Domestic Detention Centers

 Sometime, probably in late 1983, a young Marine lieutenant colonel sat in his office in the basement of the White House and began to dream of a new world. It was a world in which the president of the U.S. would assume to himself a vast array of powers never envisioned by the Founders of the Republic.

That was merely an oversight, the young officer believed. The drafters of the Constitution couldn't possibly have foreseen something like the present situation, with a war raging in Nicaragua, just a day's drive to the south. With backing from America's arch enemy, the Soviet Union, who was to say that Sandinista agents (terrorists, to put it bluntly) might not stream north from a Communist Nicaragua to wreak havoc in the U.S.?

Should such a horror come to pass, the president must have the weapons with which to fight back effectively. So, in conjunction with FEMA--the new Federal Emergency Management Agency created by Jimmy Carter four years earlier--the Marine colonel set to work on an emergency contingency plan.

Readiness Exercise 1984 (or REX-84, as it's popularly known) was the result. It suggested that the president (consulting with FEMA, but basically at his sole discretion) should have the authority to suspend the Constitution, deploy the military for law enforcement, install soldiers as the heads of state and local governments, and detain up to 400,000 undocumented immigrants at detention centers around the country.

The author of the REX-84 plan? Oliver North, who later resigned in disgrace and was convicted of criminal misconduct. The plan was presented to the president whom North later betrayed, along with a draft of an executive order that would have set the foundation for a president to activate its provisions whenever he deemed necessary.

Though it has been reported that then-Attorney General William French Smith gave the order a quick thumbs down, the Miami Herald, which was first to break the REX-84 story in 1987, could not confirm for certain whether President Reagan signed it or not.

But such true stories as that of REX-84 have birthed a gang of conspiracy theorists who not only believe the order is alive and well, but that FEMA--now folded into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)--has been continually beefed up over the years in the expectation that it will eventually be used for these purposes. The detention centers (usually called concentration camps by conspiracy buffs) have already been built and are waiting for occupants, they say.

As always with this sort of thing, skepticism is the order of the day (that's why they're conspiracy theories, not conspiracy facts). Still, the idea of domestic detention centers has shown some traction and it got a boost in 2003.

In February of that year an obscure local official, Dave Schulz--a commissioner in remote Okanogan County in north-central Washington state--told Spokane radio station KXLY that he was convinced his county was the designated home for a "concentration camp."

When he produced no evidence, Schulz was dismissed as a crank. Quizzed about it, a FEMA spokesperson called Schulz's story an "urban legend," while the Pentagon said that no camps were planned for Okanogan County, or anywhere else.

Well, maybe not back in '03. But they sure are now. On January 24, 2006, the domestic detention center story made the jump from conspiracy nut's pipe dream all the way to mainstream news.

The date marked the release of a statement from Halliburton that it has contracted to construct just such a facility. Halliburton? You probably think we're kidding. The same guys who raked in no-bid contracts, overcharged for gasoline in Iraq by tens of millions, and repeatedly flunked their Pentagon audits?

Yes, them. KBR, Halliburton's engineering and construction subsidiary, has just received a $385 million contract from the DHS' Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division.

If you haven't yet heard of ICE, let us introduce you. It is our new national police force, with more than 20,000 employees and a budget in excess of $4 billion per year. As the KBR press release proudly proclaims, it "was established in March 2003 as the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE is comprised of four integrated divisions that form a 21st-century law enforcement agency with broad responsibilities for a number of key homeland security priorities."

Broad indeed. Visit ICE's website (www.ice.gov) to see for yourself just how big this particular umbrella is.

For its part, Halliburton is pleased as punch to be working for them. "We are especially gratified to be awarded this contract because it builds on our extremely strong track record in the arena of emergency operations support," said Bruce Stanski, executive vice president, KBR Government and Infrastructure, presumably with a straight face.

The press release went on to say: "The contract, which is effective immediately, provides for establishing temporary detention and processing capabilities to augment existing ICE Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) Program facilities in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs," and to "establish, operate and maintain one or more expansion facilities."

Whoa. Detention and Removal Operations? We don't much like the sound of that. Expansion facilities? How many and what for? And these new programs, what might they be? The suggestion sure seems to be that the center's usage profile might be extended from "immigrants" to...

Well, who knows to whom. But we can guess. We've already seen political protestors confined to "free speech" areas and, when those proved insufficient to break their spirit, transferred to jails or temporary holding pens. How likely, then, is it that this new center will be dedicated solely to housing non-citizens?

In trying to answer that, it's worth remembering that the so-called PATRIOT Act has given the government a lot of leeway in determining just who may be designated as terrorists, or supporters, or sympathizers, or those who might harbor improper thoughts and inclinations. And it isn't going to be the president making the day-to-day decisions on the ground as to whom to "detain" and possibly "remove." It'll be ICE personnel. When they start conducting sweeps, it is logical to suppose that they will not employ an especially fine-meshed filter.

Nor will the military, should they be mobilized during an emergency (or if the terror alert status goes to Code Red). Many troops have already been trained--in such maneuvers as Operation Urban Warrior in March of 1999 during which Oakland was "secured"--in how to handle outraged, detained Americans demanding their Constitutional rights. The soldiers' instructions: Ignore them.

What all of this means is purely conjectural. Civil libertarians are predictably aghast, while supporters of the president naturally tell us we're in a new era and have to prepare for it. The closest thing to a certainty is that somewhere out there, Ollie North is smiling contentedly to himself.

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Posted 02-28-2006 9:27 PM by Doug Casey
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