-- -- These are the words of Sebastian Haffner (pen
name for Raimund Pretzel), who as a young lawyer in
Berlin during the 1930s experienced the Nazi takeover
and wrote a first-hand account. His children found the
manuscript when he died in 1999 and published it the
following year as “Geschichte eines Deutschen” (The
Story of a German).
The book became an
immediate bestseller and has been translated into 20
languages—in English as “Defying Hitler.”
I recently learned from
his daughter Sarah, an artist in Berlin, that today is
the 100th anniversary of Haffner’s birth. She had seen
an earlier article in which I quoted her father and
e-mailed to ask me to “write some more about the book
and the comparison to Bush’s America. ... This is almost
More about Haffner
below. Let’s set the stage first by recapping some of
what has been going on that may have resonance for
readers familiar with the Nazi ascendancy, noting how
“odd” it is that the frontal attack on our
Constitutional rights is met with such “calm, superior
It has been two years
since top New York Times officials decided to
let the rest of us in on the fact that the George W.
Bush administration had been eavesdropping on American
citizens without the court warrants required by the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.
The Times had
learned of this well before the election in 2004 and
acquiesced to White House entreaties to suppress the
In late fall 2005 when
Times correspondent James Risen’s book, “State
of War: the Secret History of the CIA and the Bush
Administration,” revealing the warrantless eavesdropping
was being printed, Times publisher, Arthur
Sulzberger, Jr., recognized that he could procrastinate
It would simply be too
embarrassing to have Risen’s book on the street, with
Sulzberger and his associates pretending that this
explosive eavesdropping story did not fit Adolph Ochs’s
trademark criterion: All The News That’s Fit To
(The Times’ own
ombudsman, Public Editor Byron Calame, branded the
newspaper’s explanation for the long delay in publishing
this story “woefully inadequate.”)
When Sulzberger told his
friends in the White House that he could no longer hold
off on publishing in the newspaper, he was summoned to
the Oval Office for a counseling session with the
president on Dec. 5, 2005. Bush tried in vain to talk
him out of putting the story in the Times.
The truth would out;
part of it, at least.
There were some
embarrassing glitches. For example, unfortunately for
National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith
Alexander, the White House neglected to tell him that
the cat would soon be out of the bag.
So on Dec. 6, Alexander
spoke from the old talking points in assuring visiting
House intelligence committee member Rush Holt, D-New
Jersey, that the NSA did not eavesdrop on Americans
without a court order.
Still possessed of the
quaint notion that generals and other senior officials
are not supposed to lie to congressional oversight
committees, Holt wrote a blistering letter to Gen.
Alexander after the Times, on Dec. 16,
front-paged a feature by Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush
Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts.”
But House Intelligence
Committee chair Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, apparently
found Holt’s scruples benighted; Hoekstra did nothing to
hold Alexander accountable for misleading Holt, his most
experienced committee member, who had served as an
intelligence analyst at the State Department.
What followed struck me
as bizarre. The day after the Dec. 16 Times
feature article, the president of the United States
publicly admitted to a demonstrably impeachable offense.
electronic surveillance was a key provision of the
second article of impeachment against President Richard
Nixon. On July 27, 1974, this and two other articles of
impeachment were approved by bipartisan votes in the
House Judiciary Committee.
Far from expressing
regret, the president bragged about having authorized
the surveillance “more than 30 times since the September
the 11th attacks,” and said he would continue to do so.
The president also said:
“Leaders in Congress
have been briefed more than a dozen times on this
authorization and the activities conducted under
On Dec. 19, 2005,
then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and then-NSA
Director Michael Hayden held a press conference to
answer questions about the as yet unnamed surveillance
Gonzales was asked why
the White House decided to flout FISA rather than
attempt to amend it, choosing instead a “backdoor
approach.” He answered:
“We have had
discussions with Congress...as to whether or not
FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal
with this kind of threat, and we were advised that
that would be difficult, if not impossible.”
Hmm. Impossible? It
strains credulity that a program of the limited scope
described would be unable to win ready approval from a
Congress that had just passed the “Patriot Act” in
James Risen has made the
following quip about the prevailing mood: “In October
2001, you could have set up guillotines on the public
streets of America."
It was not difficult
to infer that the surveillance program must have
been of such scope and intrusiveness that, even amid
highly stoked fear, it didn’t have a prayer for passage.
It turns out we didn’t
know the half of it.
What To Call
Program” didn’t seem quite right for White House
purposes, and the PR machine was unusually slow off the
It took six weeks to
settle on “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” with FOX
News leading the way followed by the president himself.
This labeling would dovetail nicely with the president’s
rhetoric on Dec. 17:
“In the weeks
following the terrorist attacks on our
nation, I authorized the National Security Agency,
consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to
intercept the international communications of people
with known links to al-Qaeda and related terrorist
organizations. ... The authorization I gave the
National Security Agency after September 11
helped address that problem...” [Emphasis added]
And Gen. Michael Hayden,
who headed NSA from 1999 to 2005, was of course on the
same page, dissembling as convincingly as the president.
At his May 2006 confirmation hearings to become CIA
director, he told of his soul-searching when, as
director of NSA, he was asked to eavesdrop on Americans
without a court warrant.
“I had to make this
personal decision in early October 2001,” said Hayden.
“It was a personal decision. ... I could not not do
Like so much else, it
was all because of 9/11. But we now know...
It Started Seven
Months Before 9/11.
How many times have you
heard it? The mantra “after 9/11 everything changed” has
given absolution to all manner of sin.
We are understandably
reluctant to believe the worst of our leaders, and this
tends to make us negligent. After all, we learned from
former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that drastic
changes were made in U.S. foreign policy toward the
Israeli-Palestinian issue and toward Iraq at the first
National Security Council meeting on Jan. 30, 2001.
Should we not have
anticipated far-reaching changes at home as well?
Reporting by the
Rocky Mountain News and court documents and
testimony on a case involving Qwest strongly suggest
that in February 2001 Hayden saluted smartly when the
Bush administration instructed NSA to suborn AT&T,
Verizon, and Qwest to spy illegally on you, me, and
Bear in mind that this
would have had nothing to do with terrorism, which did
not really appear on the new administration’s radar
screen until a week before 9/11, despite the pleading of
Clinton aides that the issue deserved extremely high
until-recently-unknown pre-9/11 facet of the “Terrorist
Surveillance Program” was not related to Osama bin Laden
or to whomever he and his associates might be speaking.
It had to do with us.
We know that the
Democrats briefed on the “Terrorist Surveillance
Program” include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi,
D-California, (the one with the longest tenure on the
House Intelligence Committee), Rep. Jane Harman,
D-California, and former and current chairmen of the
Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham, D-Florida,
and Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, respectively.
May one interpret their
lack of public comment on the news that the snooping
began well before 9/11 as a sign they were co-opted and
then sworn to secrecy?
It is an important
question. Were the appropriate leaders in Congress
informed that within days of George W. Bush’s first
inauguration the NSA electronic vacuum cleaner began to
suck up information on you and me, despite the FISA law
and the Fourth Amendment?
Are They All
And are Democratic
leaders about to cave in and grant retroactive immunity
to those telecommunications corporations—AT&T and
Verizon—which made millions by winking at the law and
(Qwest, to its credit,
heeded the advice of its general counsel who said that
what NSA wanted done was clearly illegal.)
What’s going on here?
Have congressional leaders no sense for what is at
Lately the adjective
“spineless” has come into vogue in describing
congressional Democrats—no offense to invertebrates.
Nazis and Their
You don’t have to be a
Nazi. You can just be, well, a sheep.
In his journal,
Sebastian Haffner decries what he calls the “sheepish
submissiveness” with which the German people reacted to
a 9/11-like event, the burning of the German Parliament
(Reichstag) on Feb. 27, 1933.
Haffner finds it quite
telling that none of his acquaintances “saw anything out
of the ordinary in the fact that, from then on, one’s
telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and
one’s desk might be broken into.”
But it is for the
cowardly politicians that Haffner reserves his most
vehement condemnation. Do you see any contemporary
In the elections of
March 4, 1933, shortly after the Reichstag fire, the
Nazi party garnered only 44 percent of the vote. Only
the “cowardly treachery” of the Social Democrats and
other parties to whom 56 percent of the German people
had entrusted their votes made it possible for the Nazis
to seize full power. Haffner adds:
“It is in the final
analysis only that betrayal that explains the almost
inexplicable fact that a great nation, which cannot
have consisted entirely of cowards, fell into
ignominy without a fight.”
The Social Democratic
leaders betrayed their followers—“for the most part
decent, unimportant individuals.” In May, the party
leaders sang the Nazi anthem; in June the Social
Democratic party was dissolved.
Catholic party Zentrum folded in less than a month, and
in the end supplied the votes necessary for the
two-thirds majority that “legalized” Hitler’s
As for the right-wing
conservatives and German nationalists: “Oh God,” writes
Haffner, “what an infinitely dishonorable and cowardly
spectacle their leaders made in 1933 and continued to
make afterward. ... They went along with everything: the
terror, the persecution of Jews. ... They were not even
bothered when their own party was banned and their own
In sum: “There was not a
single example of energetic defense, of courage or
principle. There was only panic, flight, and desertion.
In March 1933, millions were ready to fight the Nazis.
Overnight they found themselves without leaders. ... At
the moment of truth, when other nations rise
spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively
and limply collapsed. They yielded and capitulated, and
suffered a nervous breakdown. ... The result is today
the nightmare of the rest of the world.”
This is what can happen
when virtually all are intimidated.
Our Founding Fathers
were not oblivious to this; thus, James Madison:
“I believe there are
more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the
people by gradual and silent encroachments by those
in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. ...
The means of defense against foreign danger
historically have become the instruments of tyranny
We cannot say we weren’t
Ray McGovern works
with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the
ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC.
He was an Army officer and then a C.I.A. analyst for
27 years, and now serves on the Steering Group of
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
This article was first
published in the Baltimore Chronicle