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Karen J. Greenberg is director of the Center on National Secrurity at Fordham Law, an international studies fellow at New America, and a permananent member of the Council for foreign Relations.

Photo by Dan Creighton
In the recently released book, "Subtle Tools", by Karen J. Greenberg, she describes the process of limitation of basic freedoms in the USA following the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York. These limitations were the result of specific acts but more ominously and difficult to grasp were the development of visceral tactics to obscure what the government was doing. In the domain of political rivalry in the party system, the tactics of dishonesty, secrecy and purposely using confusing or displacement arguments to redirect attention away from actions and facts are widely deployed on the election circuit. However, Karen Greenberg describes how these tactics became an operational basis for government decisions. In the introduction, the following content summarises these tactics.

"Beneath the overt policy choices of the post-9/11 era, including the decision to go to war in Iraq and the weakening of civil liberties in the name of national security, lay a less visible but equally destructive set of practices. These less visible means were what I call the "subtle tools" of the war on terror, which bestowed powers without immediately calling attention to themselves. More crushingly than any one policy or piece of legislation, the subtle tools forged out of the wreckage of 9/11 have acted as a corrosive blanket smothering the good out of a democracy in turmoil."

"The first of the subtle tools was the degradation of language, the starting point for political dishonesty and power mongering and the platform upon which undemocratic and unlawful policies have been fashioned. "

"After 9/11 language that was fuzzy, imprecise, and confounding obtained a secure foothold in government discourse."

" Over time, that linguistic imprecision enabled another [2nd] subtle tool - confusion and imprecision in the roles and responsibilities of the institutions of government, which I term "bureaucratic porousness."

"The third subtle tool, by definition hard to detect, was secrecy and the withholding of facts."

"The fourth and final tool, one that went hand in hand with devalued language and obfuscatory truth, was the abandonment of legal and procedural norms for law making, oversight, judicial review, transparency, and many other elements of governance."

"With these subtle tools in hand-imprecision and vagueness in language, secrecy and the hiding of facts, bureaucratic porousness, and abandonment of norms-the presidency after 9/11 expanded to exercise unprecedented levels of power, the public was deprived of information at record levels, and accountability was essentially removed as a mechanism within the halls of power and replaced by impunity. In each step, the institution most clearly tethered to the law-the Department of Justice played a role. Enabled by this crucial ally, these tools were in place by the time Trump came into office, and they enabled the final transformation of the culture of governance in America."


Although Karen Greenberg refers to these tools as being subtle, they do no pass for more than crude visceral trickery commonly observed in the exchange of political party representatives in their attempts to undermine the opposition. The problem is that this type of dishonesty has become the way of doing business in the operation of governance, destroying transparency, oversight and the notion of the balance of powers and thereby underlining the essential means of ensuring social stability and harmony. The translation of these tactics applied to undermine an enemy have become the ways and means of governance in its approach to the national constituency leading to a drastic reduction in freedom of access to information and expression.