Western Montana stepped into the national political ring for a brief while on Monday, Nov. 25, the same day that President Bush signed the Homeland Security Bill into law. A near-capacity crowd gathered inside UM’s North Underground Urey Lecture Hall to listen to Ted McNamara, U.S. special coordinator for homeland security, and to voice its own concerns. Aside from his new role as coordinator of homeland security, McNamara formerly served as the director of the National Security Council (NSC) in the White House, assistant secretary of state, and U.S. ambassador to Colombia.
McNamara’s speech dealt with threats to U.S. national security, both at home and abroad, and much of his talk was familiar, as could be expected from an administration mindful of “speaking with one voice.” McNamara defined terrorism as “the commission of criminal activities—most specifically the destruction of innocent property and innocent people’s lives—for the purpose of bringing about and terrorizing people into accepting a political position of the person practicing the terrorism.”
Responding to McNamara’s definition, one community member shouted “The United States does that all the time.”
The ambassador explained that “this war on terrorism is a protracted conflict, a protracted struggle, in which the efforts will not be primarily on a conventional battlefield…rather, this war…will go on for years, probably decades, with different adversaries and with a variety of tools and weapons.”
After McNamara’s prepared speech, the community dialogue began. One UM student raised questions about the length of the struggle.
“You stated that this would be a ‘protracted struggle’ against terrorism, and that concerns me because it suggests to me that the administration has no endgame,” he said.
McNamara replied, “I can’t give you an endgame on this one. I’m sorry. Anyone who gives you an endgame on any war is deluding him or herself as well as you.”
Civil liberties concerns were chief among the topics discussed by the crowd.
Forum attendee Paul Lachapelle questioned the constitutionality of a proposed centralized database to track every American’s electronic transactions, a proposal researched by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“How, even in the broadest interpretation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, will this new database not be a violation?” Lachapelle asked.
“There is no way it won’t be a violation of the Fourth Amendment…In my opinion, it was a dumb idea and it has been killed. So you won on that one. We all won,” McNamara said.
Despite McNamara’s reassurances, a reading of the Homeland Security bill continues to put those concerned with civil liberties in an uproar. SEC. 812 of the bill allows Attorney General John Ashcroft to appoint Inspector General agents who may be given the authority to make arrests without a search warrant. In addition, SEC. 812 states that any such determination shall not be reviewable in or by any court.
Also, as The New York Times reported the day of McNamara’s Missoula speech, a “last-minute addition to the Homeland Security Bill was the 16-page Cyber Security Enhancement Act, which…expands the ability of police to conduct Internet or telephone eavesdropping without first obtaining a court order.”
This new power troubles forum attendee Ethel MacDonald, an older woman whose sweet disposition stood in stark contrast to her sharp words.
“I have been more afraid of what my own government is doing than anyone else recently,” MacDonald said.
Addressing the audience’s civil liberties concerns, McNamara said, “I don’t see that they’re in danger. If the people think they’re in great danger, change the government.”
At this point, another call rose from the gallery, referencing Florida’s 2000 election controversy: “We tried to change the government but we were swindled.”
Indeed, this comment may carry more weight now due to recently uncovered voter roll problems reported by BBC Newsnight’s Greg Palast. Palast has obtained the computer voter roll program from Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ office, which shows that approximately 500 citizens were barred from voting because of felonies supposedly “committed” in the future. Aside from these “future felons,” the rolls also contained records of felons “convicted” prior to their birth dates. A majority of those wrongly listed as felons were African-Americans. When Palast asked Dan Rather why his network hadn’t picked up the story, Rather replied, according to Palast, “I’m not allowed to do my job anymore. I’m not allowed to ask questions. It’s considered unpatriotic.”
But if Dan Rather has been scared away from asking questions, those inside Urey Lecture Hall had not. As the evening wore on, the debate escalated. Some stormed out of the room in fury. Others discussed what they consider problematic U.S. foreign policy in Colombia.
McNamara had supporters, as well. After the forum, an elderly gentleman told the ambassador, “Some of us less vocal people are with you.”
When the smoke cleared, many wondered what had been accomplished. Executive Director of the Montana World Affairs Council Mark Johnson concluded that “It’s always good to hear what the other guy has to say.”
Others felt that McNamara’s speech was simply another in a long line of Bush administration scare tactics, similar to the President’s “blanket warnings” of terrorist activities.
When asked what the American citizenry was supposed to do with vague terrorist warnings, McNamara replied, “You’re just supposed to know that there’s a threat there and that it has gotten real serious.”
When asked if that makes the public afraid without serving a constructive purpose, McNamara said, “It’s fair to say we haven’t yet gotten a system of getting information out without causing some confusion among the American population…We’re new at the game…The U.S. government is learning.”
While those in attendance had various points of view on the U.S. government’s new game, the community dialogue made one thing abundantly clear: Americans, or at least Western Montanans, speak with more than one voice.