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James Bovard

Comey Fring Justly Knocks FBI off its Pedestal

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President Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey provides a welcome chance to dethrone the FBI from its pinnacle in American politics and life. Last September, Comey denounced Twitter "demagoguery" for the widespread belief that the FBI was not "honest" or "competent."

But the FBI has a long record of both deceit and incompetence. Five years ago,Americans learned that the FBI was teaching its agents that the bureau "has the ability to bend or suspend the law to impinge on the freedom of others." This has practically been the FBI's motif since its creation.

J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972, built a revered agency that utterly intimidated official Washington. In 1945, President Truman wrote: "We want no Gestapo or secret police. FBI is tending in that direction. ... This must stop." But the bureau’s power soared after Congress passed the Internal Security Act of 1950, authorizing massive crackdowns on suspected subversives. Hoover compiled a list of more than 20,000 "potentially or actually dangerous" Americans who could be seized and locked away at the president’s command. "Congress secretly financed the creation of six of these (detention) camps in the 1950s," noted Tim Weiner in his excellent 2012 book, Enemies: A History of the FBI.

From 1956 through 1971, the FBI’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence programs) conducted thousands of covert operations to incite street warfare between violent groups, to get people fired, to smear innocent people by portraying them as government informants, and to cripple or destroy left-wing, black, communist, white racist and anti-war organizations. FBI agents also busied themselves forging "poison pen" letters to wreck activists’ marriages. COINTELPRO was exposed only after a handful of activists burglarized an FBI office in a Philadelphia suburb, seized FBI files, and leaked the damning documents to journalists.
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Woodrow Wilson Made Democracy Unsafe for the World

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This week is the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress seeking a declaration of war against Germany. Many people celebrate this centenary of America’s emergence as a world power. But, when the Trump administration is bombing or rattling sabers at half a dozen nations while many Democrats clamor to fight Russia, it is worth reviewing World War One’s high hopes and dire results.

Wilson was narrowly re-elected in 1916 based on a campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war." But Wilson had massively violated neutrality by providing armaments and money to the Allied powers that had been fighting Germany since 1914. In his war speech to Congress, Wilson hailed the U.S. government as "one of the champions of the rights of mankind" and proclaimed that "the world must be made safe for democracy."

American soldiers fought bravely and helped turn the tide on the Western Front in late 1918. But the cost was far higher than Americans anticipated. More than a hundred thousand American soldiers died in the third bloodiest war in U.S. history. Another half million Americans perished from the Spanish flu epidemic spurred and spread by the war.

In his speech to Congress, Wilson declared, "We have no quarrel with the German people" and feel "sympathy and friendship" towards them. But his administration speedily commenced demonizing the "Huns." One Army recruiting poster portrayed German troops as an ape ravaging a half-naked damsel beneath an appeal to "Destroy this mad brute."
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Trump Budget Cuts Bankroll New Waste

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President Trump’s proposed budget takes a big step towards draining the swamp in Washington. This is the first time since the Reagan era that a president has sought a wholesale demolition of boondoggles. On the other hand, Trump’s defense and homeland security spending increases will squander bounties that should be reserved for taxpayers, not bureaucrats and bombs.

Regardless of whether Trump can cajole Congress into imposing the cuts, Americans should welcome candor on an array of federal programs that should have been decimated or abolished long ago: 

The Housing and Urban Development budget takes one of the biggest hits — down $6 billion or 13%. The administration aims to sharply cut spending on rental vouchers that are notorious for redistributing violent crime from public housing projects to previously safe urban and suburban neighborhoods. HUD’s flagship HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which provides grants to states and localities, is also in the budget crosshairs. That program is such a fiasco that HUD was not even aware that hundreds of projects it was bankrolling had not been built until a Washington Post investigation compiled hundreds of aerial photos of empty lots.

Trump calls for abolishing both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The vast majority of spending for the arts comes from private pockets. America does not need a culture commissariat to give federal seals of approval to efforts that please Washington bureaucrats. There is no justice in taxing dishwashers in Arkansas to subsidize programs such as Synetic Theater’s Silent Shakespeare — in which actors gyrate and grope in lieu of delivering the richest bounty of the English language.

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Trump’s Fearmongering is White House Tradition

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President Trump is being reviled for wildly exaggerating the peril of Muslim refugees. Some commentators fret that his rhetoric signals a new fascist era descending on America. A Washington Post news analysis on Saturday derided Trump’s fear-mongering: “Playing upon the nation’s anxieties about what might happen also stands as a stark contrast to how presidents have lifted the country out of actual crisis in the past.”

But presidential fear-mongering has a long and sordid history. We cannot understand the threat that Trump poses without recognizing how prior presidents used similar ploys.

Though former president Barack Obama’s popularity is now on the rise, he sometimes greatly exaggerated threats to push his legislative agenda. In a speech last year at the funeral of slain Dallas police officers, he asserted, “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.” But Amazon doesn’t deliver Glocks to your doorstep. Washington Post fact-checkers contacted the White House but none of the information it provided “directly made a connection between the ability of teens to buy handguns and their access to books or computers… There’s no minimum age or a background check required to get a book or use the computer for free at a public library.” The Post awarded three Pinocchios to Obama for his claim.
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A Billion Dollars of Federally Funded Paranoia

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When it comes to mindless excess in the war on terror, it is difficult to compete with the 70+ fusion centers bankrolled by the Department of Homeland Security. They began to be set up around the nation shortly after 9/11 as federal-state-local partnerships to better track terrorist threats. But the centers have been a world-class boondoggle from the start.

Fusion centers have sent the federally funded roundup of data on Americans’ private lives into overdrive. As the Brennan Center for Justice noted in 2012, “Until 9/11, police departments had limited authority to gather information on innocent activity, such as what people say in their houses of worship or at political meetings. Police could only examine this type of First Amendment-protected activity if there was a direct link to a suspected crime. But the attacks of 9/11 led law enforcement to turn this rule on its head.”

Fusion centers do a far better job of stoking paranoia than of catching terrorists. Various fusion centers have attached the “extremist” tag to gun-rights activists, anti-immigration zealots, and individuals and groups “rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority” — even though many of the Founding Fathers shared the same creed. A 2012 DHS report went even further, stating that being “reverent of individual liberty” is one of the traits of potential right-wing terrorists. Such absurd standards help explain why the federal terrorist watchlist now contains more than a million names.

Federal management is so slipshod that a 2012 Senate investigation found that the federal estimates of spending on fusion centers varied by more than 400 percent — ranging from $289 million to $1.4 billion. A DHS internal report found that 4 of 72 fusion centers did not actually exist, but that did not deter DHS officials from continuing to exaggerate the number of such centers.
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Trump Must Expose Obama-era Power Grabs

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President-elect Donald Trump will face pervasive doubts about his legitimacy from the day he takes office. His opponents will likely portray him as governing in unprecedented and reckless ways. The best response to such charges is to open the books and expose how the Obama administration commandeered far more power than most Americans realized.

Trump should follow the excellent precedent set by President Obama. In 2009, shortly after he took office, Obama released many of the secret Bush administration legal memos that explained why the president was supposedly entitled to order torture,deploy troops in American towns and cities, and ignore the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on warrantless, unreasonable searches. The disclosures signaled a new era in Washington and helped give Obama a reputation as a champion of civil liberties.

Turnabout is fair play. Trump should quickly reveal the secret memos underlying Obama’s “targeted killing” drone assassination program.

Administration lawyers defeated lawsuits by the ACLUThe New York Times, and others seeking disclosure of key legal papers on how the president became judge, jury and executioner. A Trump administration could disclose the memos and white papers without endangering anything other than the reputation of the soon-to-be former president and his policymakers.
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The Fraudulent Obama War on Corruption

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The Obama administration wants Americans to believe that it is fiercely anti-corruption. “I have been shocked by the degree to which I find corruption pandemic in the world today,” declared Secretary of State John Kerry at an Anti-Corruption Summit in London last May. Kerry sounded like the French police chief in Casablanca who was “shocked” to discover gambling. Six years ago at the United Nations, Barack Obama proclaimed that the US government is “leading a global effort to combat corruption.” Maybe he forgot to send Kerry the memo.

Much of the teeth-gnashing at that summit involved tax evasion. Politicians pledged to share more data on tax records and corporate ownership to help boost government revenue around the globe. Summit attendees castigated hidden offshore bank accounts — ironically, the same type of accounts used by both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Kerry. A joint communique solemnly pledged to “drive out those lawyers, real estate agents, and accountants who facilitate or are complicit in corruption.”

Kerry proclaimed, “We have to get the global community to come together and have no impunity [sic] to corruption.” But the summit largely ignored the brazen corruption of politicians or how it is fueled by western governments, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Foreign aid has long been notorious for breeding kleptocracies — governments of thieves. Economic studies have revealed that boosting aid directly increases corruption. Fourteen years ago, George W. Bush promised to reform foreign aid: “We won’t be putting money into a society which is not transparent and corrupt.” (He probably meant “corruption-free.”) But the US aid programs — which cost taxpayers more than $40 billion a year — continue to bankroll many of the world’s most crooked regimes (according to ratings by Transparency International) — including Uzbekistan, Haiti, and Kenya. There is no “Tyrants Need Not Apply” sign at the entrance to the US Agency for International Development.
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Twenty Years of a Dictatorial Democracy

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The 2016 election campaign is mortifying millions of Americans in part because the presidency has become far more dangerous in recent times. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have lived in a perpetual emergency, which supposedly justifies routinely ignoring the law and Constitution. And both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have signaled that power grabs will proliferate in the next four years.

Politicians talk as if voting magically protects the rights of everyone within a 50-mile radius of the polling booth. But the ballots Americans have cast in presidential elections since 2000 did nothing to constrain the commander in chief.

President George W. Bush’s declaration in 2000 that America needed a more “humble” foreign policy did not deter him from vowing to “rid the world of evil” and launching the most catastrophic war in American history. Eight years later, Barack Obama campaigned as the candidate of peace and promised “a new birth of freedom.” But that did not stop him from bombing seven nations, claiming a right to assassinate American citizens, and championing Orwellian total surveillance.
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The Census Bureau's Latest Peril to Freedom

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The Census Bureau is sending its hefty American Community Survey to more than three million households a year. I recently received this 28-page tsunami of questions about everything from my plumbing to my profession to my ethnicity and income. But as a former Census taker who has written about Census controversies for more than 25 years, I distrust this blunderbuss.

In 2005, the American Community Survey replaced the long Census form that was sent to a minority of respondents as part of the once-a-decade population count. Many congressmen are irate that the Census Bureau threatens $5,000 fines against anyone who refuses to answer all the questions. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) denounced it as an “unnecessary and completely unwarranted government intrusion.”

Unfortunately, citizens’ compliance with Census demands does nothing to ensure that the government itself will respect their privacy or obey the law.
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Obama's Global Anti-Corruption Cops Should Call Internal Affairs

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The Obama administration wants Americans to believe that it is fiercely anti-corruption. “I've been shocked by the degree to which I find corruption pandemic in the world today," declared Secretary of State John Kerry at last week’s Anti-Corruption Summit in London. Kerry sounded like the French detective in Casablanca who was “shocked” to discover gambling. Six years ago at the United Nations, President Obama proclaimed that the US government is “leading a global effort to combat corruption.” Maybe he forgot to send Kerry the memo.

Or maybe Kerry lost the memo. By the time he got to Egypt on Wednesday, judging by his public comments, he seems to have forgotten about corruption despite standing in one of its capitals.

Much of the teeth-gnashing at last week’s summit involved tax evasion. Politicians pledged to share more data on tax records and corporate ownership to help boost government revenue around the globe. Summit attendees castigated hidden offshore tax havens — ironically, the same type of accounts used by both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Kerry. A joint communique solemnly pledged to “driv(e) out those lawyers, real estate agents and accountants who facilitate or are complicit in corruption.”
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