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Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2003 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports


Exposer of the idiocy of bureaucracy and the threat to individual freedom posed by government Ten minutes with author James Bovard


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Few journalists have done more to expose the idiocy of bureaucracy and the threat to individual freedom posed by government than author James Bovard.

His earlier books — "The Fair Trade Fraud," "Freedom in Chains" and "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years" are just three — earned him the title of "roving inspector general of the modern state" from The Wall Street Journal.

Conservatives aren't as thrilled with Bovard's newest work, "Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil," which argues that the Bush administration's war on terror is giving dangerous new powers to the federal government. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR. )

Bovard, doing unto Bush what he did to Clinton, sets his libertarian sights on the motives of the war in Iraq, the phoniness of Homeland Security and the harm being done to Americans' privacy rights and civil liberties by the global war on terrorism — what he calls the first political growth industry of the new millennium. I talked to him this week.

Q: It's pretty hard not to get the point of the book by looking at your subtitle, but what's the main message or theme of your book?

A: The main message is that sacrificing freedom will not make us secure.

Q: You've written a bunch of books about the loss of our basic freedoms to government. What personally bothers or worries you the most about what has happened since Sept. 11?

A: It's a bad thing to place government on a pedestal, and that is much more the case after 9/11. Folks are much more deferential to government. Folks are much more likely to see government as a savior. It's not as extreme as it was in the weeks immediately after 9/11, but excessive trust of government is subversion of democracy.

Q: How do you define your political position?

A: Moderate.

Q: That's pretty funny. I buy that but ...

A: (laughs) Well, I try to express the values and the work of the Founding Fathers. On most issues that makes me fairly libertarian. On some issues, I'm conservative, on some I'm liberal. It's vital to keep government in its place, and especially after Sept. 11, the government is off its leash.

Q: What is the most dangerous new power that the government has accrued?


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A: It's difficult to pick out a single one, but one that really resonates, one that strikes home with people, is the Carnivore e-mail wire-taping system. The FBI can now get a search warrant to track one person's e-mail and go into the Internet service provider and compel them to attach this black box to their computer system.

Then the FBI can push one button on that box and automatically make copies of all the e-mail of all the people that use that Internet service. You might have a search warrant for one person and, voila, the FBI gets 100,000 people's e-mail. This is information which could be, and often is, stored and could be used against people sometime in the future.

Q: Is the threat of terrorism just another "emergency" or "crisis" that the folks in the federal government can exploit to increase their power?

A: Well, there is a terrorist threat and it is important that the government concentrate resources on al-Qaida. And if there are other groups like al-Qaida that are very competent and very focused on attacking America, the government needs to focus on them too.

Part of my concern is that Bush talks about a global war on terrorism as if any terrorist anywhere is automatically an enemy of the U.S. This is a mind-set that has led the U.S. to intervene in foreign conflicts which we had no business to jump into, and all of sudden there were a lot more terrorists attacking the U.S. or U.S. forces as a result.

Q: Conservatives loved your earlier books. Are you getting a different reaction from them on this one?

A: Some of them yes, some of them no. A friend told me this past week that the Conservative Book Club sent out a very nice notice on the book, and I appreciate very much that the Conservative Book Club would carry a book like this, though it is critical of Mr. Bush.

I've certainly got much more hate mail on this than I had from previous writings, and some of it is from conservatives. Some of it is people outraged and acting like I'm guilty of heresy for some of the things I say about U.S. government policy.

But I don't think I've changed my principles at all. It's just that I'm criticizing Bush and Ashcroft now for many of the same kind of things I criticized Bill Clinton and Janet Reno for during the previous eight years. But some people have an us-versus-them paradigm in how they look at politics. That can be very unfortunate, because there are good guys on both sides in both parties and among both liberals and conservatives.

Q: You would argue that you are consistent in applying your principles at home and abroad, I guess?

A: Yeah. In "Feeling Your Pain," I had a chapter entitled "Moralizing With Cluster Bombs," in which I very harshly attacked Clinton's war against the Serbs. I thought that was completely unjustified.

It was permeated with lies. It did little or no good. It just changed the side which was doing the persecuting, primarily in Kosovo. And it certainly has not brought any real peace or harmony there. It's amazing how quickly people have forgotten the lies of the 1999 war against Serbia and Kosovo.

Q: Do you think anything would have been different if Al Gore had been president on Sept. 11, 2001?

A: Well, if Gore had been president there would have been an effective, intelligent, conservative Republican opposition, so some of the worst excesses of the war on terrorism here would have been at least partially avoided.

Q: Is there anything good about the war on terrorism, as prosecuted at home or abroad, that you can say, "Yeah, that was good. They've done that right. This is smart. We needed that"?

A: Uh, uh, uh, uh ... you know, I'm glad Brian Lamb didn't ask me that on C-SPAN. There are some changes in the Patriot Act which make sense, as far as updating some of the laws for new technologies and wiretaps on new telephones, for instance. But the actual successes are few and far between, and they are far outweighed by the government fraud — the success stories that turned out to be smoke and mirrors.

Q: Such as?

A: Oh, things like the roundup of 1,200 suspected terrorists after 9/11. It turned out that none of them had anything to do with 9/11 and almost all of them had nothing to do with terrorist groups, and yet Ashcroft still talks about this roundup of suspected terrorists like it was great success story.

Q: When will the war on terrorism end, and can we win it?

A: The war on terrorism will end when politicians no longer think that they can get votes by fighting the war on terror. I don't see this war, as Bush defines it, as ever ending.

Q: How does he define it?

A: Bush talks about the war on terrorism as if it were a holy crusade, a question of good versus evil, us versus them. But there are lots of very brutal governments on our side and there are lots of groups that we have no need to fight with on the other side.

But I am concerned that the political profit could keep fanning this war far past finishing off al-Qaida, which we have to do. But almost everything else the federal government is talking about doing is counter-productive to the safety of the American people.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald