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Dubya calls for US Gestapo

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US President George Dubya Bush took to the airwaves last night in an appeal for the establishment of a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, to keep us all safe and snug in our beds.

"Thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us," the President warned, and added that "this terrible knowledge requires us to act differently."

Acting differently means creating a vast federal bureaucratic complex to gather and sift data relevant to US persons collected by myriad federal and state government and law enforcement offices, and commercial bodies such as banks, insurers and direct marketing firms.

To this will be added regular reports from the NSA, CIA and FBI, at their discretion.

The stated purpose here is to provide a second layer of insurance against the intelligence and communications failures affecting both the CIA and FBI, which Congress is now investigating. But according to the White House, the new Homeland Security Department will not have access to raw data from these agencies, but will instead rely on whatever redacted reports they happen to volunteer. This means that any important data these agencies fail to recognize will also be missed by the new Department. So we can pretty well rule out the possibility that the stated purpose is the real purpose.

The real purpose, clearly, is data acquisition, mining and manipulation on a gargantuan scale.

The Department will bring together under one roof the Secret Service, the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), US Customs, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), among others. It will involve something on the order of 170,000 federal employees and a budget of $37 billion, though the White House insists that it will be 'budget neutral', meaning that exisiting and planned federal revenues will simply be redistributed. Of course it's impossible for a bureaucracy that size to remain 'budget neutral' over the long term, but that's how it's to be rolled out and sold to Congress in any case.

Safety last

So, how much safer will the public be after all this is set in motion? No safer, or somewhat less safe, the history of Washington politics tells us. Federal agencies do not work and play well with others. They scent-mark and jealously defend their turf and throw elbows at every point of overlap. They blame each other; they even undermine each other. Anyone who imagines they can be brought together as one big happy family is smoking, and inhaling.

The Feds will know what you're buying and what you're reading and what you're watching on TV, but they certainly won't be in a position to use any of that to stop terrorists. They'll be swimming in data, drowning in it, hopelessly struggling to sort it out. Keep in mind that the current Congressional hearings on the CIA/FBI intel failures indicate not that the agencies lacked the raw data they needed, but rather that they were unable to distinguish the signal from the noise. And now we're to have an enormous new Department which can accomplish nothing more than to get a lot more federal employees listening to a lot more noise.

Right -- we feel safer already.

Congressional blindside

And if bureaucratic turf wars weren't enough to make you a pessimist about this Laudable Scheme, the inevitable and additional Congressional battles ought bring you around. If we consider all the federal agencies to be affected, twenty-two in total, then we're also probably talking about corresponding changes to something like fifty or sixty Congressional committees with varying degrees of control over them. Members wheedle and scheme and plot, sometimes for decades, to win coveted seats on choice committees. Why? For a delicious combination of enriched media exposure and meaty hunks of pork for the constituency back home, two immensely valuable political assets.

As soon as Congress agrees to consider creating the new Department, which, politically speaking, it must do, back-room alliances and alignments are going to start shifting in unpredictable ways as Members manouvre to protect their turf. Yet incredibly, Dubya imagines he can get Congress to sort all this out by the end of the year. "We face an urgent need," he warned last night. "And we must move quickly, this year, before the end of the Congressional session."

There are two good reasons for attempting it, however. First, the minute Congress lifts a finger towards any other important business, the White house can righteously accuse Members of not caring about the safety of Americans and their precious children. Since delays are in fact inevitable, the Bush administration is guaranteed a handy political weapon to use against Democrats in the mid-term elections later this year.

Second, getting Congress mired in this vast political and bureaucratic monstrosity is a brilliant way to ensure that Members lay off him about the Enron scandal and the current intelligence failure, both of which threaten to do him substantial political harm. "Why are the Democrats in Congress thwarting the President's Laudable Scheme to make America safe, when thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us?" Republicans will ask rhetorically, again and again.

But the true beauty is this: the Democrats in Congress have been demanding that Dubya do precisely what he's just proposed to do. They've been attacking him for doing too little to prevent future terror attacks. They've been saying that if he was serious about defending the Homeland, he'd make the office a cabinet-level Department.

They didn't quite understand that if he did as they demanded, it would only help him and hurt them. And now they can't possibly refuse his immensely generous offer. Indeed, they'll look like traitors if they so much as delay it slightly.

Pretty impressive for a guy who was nearly felled by a pretzel. ®

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