In the land of the free, a fascist stench

Is America becoming a fascist state? Before you think I have regressed to the cliches and nihilistic political vocabulary so beloved by many of my fellow Essex University students of the seventies, let me explain why I pose such a question. If you watched the entire 11 hours of the "testimony" given by Keyhole Ken to the House Judiciary Committee last week - and I seem to be the only person I can find who actually did - you would know that it was a much more ugly spectacle than has been reported, raising issues and allegations that should shock any genuine lover of freedom and liberty.

I'll return to Ken Starr, the "independent prosecutor" in the Clinton case, in a moment. It was a conversation I had with a postman last weekend that further convinced me that something rather unpleasant is happening here. In the area of Washington where I live, all the US Mail vans have been equipped with flashing beacons. With a militaristic flair that would make Senor Pinochet bristle with pride, the US post office now flashes its way through Washington streets as we ordinary motorists scuttle to the side to let them pass. "They say it's a 'safety measure', but we hate it," the postman told me. "Most of the carriers [postmen] think they're tracking devices and they're watching where we go."

They're watching. My postman friend is a perfectly normal chap who exhibits no signs of paranoia. But here was this man - and, according to him, most of his colleagues - who genuinely believes Big Brother is tracking his movements. That these men and women should think their flashing beacons are sinister is truly worrying: has trust between the people and authority broken down somewhere along the way?

Keyhole Ken's appearance did not lend itself well to sound-bites, so few managed to absorb the nasty flavour consistent with this new authoritarianism I am detecting in America. He entered the Rayburn building surrounded by an entirely unnecessary phalanx of secret servicemen and sat on a briefcase for an entire day and evening to make himself appear taller. I found myself recalling what Ken's mother Vannie, 90, says was Ken's great hobby as a teenager: polishing shoes. There he sat, the impeccably mannered Washington lawyer, his voice resonating with quiet reasonableness as he argued his case in carefully prissy legalese.

The reality, though, is that Starr is the respectable front for a $40 million operation which, if not literally fascistic, is certainly one of unspeakable vengefulness. We heard that besides employing scores of lawyers, he has employed 78 FBI agents to do his dirty work for him. We heard how these FBI men pressured and terrorised people into giving evidence for the prosecution of Bill Clinton. A woman who is a friend of Kathleen Willey (who says she was groped by Clinton) found that the FBI had demanded to see the papers concerning her adoption of an eight-year-old boy from Romania - just to make sure it was in accordance with US immigration laws, you understand.

This poor mother, apparently, has been terrified ever since that her little son will be taken away from her. We heard how Starr's men had swooped on a school to "interview" a 16-year-old boy - presumably in order to apply leverage on his parents. I happen myself to know that the university account records of the son of Webb Hubbell - a friend of Clinton's whom Starr had jailed for 19 months and whom he has just indicted a third time - were subpoenaed by Starr's men three times, presumably in an (unsuccessful) effort to find out that his college fees were paid by friends of Clinton.

You will get the flavour by now, I hope - though I saw little if any of this reported. What was most chilling was Starr's response: unemotional, deadpan, robotic. He was only doing his job, was the gist of his self-justification. (His actual words: "We are professionals and we were trying to get the relevant facts, the full story . . . that was our task.") If there was a particularly unsavoury allegation, he would explain that he did not personally supervise each operation and every FBI man; indeed, he agreed he had never actually met Monica Lewinsky or most of the players in the tawdry little drama he has orchestrated.

Everything that in reality was nasty and vicious was cloaked in Starr's own measured, self-insulating jargon. Linda Tripp, for example, did not wiretap her "friend" Monica. What went on was "consensual monitoring" by Tripp and Starr's team - so that was OK, then. He took the same line in an interview recorded for broadcast last Wednesday. Asked whether his 454-page report was "demented pornography," he replied, patronisingly: "Diane - don't fault career professionals for telling the truth."

Is there not at least a stench of fascism here? A totally innocent woman terrified her child would be taken away from her if she did not "co-operate"? A 16 year old hauled out of a classroom for questioning? I learnt in my Essex University days that one definition of fascism is the attempt by a powerful elite to inflame the masses with a superficially persuasive, but actually undemocratic, political agenda. Is this not exactly what Starr's testimony was seeking to do, however much it may have been cloaked in that prissy legalese?

The only consolation is that while Starr may have ruined many lives, he has failed in his main mission to bring down a political foe. He will, I'm told, resign early next year - and Americans will begin to breathe a little more easily again. But those damned US Mail vans will doubtless continue to flash away through the streets of the nation's capital, and that prospect still leaves me a little uneasy.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family