistics that annual highway deaths far exceed the toll on September 11, and that the United States has spent well over $2 trillion on the response to attacks that cost Al Qaeda about $500,000 to execute.
Wilkerson focused on the Iraq War, one of the largest—and most disastrous—foreign policy consequences of the September 11 attacks, and one that Wilkerson saw up close. He told of Colin Powell’s initial decision to scrap any mention of an Iraqi role in September 11, which lasted less than a day before the intelligence community presented Powell with “new” and supposedly definitive evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government was assisting Al Qaeda, which Powell indeed included in his speech.
“As far as I can tell, the director of central intelligence…lied to the United States secretary of state,” Wilkerson said. “I cannot see any other conclusion, from both my own experience as it was out in Langley [home of the CIA] for six days and six nights, with [CIA Director] George Tenet and John McLaughlin, his deputy, literally on my elbow most of the time.”
“I either have to come to the conclusion that they were ordered to do it and did it like faithful loyal soldiers, or I have to come to the conclusion that they were utterly incompetent, or I have to conclude that it was a little bit of all and some lying thrown in,” Wilkerson said. “My experience with government tells me that latter conclusion is probably closer to the truth.”
(Before he began his remarks, he recounted the military campaigns he helped lead as an Army colonel in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wilkerson—who has been an outspoken critic of the war since 2005—mused that “it never crossed my mind for a second that I’d be sitting at a podium with Ralph Nader.”)
German, who worked as an FBI agent on many post-9/11 terrorism cases, spoke eloquently about the increasing encroachment of the national security state, and the “take-the-gloves-off” approach that began with the Patriot Act but continues unabated.
“When the intelligence community fails, the only way to address that is to give them more authority. When they succeed, it’s justification for giving them more authority,” German said. “So that national security ratchet only turns in one direction, and it’s very difficult for us to get rights that are given up back again.”
The Patriot Act was reauthorized earlier this year, despite haggling over some provisions. But it’s not the Congressional modifications or lack thereof that matter. German pointed to an overlooked but vitally important speech by Senator Ron Wyden this spring, in which Wyden—a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—talked about the “Secret Law” provision of the Patriot Act.
That provision essentially says that the government can interpret the Patriot Act however it wants, and that interpretation to this day remains secret—and Wyden said if the public knew the government’s interpretation, as he presumably does, there would be “outrage.”
Fein, an deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and a frequent critic of both Bush and Obama’s national security legal policies, urged action.
“It’s a psychological deterioration in our political culture that has infected the entire way in which we approach the rule of law and who we are as a country. And it’s really up to us to change it,” Fein said. “We can blame presidents for seeking to aggrandize power, that’s to be expected. And we can even blame the invertebrate Congress…. We need to get away from that mentality, and the only way it’s going to happen is if we the people make a protest.”
After the speech, I spoke with Nader about his message to Americans about September 11: