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The Weaponization Of The Federal Government Has A Long History

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President Nixon urged the IRS to audit his perceived enemies; Donald Trump wanted to do the same. LPettet/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Now that House Republicans have created a “Select Subcommittee on Weaponization of the Federal Government,” let’s revisit a classic of that power-abusing genre, featuring its greatest star, Richard M. Nixon.

The subcommittee’s express purpose is investigating federal investigators for alleged “illegal or improper, unconstitutional, or unethical activities,” at which Nixon was an acknowledged master. I’ve been listening to Nixon abuse power on the secret White House tapes for two decades with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. I’ve written about his decisions to sabotage Vietnam peace talks to damage the Democrats’ 1968 presidential campaign, to time his withdrawal from Vietnam to help his 1972 reelection campaign, and to spring former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa from prison in return for the union’s political support.

This story is a forgotten sequel to the Watergate break-in. No one has ever proved that President Nixon ordered burglars to photograph documents and plant listening devices at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, known as the DNC.

But Nixon himself created proof that he abused his presidential authority to go after the DNC with the investigative powers of the Internal Revenue Service. He captured this high crime on tape less than two months after the Watergate burglars’ arrests.

‘Can’t we investigate people?’

“Are we looking over the financial contributors of the Democratic National Committee?” Nixon asked his chief of staff on Aug. 3, 1972. “Are we running their income tax returns? Or is the Justice Department checking to see whether or not there’s any antitrust suits? Do we have anything going on any of these things?”

“Not as far as I know,” said H.R. “Bob” Haldeman.

“We have all this power and we aren’t using it. Now, what the Christ is the matter?” Nixon asked.

Two men in suits walking on a path toward the White House.
President Richard Nixon walks with his assistant H.R. Haldeman from the Executive Office Building to the White House for a Cabinet meeting in December 1969.
AP photo/file

“We’ve got a guy who’s a pluperfect bastard. He’s a loyalist – he’s a fanatic loyalist – in the IRS,” said John D. Ehrlichman, whose title was assistant to the president for domestic affairs and whose job was henchman.

“He’s with us, you mean?” Nixon asked.

“He’s our guy,” Ehrlichman said. “One Treasury secretary after another, starting with [David M.] Kennedy, [John B.] Connally, now [George P.] Shultz, has said, ‘Oh, Jesus, can’t you get this guy out of there? Can’t you just take him out? He’s making all kinds of trouble for us. He’s too partisan.’”

The president’s mood darkened. “Shultz is not long for this life, in my opinion, because he’s not being political enough,” Nixon said. “I don’t care how nice a guy is. I don’t care how good an economist he is. We can’t have this bullshit.” His frustration was growing. “Can’t we investigate people?” Nixon asked. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Yes,” Ehrlichman said.

“I would think that we could get some people with some guts in the second term, when we don’t care about repercussions,” Haldeman said.

Nixon wanted to do something immediately about the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Larry O’Brien. O’Brien directed John F. Kennedy’s victorious presidential campaign in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson’s in 1964. “If you could dirty up O’Brien now, I think it might be a lot better than to wait until later,” Nixon said.

Two men in suits sitting at a table strewn with papers.
President Nixon, right, at a meeting with aide John D. Ehrlichman in 1972.
AP photo

Abuse of power

Under pressure from the White House, the IRS subjected O’Brien to an audit during the 1972 presidential campaign. The audit found a “relatively small deficiency,” which O’Brien promptly paid. Treasury Secretary Shultz and IRS Commissioner Johnnie Walters told Ehrlichman there was nothing more they could do.

“I wanted them to turn up something and send him to jail before the election,” Ehrlichman later said. There are few purer expressions of authoritarianism than an attempt to jail the titular head of the opposition party during a campaign.

Shortly before Nixon resigned in 1974, the House Judiciary Committee cited his abuse of his power over the IRS in an article of impeachment.

Chief of staff: Trump requested audits

In 1998, Congress made it a felony for a president to “request, directly or indirectly,” an IRS audit or investigation.

None of that stopped President Donald Trump from requesting IRS audits, according to his own former White House chief of staff, John Kelly.

“I would say, ‘It’s inappropriate, it’s illegal, it’s against their integrity, and the IRS knows what it’s doing, and it’s not a good idea,’” Kelly told The New York Times in November 2022.

Two men in suits, one with a bright red tie, in an elegant room.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, right, says that President Donald Trump wanted the IRS to conduct audits on people Trump had publicly attacked.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Trump said the IRS should investigate two former FBI officials, Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Kelly said. Trump has publicly, and baselessly, accused Comey and McCabe of treason, a capital crime.

After Kelly left the White House, both Comey and McCabe were subjected to unusually intense IRS audits, the kind tax lawyers refer to as “an autopsy without the benefit of death,” New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt wrote. Through a spokeswoman, Trump denied any knowledge of the audits. A Trump spokeswoman also denied Kelly’s account.

If Kelly told the truth, then Donald Trump managed to weaponize the IRS more effectively than Richard Nixon. That’s a sentence that I, as the author of two books on Nixon’s worst abuses of power, found difficult to type.

Kelly has made exactly the kind of credible allegation that a “Select Subcommittee on Weaponization of the Federal Government” worthy of the name would investigate. Yet none of the Republicans who spoke before their party-line vote to establish the subcommittee expressed any interest in investigating government weaponization by politicians of their own party.

Congress has the power, even the obligation, to unearth and eliminate government weaponization. But if the subcommittee abuses its power for partisan ends, it will merely be an example of the problem it’s supposed to solve.

The Conversation

Ken Hughes is a research specialist with the Presidential Recordings Program of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, whose work is funded in part by grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

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Chinese Spy Balloon Over The US: An Aerospace Expert Explains How The Balloons Work And What They Can See

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A Chinese surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace before it was shot down by the U.S. military. Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. military shot down what U.S. officials called a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, 2023. Officials said that the U.S. Navy planned to recover the debris, which is in shallow water.

The U.S. and Canada tracked the balloon as it crossed the Aleutian Islands, passed over Western Canada and entered U.S. airspace over Idaho. Officials of the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed on Feb. 2, 2023, that the military was tracking the balloon as it flew over the continental U.S. at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, including over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The base houses the 341st Missile Wing, which operates nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The next day, Chinese officials acknowledged that the balloon was theirs but denied it was intended for spying or meant to enter U.S. airspace. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the balloon’s incursion led him to cancel his trip to Beijing. He had been scheduled to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on Feb. 5 and 6.

The Pentagon has reported that a second suspected Chinese balloon was seen over Latin America. On Feb. 4, officials told reporters that a third Chinese surveillance balloon was operating somewhere else in the world, and that the balloons are part of a Chinese military surveillance program.

Monitoring an adversary from a balloon dates back to 1794, when the French used a hot air balloon to track Austrian and Dutch troops in the Battle of Fleurus. We asked aerospace engineer Iain Boyd of the University of Colorado Boulder to explain how spy balloons work and why anyone would use one in the 21st century.

What is a spy balloon?

A spy balloon is literally a gas-filled balloon that is flying quite high in the sky, more or less where we fly commercial airplanes. It has some sophisticated cameras and imaging technology on it, and it’s pointing all of those instruments down at the ground. It’s collecting information through photography and other imaging of whatever is going on down on the ground below it.

A high-altitude Chinese balloon drifted over the U.S., entering over Montana and moving over the central portion of the country, causing the U.S. to send fighter jets into the air and triggering an angry response from the U.S. government.

Why would someone want to use a spy balloon instead of just using spy satellites?

Satellites are the preferred method of spying from overhead. Spy satellites are above us today, typically at one of two different types of orbit.

The first is called low Earth orbit, and, as the name suggests, those satellites are relatively close to the ground. But they’re still several hundred miles above us. For imaging and taking photographs, the closer you are to something, the more clearly you can see it, and this applies to spying as well. The satellites that are in low Earth orbit have the advantage that they’re closer to the Earth so they’re able to see things more clearly than satellites that are farther away.

The disadvantage these low Earth orbit satellites have is that they are continually moving around the Earth. It takes them about 90 minutes to do one orbit around the Earth. That turns out to be pretty fast in terms of taking clear photographs of what’s going on below.

The second type of satellite orbit is called geosynchronous orbit, and that’s much farther away. It has the disadvantage that it’s harder to see things clearly when you’re very, very far away. But they have the advantage of what we call persistence, allowing satellites to capture images continuously. In those orbits, you’re essentially overlooking the exact same piece of ground on the Earth’s surface all the time because the satellite moves in exactly the same way the earth rotates – it rotates at the exact same speed.

a black-and-white view from high above a seaport showing a submarine
A U.S. satellite photo showing a Soviet submarine in port in 1982.
National Reconnaissance Office

A balloon in some ways gets the best of those. These balloons are much, much closer to the ground than any of the satellites, so they can see even more clearly. And then, of course, balloons are moving, but they’re moving relatively slowly, so they also have a degree of persistence. However, spying is not usually done these days with balloons because they are a relatively easy target and are not completely controllable.

What types of surveillance are spy balloons capable of?

I don’t know what’s on this particular spy balloon, but it’s likely to be different kinds of cameras collecting different types of information.

These days, imaging is conducted across different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Humans see in a certain range of this spectrum, the visible spectrum. And so if you have a camera and you take a photograph of your dog, that’s a visible photograph. That’s one of the things spy aircraft do. They take regular photographs, although they have very good zoom capabilities to be able to magnify what they’re seeing quite a lot.

But you can also gather different kinds of information in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Another fairly well-known one is infrared. If it’s nighttime, a camera operating in the visible part of the spectrum is not going to show you anything. It’s all going to be dark. But an infrared camera can pick up things from heat in the dark.

How do these balloons navigate?

Most of these balloons literally go where the wind blows. There can be a little bit of navigation, but there are certainly not people aboard them. They are at the mercy of whatever the weather is. They sometimes have guiding apparatus on them that change a balloon’s altitude to catch winds going in particular directions. According to reports, U.S. officials said the Chinese surveillance balloon had propellers to help steer it. If this is confirmed, it means that its operator would have much more control over the path of the balloon.

What are the limits to a nation’s airspace? At what altitude does it become space and anybody’s right to be there?

There is an internationally accepted boundary called the Kármán Line at 62 miles (100 kilometers) altitude. This balloon is well below that, so it is absolutely, definitely in U.S. airspace.

Which countries are known to be using spy balloons?

The Pentagon has had programs over the last few decades studying what can be done with balloons that couldn’t be done in the past. Maybe they’re bigger, maybe they can go higher in the atmosphere so they’re more difficult to shoot down or disable. Maybe they could be more persistent.

The broad interest in this incident illustrates its unusual nature. Few people would expect any country to be actively using spy balloons these days.

The U.S. flew many balloons over the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, and those were eventually replaced by the high-altitude spy airplanes, the U-2s, and they were subsequently replaced by satellites.

a black and white photograph of a group of men holding ropes attached to a large balloon being inflated from the back of a truck in a desert
Project Moby Dick was an early Cold War-era effort by the U.S. to monitor the Soviet Union using high-altitude balloons.
United States Air Force Public Affairs

I’m sure a number of countries around the world have periodically gone back to reevaluate: Are there other things we could do now with balloons that we couldn’t do before? Do they close some gaps we have from satellites and airplanes?

What does that say about the nature of this balloon, which China confirmed is theirs?

China has complained for many years about the U.S. spying on China through satellites, through ships. And China is also well known for engaging in somewhat provocative behavior, like in the South China Sea, sailing close to other nations’ boundaries and saber-rattling. I think it falls into that category.

The balloon doesn’t pose any real threat to the U.S. I think sometimes China is just experimenting to see how far they can push things. This isn’t really very advanced technology. It’s not serving any real military purpose. I think it’s much more likely some kind of political message.

This article has been updated to include news that the balloon has been shot down by the U.S. military.

The Conversation

Iain Boyd receives funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and Lockheed-Martin.

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The UK preps for what could become the largest strike ever for the country

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Much of the UK is at a standstill after what could be the largest strike ever in their country.

Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants, and train drivers walked out over pay in the largest coordinated strike action for a decade on Wednesday, with unions threatening more disruption as the government digs its heels in over pay demands.

The mass walkouts across the country shut schools, halted most rail services, and forced the military to be put on standby to help with border checks on a day dubbed “Walkout Wednesday.” According to unions, as many as 300 thousand teachers took part, they’re the biggest group involved.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak condemned the strikes which forced millions of children to miss school.

His government has taken a hard line against the unions, arguing that giving in to demands for large wage hikes would further fuel Britain’s inflation problem. With inflation running at more than 10 percent the highest level in four decades Britain has seen a wave of strikes in recent months across the public and private sectors, including health and transport workers, Amazon warehouse employees, and Royal Mail postal staff.

Next week, nurses, ambulance staff, paramedics, emergency call handlers, and other healthcare workers are set to stage more walkouts, while firefighters this week also backed a nationwide strike.

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The Brazilian congress could soon criminalize people who refuse the COVID vaccines

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Six bills currently in the Brazilian congress will crack down on any opposition to the COVID vaccines.

The bills criminalize everything from cutting in line to receive a vaccine to people who spread “fake news” about how vaccines work. People could also face 1 to 3 years in prison if they omit or oppose the mandatory vaccination of children or adolescents in a “public health emergency”. The project also criminalizes, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison, people who refuse to take the mandatory doses of vaccines.

And the same punishment also applies to those who spread “false news” about the vaccines or how they work. If the individual is a public employee, the penalty is doubled.

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