15. Crimes of the Powerful

15.6 State-Organised Crime

Michael Brandt, MA

Chambliss (1989, p. 184) defines as, “acts defined by law as criminal and committed by state officials in pursuit of their job as representatives of the state.” A more recent term, “state crimes against democracy” (or SCADs for short), has been suggested by Professor Lance deHaven-Smith of Florida State University. He defines these as, “actions or inactions by government insiders intended to manipulate democratic processes and undermine popular sovereignty” (deHaven-Smith, 2013, p. 12). There are many examples of state-organised crimes, including illegal surveillance, coup d’états, assassinations, and illegal wars (Simon, 2012, pp. 203-258; deHaven-Smith, 2013, pp. 138-140). Despite causing widespread harm, state-organized crimes receive even less attention from criminologists than corporate crimes (Friedrichs, 2007).

Given that nation-states have a monopoly on what gets defined as a crime (they write the laws), the harmful behaviours they engage in are rarely defined as crimes. Consider perhaps the most infamous state-organised crime in history, the Nazi extermination of millions of people, including Jews, members of the LGBTQ community, Jehovah Witnesses, the disabled, Roma (also known as Gypsies), as well as those critical of the Nazi state. The Nazis perpetrated a , and many complicit individuals were prosecuted for crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg Trials. However, had Germany been victorious in World War II, it is unlikely that any such trials would have taken place. The victors in wars rarely allow their own harmful behaviours to be defined as criminal. Consider that if the United States had been on the losing side of World War II, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan would likely have been designated war crimes, and those responsible for the horrific injuries and deaths of hundreds of thousands would have likely been put on trial. At the time, senior military officers, including Generals MacArthur and Eisenhower (who would later become president of the United States), did not believe the atomic bombs were required to end the war (Stone & Kuznick, 2012).

It is significant that had the international rules of war (the Nuremberg Principles) been applied to decisions made by U.S. presidents to invade countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq, it is possible that every U.S. president since the end of World War II would have been found guilty of war crimes (Chomsky, 2004; Chomsky’s Philosophy, n.d.). None of these countries posed a direct threat to the security of the United States and authorisation to use military force was not obtained from the U.S. Congress or the United Nations (Chomsky, 2004; Chomsky’s Philosophy, n.d.). Joe Biden, and the two presidents before him, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, also ignored the law: Obama approved the use of force and the deployment of CIA operatives in Syria, and Trump ordered bombs dropped on Syria. Neither obtained approval from the U.S. Congress (Greenwald, 2021). Nonetheless, there are very few people calling for the arrest of any currently living former president for war crimes.

Illegal Surveillance

In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA) have all engaged in the illegal surveillance of those deemed “threats” to the government. One U.S. spying operation called (run by the CIA) engaged in extensive surveillance of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr in an effort to discredit him. Under direct orders from J. Edgar Hoover (then head of the FBI), African American organisations were to be targeted for surveillance; and in an illegal raid of the home of leader Fred Hampton, police shot and killed him as he slept in his bed (Page, 2019). Other targets of illegal government surveillance include political dissidents, socialists, communists; as well as numerous non-violent protest groups, such as those against war (American Civil Liberties Union, n.d.; Greenwald, 2014).

More recently, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released classified documents revealing a number of secret internet surveillance programs being used by the U.S. government to illegally spy on citizens both in the United States and around the world. Information collected by the government included a target’s political views, medical history, the status of their intimate relationships, and details about online sexual activities. Data about the pornographic or sexual services websites an individual has visited can be used to discredit or individuals who have been critical of a particular government’s policies, such as journalists and human rights activists (Greenwald, 2014). Blackmailing those critical of the government has long been used to silence people and was a tactic J. Edgar Hoover perfected while head of the FBI (Gentry, 1991).  Blackmail may help explain why no U.S. president was able to replace J. Edgar Hoover as F.B.I. director, allowing him to lead the agency for almost 50 years, from 1924 until his death in 1972. Glenn Greenwald (2014) summarises where the NSA was gathering this information from and who was targeted:

“Internet servers, satellites, underwater fibre-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems, and personal computers. It identified individuals targeted for extremely invasive forms of spying, a list that ranged from alleged terrorists and criminal suspects to the democratically elected leaders of the nation’s allies and even ordinary citizens” (p. 92).

Coup d’États

When Julius Caesar overthrew the government in Ancient Rome, declaring himself Emperor for life, he engaged in a tactic dating back to the earliest civilisations: the . This refers to the non-democratic, and often violent, overthrow of a government, either by those already working within the government but unhappy with its leadership, or by those outside the government who view it as a threat to their interests.  In the modern age, the CIA is probably the organisation most notorious for carrying out coup d’états against socialist leaders unfriendly (or perceived to be unfriendly) to U.S. governments or corporations, or those of its allies. Natural resources like oil, gas, water, and land are highly coveted prizes sought by transnational corporations in countries around the world (Perkins, 2006).  For example, after the government of Iran got tired of the British-owned, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) exploiting its oil resources and channeling most of the profits to Britain, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh nationalszed Iranian oil assets (Perkins, 2006). Mosaddegh’s aim was to ensure that Iran—not foreign companies—benefitted from its oil. In response, the CIA, in conjunction with the British intelligence agency MI6, instituted Project Ajax, a campaign to discredit and oust Mosaddegh from power. Portrayed as an extremist, a traitor, and a threat to the nation—all false charges—Mosaddegh was eventually overthrown in a carefully orchestrated plan in 1953. He was replaced, with the help of the U.S. and Britain, by the corporate-friendly and authoritarian Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also known as the Shah (meaning king) of Iran. With the assistance of the United States, the Shah of Iran set up his secret police force, SAVAK, which was responsible for torturing and killing thousands of Iranians who had been critical of the government or the Shah (Stone & Kuznick, 2012).

CIA-supported coup d’états led to the overthrow of democratically elected presidents Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 (Perkins, 2007; Stone & Kuznick, 2012). Both these leaders were vocal critics of U.S. imperialism and U.S. corporations wanting to exploit their country’s natural resources. Similar interventions by the U.S. have occurred in “Zaire (1960s), the Dominican Republic (1961-62), Indonesia (including East Timor, 1960s-1970s), Greece (1967), Chile (1973), Angola (1975), Libya (1980), Grenada (1980s), El Salvador (1980s), Nicaragua (1980s), [and] Haiti (late 1980s, early 1990s)” (Shelden et al., 2008, p. 34).

Illegal Wars

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the type of crime largely ignored by criminologists (Lynch & Michalowski, 2006). According to the rules of war established after World War II, there are only two legitimate reasons for a country to invade another country: (1) in self-defence; or (2) when authorised by the UN Security Council. Since the UN Security Council did not provide authorisation for war, U.S. president George W. Bush had to make the case for self-defence. He was able to accomplish this through a nefarious propaganda campaign falsely linking the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. to Iraq. The Bush administration also falsely reported that Iraq had obtained uranium from Niger to make an atomic bomb (Wilson, 2003) and therefore harboured “weapons of mass destruction” that threatened the United States and its allies. By the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 70 percent of Americans had been convinced (by false evidence) to believe that President Saddam Hussein of Iraq was responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001 (US public thinks Saddam had role in 9/11, 2003). In the wake of this propaganda campaign, the U.S. Congress provided Bush with the power to invade Iraq. Lies led to this invasion. Hundreds of thousands were killed. No one responsible went to prison.

War Profiteering

The main economic beneficiaries of war are corporations that sell the equipment needed to fight, such as armaments and fuel, as well as food, clothing, and shelter for the troops. In 2019, the U.S. military budget was $730 billion dollars, by far the largest part of the government’s total budget (National Priorities Project, 2020). This figure does not include funds held in the “black budget”, a budget kept hidden from the general public and most members of the U.S. government used to fund clandestine intelligence and military operations (Simon, 2012, pp. 176-178). Given the astronomical amounts of money devoted to official and unofficial budgets, perhaps it should not be surprising that major frauds have been associated with military spending. Investigations by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (2011) found $31 billion dollars in waste and fraud in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone. It gets worse. The Office of Inspector General reported the U.S. Defence Department could not account for $21 trillion dollars’ worth of spending between 1998 and 2015 (Michigan State University, 2017). One of the most highly-decorated soldiers in U.S. history, General Smedley Butler, wrote a book about his experiences in the military in his retirement. In his words: “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious” (Butler, 1935, chapter 1, paras 1, 2). The armaments of war are a big business for military contractors like Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin. In 2020, Lockheed Martin made over 9 billion dollars in profits (Lockheed Martin Gross Profit 2010 -2022, n.d., para. 1). General Butler also drew attention to the enormous profits private banks make off of war: “And let us not forget the bankers who financed the great war. If anyone had the cream of the profits it was the bankers” (Butler, 1935, chapter 2, para. 17).

The documentary Why We Fight (Jarecki, 2005) chronicles the economic interests behind war that General Butler spoke about. A notable quote from the documentary is from Chalmers Johnson, formerly of the CIA: “I guarantee you: When war becomes profitable, we’re going to see more of it.” U.S. investigations of war profiteering during World War I resulted in recommendations for policies that took the profits out of future wars (Sutherland, 1983). These policies were never implemented. The result has been a steady growth in military expenditures on the weapons of war and the services needed to support those in combat, as well as a steady growth in fraud related to the purchase of these products and services (Rosoff et al., 2020).

A growing problem is the “revolving door” phenomenon, in which employees move between positions in the corporate world to positions in government (and vice versa), obtaining benefits for their former employers (and themselves) in the process. For example, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton, a multibillion-dollar corporation that supplies services and support to those in combat. He left Halliburton to become vice president of the United States, and became a vocal advocate for increased military spending and an invasion of Iraq (and other countries), policies that would directly benefit himself and his former employer. While Cheney claimed he sold his Halliburton stock and severed all financial ties with the company when he left to become vice president, he neglected to mention he continued to hold 433,000 stock options from Halliburton (Jacobs, 2011). Cheney stood to reap enormous financial benefits if Halliburton was awarded contracts in Iraq, which it was, to the sum of billions of dollars. In fact, Halliburton became the Pentagon’s company of choice to provide many services in Iraq, including extinguishing fires at oil wells, restoring pipelines, supplying trucks and the gas to fuel them, providing food and housing for the troops, washing clothes, and delivering mail (Jacobs, 2011; Rothe, 2009). Halliburton would eventually become the target of dozens of lawsuits alleging accounting fraud and was forced to repay millions of dollars as a result of over-billing (Jacobs, 2011).

Colonialism and Slavery

Colonialism constitutes the largest program of state-organised harms in world history. Imperial conquests conducted by European states such as Spain, France, and Britain involved the enslavement of millions of Africans; the dispossession of Indigenous land; mass murder; destruction of culture, communities and families; physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; and human experimentation without informed consent (Monchalin, 2016; Mosby, 2013; Starblanket, 2018). These colonial harms were justified as attempts to “civilise” African, Asian, and Indigenous peoples, who were portrayed as “sub-human” and “savage.” In truth, colonialism was about taking control of a territory to benefit the coloniser. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, put it this way: “When the missionaries first came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘let us pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land” (as cited by Salmi, 2004, p. 61). Criminologists have rarely, and only recently, attempted to examine colonial actions as crimes (see Atiles-Osaria, 2018; Grewcock, 2018). Nonetheless, “if unjustly depriving people of their property, their way of life, and their very lives is regarded as criminal, then imperialistic conquests” could be considered crimes (Friedrichs, 2007, p. 119).

Tamara Starblanket (Nehiyaw/Cree) presents the legal case in her book, Suffer the Little Children, that residential schools, which resulted in the death of up to 50 percent of the Indigenous children forced to attend them, were tools used to commit genocide as defined by the United Nations (Starblanket, 2018). The recent discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children near residential schools (CBC/Radio Canada, 2021) and the likelihood of more to be discovered has brought the misery and death into full focus for all to see. As far back as 1907, the deplorable conditions and high death rates in residential schools led Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Peter Bryce, to conclude that residential schools were a “national crime” and genocidal (Hay et al., 2020, para. 5). Despite his well-documented report, the federal government of the day refused to take responsibility, and nothing changed. The report was ignored and Bryce’s position as chief medical officer was not renewed. Experiments that included withholding food from Indigenous children who were attending residential schools were carried out between 1942 and 1952 (Mosby, 2013).


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Michael Brandt, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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