John Whitehead on America’s Predatory Government

Max Eternity – It would seem that some sayings are destined never to become cliché; ringing true time and time again regardless of the year, season or generation.

“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves” is one such prescient phrase dense with gravitas, and holding true at a time when government encroachments on freedom have again wrapped itself in false patriotism and the well-rehearsed rhetoric of national security.

Said quote was originally spoken by the late, Edward R. Murrow, and long before the world knew of the dynamic trio-of-truth-tellers, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, it was Murrow who—as a pioneer of broadcast journalism—took to task exposing government corruption and fighting the status quo.

Thanks to journalist, Glenn Greenwald, all the world now knows of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global surveillance program, called Prism.  Yet before that came to be, and before the civil-liberties crushing War on Terror started sucking the life out of every meaningful political discussion while in tandem shifting “the balance between liberty and government power significantly, in the name of national security,” there was this hellish thing called McCarthyism.

Under the auspices of Joseph McCarthy, the Red (and Lavender) Scare of McCarthyism accomplished essentially the same thing 60 years ago that George W. Bush’s Patriot Act and President Obama’s undeclared War on Journalism [ie government transparency] does today—all sorts of braggadocio and bullying in the name of patriotism—invasions of privacy, ethno-political profiling, a garden variety of global hegemony, and government aggression against citizenry, not the least of which is the iron-fisted suppression of dissent.

These are things, that like Murrow before him, John Whitehead has committed his life toward fighting.  And it is from Murrow’s notable quote that Whitehead drew the title of his latest book, A Government of Wolves.

President Jimmy Carter went on the record this July saying “America has no functioning democracy” and echoing this Whitehead says Americans find themselves living in the “age of authoritarianism,” arguing in his book that representative governance is almost a thing of the past.

In Chapter 2, Whitehead gets to the nitty-gritty and asks: Who will protect us from our government?

Writing that fearful Americans “started selling their freedoms cheaply” after the 9/11 terror attacks, Whitehead says Americans were led to believe in the “phantom promises of security” that never materialized.   However, what did the government did deliver, Whitehead writes, is “the hideous torture at CIA black site prisons, extraordinary renditions and the USA Patriot Act,” and that because of the Bush/Obama War on Terror, injustice and an erosion of liberties has “unfolded beyond our wildest imagining.”

The rights of Americans have “taken a meteoric nosedive in inverse proportion to the government’s rapidly expanding powers,” he says.

Whitehead reveals no political loyalty in his discourse, and party affiliation is certainly not a prerequisite for truth telling.  Although in American politics, where only two major parties are privy to the national microphone, the myopic Democrat versus Republican view often seems an expedient way of concealing it.

Whitehead is no stranger to controversy.  He provided counsel for Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton, and he provided in-moot coaching for attorney, Margie Phelps—on behalf of Reverend Fred Phelps, her father—in a free speech case that went all the way to the Supreme Court case.

For those unfamiliar, the greatest notoriety of Reverend Fred Phelps came from his “God Hates Fags” funeral protests, and unquestionably Phelps holds the title of being one of the world’s most hateful, unapologetic homophobes, and overall religious lunatics.

In a 2012 interview with Lisa Provence at The Hook, Whitehead say he’s been called “liberal, conservative, libertarian,” but that he’s “not any of them.”

“My basic philosophy is I’m here to help people,” Whitehead told Provence—that he believes strongly in the guiding principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, that he’s a vegetarian, and “won’t kill insects or animals.”  And about the Phelps case, Whitehead says “they won” and he “felt good about the Phelps case.” Even though, he told Provence, of Margie and Fred Phelps, he considers them to be “reprehensible.”

Calling on the Supreme Court to protect the civil liberties of students, this summer Whitehead and The Rutherford Institute asked the U.S. Supreme Court—in an appeal to Burlison v. Springfield Public Schools—to declare the use of random lockdowns, mass searches and drug-sniffing dogs in the public schools to be unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

Whitehead is definitely not alone in expressing grave concern over the criminalization of public schools.  Annette Fuentes, the author of Lockdown High, said as much to me last year, and on the Burlison v. Springfield Public schools case, Whitehead says:

It’s bad enough that the government thinks it can violate our rights whenever it chooses and the populace accepts all manner of violations as long as they’re told it’s for their own good. However, once you start treating young people as if they have no rights by subjecting them to random lockdowns, mass searches, and drug-sniffing dogs, you’re not just violating their rights, you’re teaching them a horrific lesson—one that goes against every fundamental principle this country was founded upon—that we have no rights at all against the police state.

Ultimately what Whitehead cares about most is freedom—as he tells it—not politics, and in a June 2nd broadcast of National Public Radio’s (NPR) All Things Considered, Whitehead was interview by Wade Goodwyn, with the topic being “On Protecting Individual Rights.”  Speaking to his commitment to equality and justice for all, Whitehead summed up professional passion toward the start of the conversation by saying:

The greatest gift to the world is our Bill of Rights. I mean, we’ve got the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to associate with whomever we want and to protest. We have the right to be free from government officials touching us on our bodies or scanning us or watching us. We have all those rights, but we’re going to have to stand up and fight for them.

In A Government of Wolves, Whitehead dissects in plainspoken yet prescient terms in his summation of our dysfunctional democracy.  He is not, however, nihilistic in his approach.  And as the book reaches its final pages, Whitehead provides a judicious who’s who sampling of quotes from contemporary prophets—Thoreau, Gandhi, Erich Fromm and Dr. King.

John Whitehead (Image: Rutherford Institute)

In the last chapter of the book, Whitehead asks “What Kind of Revolutionary Will You Be,” providing thereafter a list of “suggestions” for non-violent revolution, and in his closing statement says:

Change, then, will only come from a citizenry willing to step beyond the propaganda of fear and sacrifice themselves for freedom.  Of course, government agents armed to the teeth will be there to chill and/or suppress the freedom fighters.  But let us stand with those courageous enough to place themselves on the front lines for freedom.

Whitehead writes a weekly column at The Huffington Post, and at  He’s the author of more than 20 books, including The Freedom Wars, and Grasping for the Wind, which was accompanied by a documentary series that won 2 Silver World Medals at the New York Film and Video Festival.

Book Cover

In the following interview, Whitehead talks about his new book and what he sees as the coming police state:

Max Eternity (ME):  Let’s get right to it: America is at a crossroads.  Those are my words—what are yours?  What do you see?

John Whitehead (JW):   The point we’re at is where fiction has become fact.  Here’s this: if you look at the movie Minority Report, for instance, which is about life in 2050, all the technology is happening already.

What happened in that movie is reality now.

I’m a big sci-fi fan, and I was watching all these movies, and all this stuff is here now.

The government is 40 or 50 years ahead of the curve.

ME:  So, give me another example.

JW: A 30 year veteran told me a trillion bits a month of information is gathered.  This is from a guy in the NSA. I talk to people like this all the time, and I asked another guy in the NSA about this and he said that that’s probably true.

I’m hoping people will get when they read the book: that we are up against something that is not human.

ME:  That’s different—a machine?

JW:  Well, the question is: how you deal with all this stuff??  It’s going to come very, very fast.  It’s all coming together in this large package.  And the question really is: what happened to privacy—what ever happened to the rule of law?

ME:  In a March 24th editorial you write about “The Age of Authoritarianism,” in which you say that the nation has “moved beyond the era of representative government and entered a new age…the age of authoritarianism.”    How are you defining authoritarianism, and exactly what does this mean for US citizens?

JW:  Ok, the AP [Associated Press] is being watched.

People on Capitol Hill that I run into are virtually clueless.

The question you always have to raise is: who is running the government?

ME:  And, your answer is?

JW:  Really, I think that there is a technocracy that is basically running the government now.  The old days of representative government is gone.

So if a congressman steps out of line, they are put in check—they are being watched, too.

We haven’t reached totalitarianism, but we are in authoritarianism.

When the IRS can target groups they don’t like, and the government is looking to see what they [journalists] are writing.

Listen, I have newspaper editors that are calling me, because they are seriously worried.

ME:  I’m a writer, and I’m definitely worried.   Particularly so, because both major parties are in sync, to the extent that we now have Senator Bob Dole saying he no longer recognizes the Republican Party, and President Jimmy Carter saying “American Has No Functioning Democracy.”

JW:  I was for Obama.  I thought he was going to do all these things, and now he’s moving quicker than Bush to crush civil liberties.

ME:  Exactly, and on top of that Obama’s a civil liberties attorney.

JW:  Right, so the question is: who is running the show?

I’m not sure how much our votes count.  Locally, yes, but nationally, I’m not sure.

ME:  Who Will Protect Us from Our Government is the title of Chapter 2 in your book, where you talk about how fearful Americans “started selling their freedoms cheaply” after the 9/11 terror attacks, believing in the “phantom promises of security” that never materialized, but instead what we were given from Bush and now Obama is and an erosion of liberties that has “unfolded beyond our wildest imagining.”  So, instead of what has happened, what could or should have been the response to 9/11.

JW:  Just looking into 9/11 they didn’t follow up on leads.  It’s the same thing with the Boston Bombing.  With all the NSA stuff, it hasn’t stopped terrorism.

ME:  But, there are a lot of dead witnesses.

JW:  You’re dealing with government officials that obviously don’t tell the truth.  And then there’s Benjamin Franklin’s statement of: who believes in security over liberty deserves neither.   So, if it doesn’t make sense, I tell people: ask questions.

ME:  We’re in an endless cycle of violence—so much war.

JW:  Shore up our defense?  Yet, I’ve heard so many people saying pull back on the war stuff, because that’s creating more terrorism.

We create our own terrorists.

ME:  There’s no denying we’re here.

JW:  Military empires create these things.

What in the hell is going on.  You’re dealing with all these forces that are supposed to stop these attacks, but they’re not.  So what’s the answer?

ME:  Chapter 11 of the book is called “The New York Prototype,” in which you analyze New York City’s crackdown on protests and racial profiling, and a new spy program called the Domain Awareness System that is being developed in conjunction with Microsoft.  Elaborate more on this?

JW:  I think several cities are starting these prototypes.  Starting with Reagan, he started giving away military equipment to local police units.  I love New York, but there is a big police presence there.

The Microsoft system is basically a pre-crime system.  They are moving definitely toward pre-crime.  In Marilyn vs King, for instance, they [the government] can forcibly take a person’s DNA.

As I’m told by geneticists, you’re DNA tells a lot.

ME:  Yes, right.

JW:  New York is the prototype.  They have the money, and Mayor Bloomberg seems to want to go there.

There are signs.

If you brought Hanna Arendt back from the grave she would be freaked.  The same is true for Bertram Gross, author of Friendly Fascism, who went into a lot of things early on.

ME:  It’s amazing how much seems to have been foretold.

JW:  The signs are definitely here.  The question is do we take note now, or do we wait to see it play out.

I see that—as my job—as a constitutional lawyer.

ME:  The War on Terror?  And, then there are these troubling questions about what constitutes espionage in the age of the Patriot Act, particularly as it relates to whistleblowers, like the current NSA crisis brought on by the most recent whistleblower to achieve international renown, Edward Snowden?

JW:  I have whistleblowers in my office, and I think they are heroes.

Snowden was just trying to say this is happening, and this is bad.

ME:  Bradley Manning…Julian Assange?

JW:  The Bradley Manning effect keeps a lot of people in line.

I think anybody that calls for transparency out there is the basis for free government.  I always say that a free government is:  not having to look over your shoulder.

ME:  Barack Obama and Eric Holder are direct beneficiaries of the historic civil rights struggle in the country.  And yet, how do you think Obama would characterize the civil disobedience of Dr. King, Rosa Parks and their compatriots?

JW:  Just think of the FBI catalog: 17,000 documents to discredit Dr. King.

I think they rely so heavily on the technicians, and I don’t think they are running show.  If they are running the show they are in trouble.

You’re dealing with a huge bureaucracy, and one person can’t run it.

Bush said I don’t know that much about the constitution.  “I’m not a lawyer” he said, and  I knew we were in trouble.  I opposed George bush.

ME:  So, let’s go back to Dr. King for a moment.  How would he see all this?

JW:  I think Dr. King would be appalled.

Dr. King was my model.  In the last part of the book, I focus a lot on King.

ME:  In the media, so many comparisons are being made between Obama and Bush, and Obama and Nixon.  Is this fair—what do you think about this?

JW:  What the president does is legal… that was Nixon.

Obama seems to have the same philosophy.

When the president serves as a hit man—that’s abhorrent.

I think Obama disregards the rule of law, especially with the drone strikes.

ME:  These days it seems that no discussion can take place without it being a political one between the Democrats and Republicans.  Yet, no group or individual actually owns civil liberties, or our national security.  So, how do you propose these discussions take place without political interference?

JW:  I don’t think we can change the system.  It is what it is, and people are accustomed to it.

What was a little freaky was when Diane Feinstein and Lindsey Graham agreed.  That was very troubling.

I don’t vote.  I gave up on it.

ME:  So, where does that leave us?

JW:  I believe political activism is good.

When I go to the store I can choose 30 cold medicines, but when I vote for president I have 2 choices.

The system is illogical. It might have worked with 13 colonies, but not today.

ME: Dr. Cornel West says it’s the plutocracy serving the oligarchy.

JW:  There really is no left-wing or right-wing.  You’re either free or not free.

You don’t support a person who wants to invade your privacy or take your freedoms.

That’s Martin Luther king: the truth is the truth.

ME: Yes, and before we wrap up—any last thoughts?

JW:  What can we do?

ME:  Exactly, what can we do?

JW:  Pete Seeger is a friend of mine who says “act nationally, think globally.”  I borrowed that phrase to say: act locally, think nationally.

I wrote anti-drone legislation, and people supported.  So, there are things you can do.

ME:  On some level or another… yes.

JW:  You got to get the picket sign.

I wish the occupy people were still out there.

ME:  They are still around, but not as vocal.

JW:  You can’t give up.  I tell people turn off the TV sets, get down to city hall.  That’s where the impact is going to be.

ME:  John, thank you for your time, and for the book Nisha sent.

JW:  You’re welcome.  Terrific work you’re doing—keep it up.

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