In the 20 years between George W. Bush and Donald Trump’s presidencies, American democracy has been chipped away at by the use of “subtle tools” that government officials have wielded and weaponized, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
That’s according to Karen J. Greenberg, who directs the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law. She has named these four tools imprecision, secrecy, bureaucratic porousness and disregard for norms and laws. She explains their usage and how they’ve eroded democracy in favor of empowering the wealthy and politically powerful in her recently-published book, “Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump.”
In an interview on “The Morning Show” with Kate Archer Kent, Greenberg said it’s important to look at how these tools are being manipulated to understand the eroding impact on democracy and to hold those who abuse their power accountable.
The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kate Archer Kent: What were the first signs to you that the war on terror policies would have these long-lasting effects?
Karen Greenberg: My thinking was that it was almost immediate that we understood that things were disrupted. And even then I was shocked by how fast the country’s discourse turned towards reaction and retaliation and the use of force.
And while it was completely understandable — even at that moment, I was like, “Wait a minute, isn’t this something we’re supposed to think about and give some procedural integrity to?”
KAK: You write about the fuzzy, imprecise language, for example the War on Terror or Ground Zero. What are those implications to how we look at terrorism?
KG: To me, imprecise language is one of the more profound tools that was used and is used to this day. And it started right after 9/11 — this unwillingness to define who we were going to attack, who was the enemy within, what the authorities of Congress and the president were.
To give you an example, the first piece of legislation that passes within a week after 9/11 is the AUMF, or Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which Congress approves. And it’s to go to war in Afghanistan. But it doesn’t name an enemy. It doesn’t have a time duration. It doesn’t have a geographical definition. It doesn’t think about or mention the end of hostilities. This is in contradistinction to prior authorizations for force and to prior declarations of war.
We’ve seen now over 20 years that without limits, the same authorization is used for drone strikes in many countries around the globe on enemies that we don’t necessarily have to name because they weren’t named originally in the authorization.
Another example is the Patriot Act, which was passed without defining the word “terrorist,” even though it was created to give enhanced law enforcement powers for discovering terrorists in a newly preventive model. So that’s just two rather broad and very fuzzy examples.
KAK: Tell us about how the secrecy tool has been used or abused?
KG: We think of secrecy as something that’s legitimate because at the highest levels of national security, of course there are things that need to be classified.
The amount of classified documents after George Bush came to power and after the attacks of 2001 were astronomical. And it wasn’t just the amount of classified documents. It was also the inability of people who filed, let’s say, Freedom of Information Acts, to get some documents. And that did not go down during Obama, even though he made a very blatant embrace of transparency in his first days of his presidency. The unwillingness to grant FOIA requests doubled during his time in office.
So, secrecy took a giant step forward. And secrecy has everything to do with the fact that there’s a proliferation of conspiracy theories and of doubts in the government. And it’s not so easy to get out of this one.
Let me just add that secrecy as a tool became secrecy as a weapon under President Trump, who understood intrinsically the importance of secrecy and who therefore, in many instances, refused to have a record kept at all. We saw this at the border, for example, with not keeping records on family separations.
But that’s just one of many, many examples. If you erase the record, then it’s not there. And then imagine the kind of conspiracy theories, because where is the reliable, legitimate source of information? And so secrecy erodes that.
KAK: I was really struck in your book how the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department had this lockstep relationship fortifying each other and also just how scattered and bureaucratic DHS has been. Can you talk about that?
KG: DHS is the largest law enforcement agency in the country. When it was created as a counterterrorism agency to prevent and respond to another 9/11 presumably, it did not include the FBI, which was the lead counterterrorism agency in the country.
So already in the beginning, you saw that there was a lot of vagueness about what it was going to do. What went into DHS? Offices and departments from agriculture, treasury, transportation, justice, defense, health and human services. And it was intentional.
There’s no doubt watching how it played out that it was created for counterterrorism, but what it was really created for was a place that could pivot at will to whatever the agenda of the day was.
We saw it most clearly in Hurricane Katrina. Look at the amount of human tragedy that followed, not just because of the hurricane, but because of the failed response. The Coast Guard wasn’t sure if it could go in. They weren’t sure who was in charge. New Orleans authorities weren’t sure who was in charge. FEMA, which had been an independent agency, was now housed unhappily inside of homeland security and had its own agenda, mission and sense of the chain of command. And the result was that people suffered.
But just like in the imprecision of the AUMF, the imprecision is almost too attractive to those in power. Even if they think they’ll do it well, right and in a legitimate way, it’s too attractive to give up.