Wes Vernon
Why we are helpless dealing with enemies on our own soil
From the Cold War to the current Islamofascist threat--do we ever learn?
By Wes Vernon
January 26, 2009

"With a stroke of the pen, he [President Obama] effectively declared an end to the 'war on terror,' as President George W. Bush had defined it."

So reads a front-page story in Friday's Washington Post.

Stop right there. That is a snapshot of the wishful rose-colored-glasses mentality that opinion leaders in academia, media, big-money foundations, entertainment, etc., have foisted on Americans (with varying degrees of success) for decades. It lasted throughout most of the Cold War (about which more anon), and once the shock of 9/11 wore off, the same mentality took hold in the current war on Islamofascism.

I decree, so it shall be

The Washington Post story referenced the president's White House signing ceremony wherein he affixed his signature to an executive order suspending military tribunals (until he figures out how to replace them). He also signed another piece of paper ordering the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay to shut down in one year (if he can figure what to do with the animals there who absolutely leave no doubt in anyone's mind that — given the chance — they will kill Americans — any Americans — as many as possible). Some detainees who have been let go are now on the terrorist battlefield again.

At the signing ceremony, Obama at times appeared to be somewhere at sea. He turned to his lawyer Greg Craig for advice on procedural questions. These were arguably thinly disguised pleas to his lawyer — on the order of What do I do now? And how do I get out of this mess?

It's the message, stupid

Of course, the wording about ending the War on Terror "with a stroke of the pen" may have reflected wishful thinking on the part of Dana Priest, the reporter who wrote the story. Ms. Priest has written other front-page editorials thinly disguised as "news stories," such as the one wherein she revealed the CIA had some "secret prisons."

Scandalous! Why, the dregs of the world were held for "advanced interrogations" (both there and at Gitmo) to elicit information about plans to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and other lovely recreational pursuits. Interrogators wanted to use the information to (gasp!) save lives! President Obama also signed an order putting an end to the "black sites" — prisons abroad where an ACLU-supported politician in black robes has no authority to insist that in wartime, you read the enemy his Miranda rights on the battlefield.

All for show?

Of course, the new president (or barrister Craig) has left Swiss cheese-like loopholes in his orders because, in reality, he has no answers. The campaign party was fun when he could beat George W. Bush over the head and dispatch him back to Texas with approval ratings in the cellar. But now, what's he going to do? So far, only one member of Congress has been open to the idea of sending the "Death to America" inmates to his own district. Alas, that is Jack Murtha, and there is a widespread belief that the Pennsylvanian — shall we say — has seen better days. He survived his last election only through the fat wallets of the Looney tunes at Moveon.org.

This is where we came in?

There seems to be a pattern here.

In the Cold War, Americans were lured into grasping so desperately for hope and confidence. Coming on top of World War II, a prolonged concern over the Soviet threat was perhaps too much. The opinion elites were only too happy to play on that human nature. Some "Cold Warriors" fared badly in the political arena.

By the time the Cold War came to a merciful end, the popular sense of outrage over the 100-million lives it cost (at a minimum) had long since expired.

Remember the Rosenberg spy ring?

A dramatic case in point came to light in recent years in the book Engineering Communism. This is the thoroughly documented story of how two of the lesser-known figures in the Rosenberg spy ring — Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant — sought refuge behind the Iron Curtain as the FBI was hot on their trail. Had they been caught, they likely would have met the same fate as their ringleader Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel, who were executed in 1953 for giving the Soviets secret information on the atom bomb that enabled them to catch up to us.

All during the Cold War, we had the A-bomb for our security? The Soviets had it too, thus, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD); there may not have been a Cold War (or perhaps we might have had a less perilous one) if America had retained a monopoly on the bomb longer than she did.

But it didn't stop there

Engineering Communism is authored by Investigative journalist Steve Usdin. He took years to do the shoe-leather work and research to retrace the steps of Rosenberg associates Barr and Sarant, who took their refuge behind the Iron Curtain in the late forties (as the feds were catching up with the Rosenbergs) and took on new identities. There they spent four decades (Sarant passed away after the first three) putting their high-tech talents to work for the Soviet Union and against the United States of America.

What is shocking is that, in part because of a major missing element in this nation's intelligence structure, the United States ended up — in effect — rewarding Barr when he returned to the U.S. 42 years later.

How much damage did they do?

Engineering Communism tells the story and reads like a spy thriller, except this is for real. This column asked Usdin to quantify the total amount of grievous harm to this nation by the likes of Barr and Sarant. The reporter responded by saying he is "doing some work on this question now." However, he was able to give us a broad outline:

Of course, the Rosenberg trial established that the information given the Soviet Union right after World War II "helped them create the weapons systems that were the backbone of the Soviet bloc anti-aircraft defenses for at least two decades: microwave radar coupled to an analog computer that controlled the targeting of artillery that fired shells at proximity fuses. These anti-aircraft systems were deployed in Vietnam."

Usdin goes on to say that "the design specifications the ring provided Moscow allowed the Red Army to know the capabilities of American aircraft in Korea and almost certainly was applied in later models of Soviet aircraft. The Rosenberg ring's information helped the Soviets copy the U.S. B-29, producing the Soviet Union's first strategic bomber, which altered the balance of power."

Now specifically as to Barr and Sarant

The two members of the traitorous ring, having escaped justice here in their own country, built up a considerable reputation and won prestigious awards under their assumed new identities once they were in the Soviet Union, where most of their work "had direct military applications," Usdin tells me.

"The most dramatic example is their creation of the first digital computer used in a Soviet submarine," the author explains in an e-mail. "The 'Uzel' fire control computer is still used in ultra-quiet diesel submarines the Russians have sold to Iran" (which not incidentally is building a nuclear bomb and threatening a Middle East nuclear holocaust), as well as to "China, India and other countries."

BTW — Alfred Sarant — while assuming his Soviet name Philip Staros — long ago predicted to his hosts the development of the personal computer that you and I take for granted every day. He also said such personal computers would be "ubiquitous."

That kind of technology talent was used for weaponry that was fired back at our men in uniform.

Sarant never returned to the United States. Barr did — 42 years after he fled. And were G-men awaiting his arrival at the airport to haul him off and hold him accountable for aiding, abetting, and scooping up awards from our sworn enemy? Not exactly.

In the 90s — a foot in both camps

After "Joe Berg" (his Russian name) — AKA Joel Barr — arrived back in the U.S., he managed to resume his citizenship here and he was given an American passport.

Does that make you mad? Well, then, I guess I might as well break it to you that he applied for and received Social Security checks until the day he died (1998), while at the same time receiving his pension from the Russians for his service advancing their technology with which they could kill American soldiers.

If that doesn't do much to calm your blood pressure, I hate to break this to you: he voted in elections both here (casting his ballot for Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown in the 1992 Democrat presidential primary, because he seemed to be the "most radical" candidate) and in the post-Soviet Russian elections (where of course, he voted for — surprise! — the Communist candidate). Yes, we should have de-communized the Soviet Union after the Cold War the way we "de-Nazified" Germany after World War II. Alas, winning the Cold War did not give us occupation rights in Russia that we'd had in Germany years earlier.

"I do my little bit wherever I go and I guess I got a lot of votes for the Communists in the elections" (in both countries?), Berg/Barr told a friend. "You must understand the Communist apparatus is still intact," he added. Does he mean "Communists" with a small "c" or a big one?

How could this happen?

How could an American who adopted the citizenship of an enemy country and helped that enemy develop weapons for use against the United States not be stripped of his citizenship forever? By phone interview, Usdin tells us this:

"It would have been a good case for saying that he had lost his American citizenship because if you go to work for a foreign military, then you're considered to have renounced your American citizenship."

But he collected Social Security and voted as a citizen: Again, what gives?

It is tempting to suspect that someone somewhere in the government went out of his or her way to conspire to ease Barr/Berg's path to U.S. citizenship, but Usdin says apparently "it just fell through the cracks." After all, it had been over 40 years, and after about 25 or 30 years — somewhere in the seventies — the feds lost interest in the red flags/lookout notices at airports and dropped the annual FBI visits to friends and relatives of Barr and Sarant.

In the years immediately after the two had fled, grand jury and congressional investigations failed to turn up a trace of their whereabouts. In the fifties, Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings on Ft. Monmouth (where the Rosenbergs and Barr/Sarant had worked directly or by contract through Western Electric, where they were subsequently employed) repeatedly asked about the whereabouts of the treasonous duo — to no avail. Meanwhile, several witnesses before that Senate panel, when asked by the senator if they had engaged in espionage, pleaded the Fifth Amendment. This was after the Rosenbergs were executed.

Nobody is responsible?

As Usdin tells us, "From the point of view of the FBI or the Justice Department, [before Barr fled] he was charged [but] by the time he came back, it would have been impossible to bring a regular case against him [even without a statute of limitations on treason] because all the witnesses were dead.... They would have denied his American citizenship and said well you can't come back to the United States. And that's what they didn't do." So the case went sliding "through the cracks" of the State Department.

Long memories

Robert Lamphere — the (by then retired) FBI agent who had tracked Barr and the Rosenbergs — raised his voice in protest, saying, "Barr is a spy and a traitor" and "if I were running things in Washington, Joel Barr would certainly never be allowed back into the United States."

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) — a Vietnam vet who had been shot out of the sky by a Soviet anti-aircraft weapon (possibly a result of Barr's handiwork), fumed, "Words cannot express my outrage over a man who admittedly helped the Soviets develop the technology that may have been responsible for losing seven years of my life in Vietnam."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) declared that a treason trial was in order and if found guilty, Barr "should be sent to join the Rosenbergs."

Which brings us back to square one

Again (the Rosenberg's justifiable execution notwithstanding), the record shows that all too often we in this country are too lenient with our enemies — whether it's Cold War traitors or today's cutthroat killers who are defended by the Loonies who form the base that helped put Barack Obama into the White House. Now, they can't wait for the new president to shut down Gitmo and set bloodthirsty terrorists onto American streets. Many of these people think America deserves the problem. They blame us for the Cold War and for the current war to defend ourselves against Islamofascism.

President Obama talked a big game in the campaign about shutting down Guantanamo Bay, and he is now under the gun from the crazed sector of his party to deliver. If he fails, they will turn against him. If he does as they say, and some innocent is killed as a result, his future is toast. As Osama bin Laden himself has said, his army of killers would use our own laws against us.

A solution?

The 9/11 Commission recommended reorganizing the federal government's 15 intelligence agencies. Usdin thinks the commission's proposals "mostly amount to rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic."

What we need, he says, is "a highly competent, professional, non-political [domestic] counterintelligence service. The U.S. has never had one. The FBI, which has its roots in law enforcement, is absolutely incapable of effective counterintelligence which requires a different set of skills, a different mindset."

As he told us, the FBI's expertise is in tracking down and arresting criminals, but lacks "capability or standing to prevent crimes [such as treason or terrorism] from taking place in the first place."

He's right, of course. Following the post-Watergate Church and Pike hearings on the Hill, FBI investigators were even forbidden to gather publicly-available information in the newspapers about suspected subversive groups.

The investigative reporter's idea is a good one. There are some problems with it, however. With the cry of "Death to America!" heard in Mosques right in the heart of Middle America, who will be allowed to keep an eye on that incitement to violence and terror before it actually happens? The same people who are holding Obama's feet to the fire on Gitmo wouldn't tolerate that, either. Also, if a competent domestic counterintelligence agency were set up, would there be a wall between it and the political forces that influence the politicians who hold its purse strings? They tried that (on the international level) with the CIA, and look what happened in the Valerie Plame case.

The question

How many more 9/11s will it take to bring America to the point where it can deal with its enemies — be they traitors who make enemy weapons that kill our soldiers, or the "Death to America" crowd? Do we have to wait until suicide bombers come to these shores? Or will Osama bin laden continue to use our own laws against us?

Justice Robert Jackson once said the Constitution is not a suicide document.

© Wes Vernon


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


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