"Yellow decorating: Van Gogh called it 'a color capable of charming God.' You may relegate it to the kitchen or a bathroom, but take a chance with this warm tone and the rewards will be tangible. By itself, the citron yellow on this Victorian chest seemed pallid. But a rich, honeyed drawer trim -- not an obvious choice --galvanized it." (Tips on colors from the Martha Stewart Website)
"Elevated Condition (Yellow). An Elevated Condition is declared when there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the Protective Measures taken in the previous Threat Conditions, Federal departments and agencies should consider the following general measures in addition to the Protective Measures that they will develop and implement:
*Increasing surveillance of critical locations;
(Tips on colors from the Dept. of Homeland Security Website)
*Coordinating emergency plans as appropriate with nearby jurisdictions;
*Assessing whether the precise characteristics of the threat require the further refinement of preplanned Protective Measures; and
*Implementing, as appropriate, contingency and emergency response plans."
It must have seemed so simple. Five primary colors to guard the Homeland -- green, blue, yellow, orange, red -- the colors of earth, water, cowardice, uh… let's skip orange, and fire/hell/communism. A color-coded thermometer taking you from our cool, green Earth to the heights, or depths, of Hell. (This "homeland security advisory system" is actually displayed at the Department of Homeland Security website as a directionless barcode with, at the moment, yellow highlighted.) Five primary colors defined thusly: green (low condition), blue (guarded condition), yellow (elevated condition), orange (high condition), red (severe condition).
Having color-coded the world of danger with a somewhat puzzling set of primary colors, Homeland Security officials proceeded, from March 2002 on, to issue confusing, exceedingly vague terror alerts at regular intervals, evidently based on little or no actual information ("background chatter"). They did this in part, undoubtedly, to scare us all; in part to cover themselves in case something else horrific should indeed happen on their watch ("you see, we predicted it…"); and in part because of their own fears. They then struggled with the appropriate color level to scare or calm the public, knowing that any jump in colors involved dumping yet more financial burdens on desperate state and local officials.
There are several things to note here: First, in the world of the Bush administration, not even "low condition" green is without its dangers. A condition of no-danger is now unimaginable. Beyond utopian. Conceptually useless. Not even to be aimed for. Second, the alert system is really two systems in one -- "low to high" and "guarded to elevated." Third, this five-color code has in practice proved to be a two-color code. Reaching the relative coolness of guarded-condition blue has been inconceivable for the fear-driven, fear-driving Bush administration. (Just think if something happened while the alert level was that low!) On the other hand, given two-plus post-alert years of hair-raising announcements with no domestic terror incidents whatsoever, moving to red would be a cataclysmic act, leaving them no future wiggle room whatsoever.) So, they've found themselves trapped between yellow and orange, while the media and the Democrats increasingly complain of "alert fatigue," and many Americans simply stop paying much attention.
The most recent alert, remarkably close to the Democratic convention in a season of bad news for our war President, involved the following announcement from Homeland Security head Tom Ridge: "Credible reporting indicates that al-Qaeda is moving forward with plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States aimed to disrupt our democratic process." This warning, first issued on July 8, caused the Kerry campaign and Democrats everywhere to scream foul and accuse the Bush administration of "playing politics with terrorism fears," especially since the alert color level, already at yellow, didn't budge.
According to the Los Angeles Times, despite his potentially hair-raising warning, Ridge admitted
"that although the Al Qaeda network had vowed to strike again in the United States, the government had not received any intelligence that terrorists were targeting the Democratic or Republican conventions this summer. The threat level, he said, would remain at code yellow, or 'elevated.'… 'We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack, but along with the CIA, FBI and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge,' Ridge said. His agency also is beginning to discuss how to safeguard voting places on election day… Ridge's warning came six weeks after a similar alert from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. An FBI official said the bureau had not received any substantive new intelligence about an attack since then."
Alerts without information. Crises that don't change color. This is the dotty (if fright-inducing) essence of this administration. In a first, according to David Johnston and Douglas Jehl of the New York Times, analysts from the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence are now fanning out across the country in a post-alert FBI-coordinated program to "warn" not just city officials but small town ones "of the possibility of an attack by Al Qaeda this year" in order "to put some context and flavor into the current threat environment." (Color that "flavor" sour lemon yellow.)
It turns out, however, that color-coding terror alerts was but the beginning for the designing members of the Bush administration. Imagine these men at their offices in [location deleted] with little color swatches spread on their desks, applying visual coding to every situation -- so many male Martha Stewarts trying to decide, along with Vincent Van Gogh, which colors were capable of "charming God" and which of thrilling Satan.
How many such color-coded systems they have so far set up we have no way of knowing, but two hit the news recently, the first emerging once again from the designer-mad Dept. of Homeland Security. After its mind-boggling experience with a five-color system that was really a two-color system, its officials evidently decided to simplify to a three-color coding system for a $100 million program to track air travelers: "Suspected terrorists and violent criminals would be coded red and forbidden to fly. Yellow would indicate the need for a search and questioning and green would mean standard screening."
Imagine, then, arriving at an airport, suitcase and red-code tag in hand. ("Flight 723 for Guantanamo, departing gate 18 at 10 PM… Flight 432 for Diego Garcia, stopover in Kabul, departing at 1:05 AM… ") Unfortunately, despite all their practice honing their color-coding system to a fine point, the overall tracking system, which "would have collected passenger names, addresses, telephone numbers, birthdates and itineraries from airlines and reservations companies, then checked the data against crime and commercial databases," ran into "concerns about accuracy, privacy, safeguards to prevent abuse and recourse for passengers mistakenly identified as threats." In a storm of criticism, the whole program then crashed and burned. All that's now left of this color-coded system is a "voluntary" program in which "frequent fliers can register by providing personal information and a fingerprint or iris scan to the Transportation Security Administration. If accepted, they receive identification cards allowing faster passage through security lines." Prospective terrorists, on the other hand, can voluntarily turn themselves in.
Lest you think that only the Department of Homeland Security has gone color crazy, according to Robin Wright and Bradley Graham of the Washington Post, officials keeping an eye on the ever-shredding "coalition of the billing" in Iraq have also engaged in color-coordinated practices. "To track commitments, the Bush administration keeps a color-coded chart of coalition members: red for countries withdrawing, yellow for nations considering a pullout and green for countries staying." However unsatisfying U.S. officials may have found last week's announcement of the withdrawal of the 51-person Philippine contingent, think of the pleasure involved in moving the Filipinos out of the yellow ranks of cowardice and into the burn-in-Hell category.
It's hard to believe that other color-coded systems don't exist in this administration. After all, as far as we know, they haven't even begun to exploit the pastels. Should there be a second Bush term, I think the least you can expect is a steady stream of officials heading for the "prison farm" in Danbury, Connecticut, where Martha Stewart may have some time on her hands.
It's hard enough to color-code terrorist alerts, threat levels in airline passengers, and "allies" skipping out of Iraq, but imagine applying the same practices to even thornier aspects of the American imperium. I wonder how we would color code, for instance, four aspects of our Iraqi disaster:
1. What color would we code Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister of the thoroughly dependent Iraqi regime we installed at the end of June inside Baghdad's Green Zone? Let's assume we're using the five-color terror alert system for this with, at either extreme, green standing for "democrat" and red for "Saddamist monster"?
To review a little basic information on former CIA asset Allawi, we already know that he was, in the words of David Pratt, foreign editor of the Glasgow Morning Herald, "a former hitman for the Saddam regime." (Off in "old Europe" journalists can be blunter about such things.) Seymour Hersh in a recent New Yorker piece, Plan B, offered the following:
"'If you're asking me if Allawi has blood on his hands from his days in London, the answer is yes, he does,' Vincent Cannistraro, the former C.I.A. officer, said.'He was a paid Mukhabarat [intelligence service] agent for the Iraqis, and he was involved in dirty stuff.' A cabinet-level Middle East diplomat, who was rankled by the U.S. indifference to Allawi's personal history, told me early this month that Allawi was involved with a Mukhabarat 'hit team' that sought out and killed Baath Party dissenters throughout Europe."
After he split from Saddam and was grievously wounded in an assassination attempt, Allawi became the leader of the exile organization Iraqi National Accord, which, with CIA backing, planted car bombs in downtown Baghdad, among other acts of terrorism, according to Joel Brinkley of the New York Times. As the new Prime Minister, he's the first Iraqi leader to institute martial law since Saddam; and he's reconstituting Saddam's feared Muhhabarat or intelligence service. (Robert Fisk of the Independent recently wrote, "Allawi announced yesterday the creation of a new 'Directorate for National Security' to enforce law and order. It was a title with which all Iraqis are familiar. Saddam Hussein had a 'Directorate for General Security'; when Mr Allawi was asked if ex-Baathists would be employed in his new organisation, he replied that his security men would be 'professionals'--and all Iraqis knew what that meant.") But here's the question: Is this enough to elevate him from, say, blue to yellow, or yellow into the more heated Saddamist zones?
Now comes a report from Paul McGeough, a highly reputable Australian journalist, who has covered the occupation and insurgency and has just left the country for his own safety. He indicates that Allawi may have pulled a pistol and shot to death six "suspected insurgents," blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs, in cold blood in a police station in Baghdad just days before officially becoming Prime Minister with Iraq's future Interior Minister looking on and applauding. (Allawi's office denies this.) There were, McGeough reports, many onlookers, including at least four Americans providing security for Allawi. McGeough interviewed two "solid," though unnamed, witnesses separately and has the alleged names of three of the murdered men. The possibility that this act -- worthy of Saddam Hussein himself -- actually occurred has caused a small firestorm of debate in Australia and England. If true, what color would we then assign Allawi?
Real-world solution: Not a problem. Though McGeough's story circulated quickly around the political Internet, except for a small UPI piece and a Newsweek mention in Iraq's New S.O.B. by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey, it has yet to be covered in our media. Neither the Los Angeles Times, nor the New York Times, nor the Washington Post has yet mentioned it. Perhaps as part of the "truce" our media seems to have struck with the Bush administration since the "transition," no one seems to be rushing to report such stories. And, of course, maybe this one will just go away, solving the problem. In the meantime, color it gray. [Almost all the above McGeough-related articles collected by the invaluable War in Context website.]
2. How, then, should the Abu Ghraib prison horrors be color-coded, using the green (modest poking and slapping, partial nudity, crowded quarters, well-leashed dogs) to red (you fill in) air-travel tri-colored scale? The problem here -- as with the terror alerts at home -- is that you can't immediately do the obvious and leap to red. Some wiggle-room is needed, especially given that there's at least one further Abu Ghraib horror story out there -- the on-camera sodomizing of Iraqi children by American soldiers, a film Seymour Hersh claims to have already seen. ("The boys were sodomised with the cameras rolling, and the worst part is the soundtrack, of the boys shrieking. And this is your government at war," he told a San Francisco audience recently, according to the British Independent.) This story -- and the more general one of children held by American forces in Iraq -- has been creeping up to visibility on the Internet, in Europe, and in the Middle East, but not here, not yet.
Real-world solution: Same as above -- otherwise an extraterrestrial color spectrum might be needed.
3. Or how about that stand-by of the modern tyranny, "disappearances"? You know, prisoners who, with a little extra touch of governmental attention, are simply "disappeared" from life as we know it. How to color the Bush administration on a scale of green (lost in the filing system of America's Iraqi detention centers), yellow (Uzbekistan today), and red (Argentina or Chile in the 1970s)? We know that there have been "hidden detainees" in Iraq (at least one personally ordered so hidden by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself) and that a number of captured HVTs or al-Qaeda "high-value targets" have quite literally been "disappeared" into secret CIA detention locations where at least some have been tortured and all, for lengthy periods of time, have been beyond the reach of family, legal counsel, or anything else but the ministrations of their CIA handlers.
This week -- kudos to its editorial page -- the Washington Post denounced this practice. In The CIA's Prisoners, its editorial writers spoke of a practice "perhaps unprecedented in U.S. history":
"Yet still the administration refuses to reveal where [the CIA's disappeared prisoners] are or allow visits by the Red Cross -- something the United States often has advocated for prisoners elsewhere in the world, including other terrorists. The White House reportedly has exempted the CIA's prisoners from the reviews that have been granted [by the Supreme Court] to detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay…What is known, mostly through leaks to the media, is that several of the CIA's detainees probably have been tortured -- and that a controversial Justice Department opinion defending such abuse was written after the fact to justify the activity… U.S. personnel responsible for such treatment may be guilty of violating the international Convention Against Torture and U.S. laws related to it."
Real-world solution: Skip the colors entirely and read Jonathan Schell's most recent Nation magazine Letter from Ground Zero which explores the ways this administration's imperial path has led it to twist and rend laws, create whole new categories of lawlessness, and employ old ones previously wielded mainly by your basic dictatorship. He writes in part:
"The world can no more be both an imperial world and a world of law than one car can be driven by two people to two places at the same time. Or, to be exact, to the extent that the imperial vision advances, the legal project must be thrown back and vice versa. The essence of law is the establishment of a single consistent standard, which is to be obeyed by ruled and ruler alike. The essence of empire is imposition of a double standard -- with one standard for the imperial ruler, another for the ruled. The imperial principles of preventive wars and regime change cannot be principles of international law, because their universalization would bring chaos."
4. Or what about the people who fervently did everything in their power to lead us into war in Iraq and then proceeded to set themselves up in business and make a killing (so to speak) on its perilous aftermath. This would have to be coded on at least a five-color scale that ranged from green (only expenses paid) through yellow (build a McMansion in Southern California and retire) to red (settle your clan for generations to come). By the way, now that a whole administration from the vice president on down seems to be on the Iraqi take, it's worth noting that an old World War II "good war" word seems to have disappeared from our vocabulary -- "war profiteer." It might be worth reviving.
Let's take, for now, just one of these figures, former CIA director and neocon R. James Woolsey, a signatory of fervent neocon letters as far back as 1998 pushing the Clinton administration and the Republican leadership in Congress for instant regime change in Iraq.
Walter F. Roche Jr. and Ken Silverstein of the Los Angeles Times describe Woolsey, a member of the Defense Policy Board, a key group of advisors to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, as, "a founding member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an organization set up in 2002 at the request of the White House to help build public backing for war in Iraq… Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, he wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal saying a foreign state had aided Al Qaeda in preparing the strikes. He named Iraq as the leading suspect. In October 2001, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz sent Woolsey to London, where he hunted for evidence linking Hussein to the attacks…"
Just as the invasion of Iraq began, he publicly ratcheted up the administration's global rhetoric by declaring that we were actually involved in "World War IV"; and, as of this week, thanks to Knight Ridder's Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Stroebel, we know a good deal more about just how crucial Woolsey's role in the war-to-come actually was. They tell us that he
"helped arrange the debriefing of an Iraqi defector who falsely claimed that Iraq had biological-warfare laboratories disguised as yogurt and milk trucks. R. James Woolsey's role as a go-between was detailed in a classified Defense Department report chronicling how the defector's assertion came to be included in the Bush administration's case for war even after the defector was determined to be a fabricator. A senior U.S. official summarized portions of the report for Knight Ridder on condition of anonymity because it's top secret… Woolsey's previously undisclosed role in the case of Maj. Mohammad Harith casts new light on how prominent invasion advocates outside the government used their ties to senior officials in the Bush administration [bypassing the CIA] to help make the case for war."
Roche and Silverstein of the LA Times comment:
"Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey is a prominent example of the phenomenon, mixing his business interests with what he contends are the country's strategic interests. He… works for two private companies that do business in Iraq and is a partner in a company that invests in firms that provide security and anti-terrorism services…In an interview, Woolsey said he saw no conflict between advocating for the war and subsequently advising companies on business in Iraq."
Woolsey is but one of a jostling crowd of former war supporters who are doing bad by doing well re: Iraq.
Real-world solution: Color-coding this one is hard indeed. Figures like Woolsey could easily fit orange or even red-coded profiles, but if we handed the coveted "hot colors" to mere individuals, then where would we place corporate entities like, say, CACI International which has done well by merely sending people into the world to ask a few questions (admittedly in the confines of America's Iraqi prison system) or, say, the Veep's corporation-of-choice Halliburton, which has succeeded so splendidly in profiting off a country doing so terribly badly.
Tough choices in a tough world. Too tough for us to color-code perhaps, but certainly not too tough for the inventive designers of the Bush administration.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is a co-founder of the American Empire Project (www.americanempireproject.com) and consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. He is the author of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism and the Cold War.
Copyright 2004 TomDispatch