Commentary — February 17, 2016, 2:30 pm

State of Emergency

“France’s efforts to expand and enshrine the emergency laws in the constitution have created a sense that the legal framework of the French Republic, and all that it stands for, is under threat.”

The lower house of France’s parliament voted overwhelmingly yesterday to extend the state of emergency that has been in effect since the terrorist attacks in Paris last November. The emergency laws, which gave the government broad powers to track and detain suspected terrorists, had already been extended once before, and were due to expire at the end of this month. Yesterday’s 212–31 vote in the National Assembly, following the Senate’s approval last week, means that the laws will remain in effect until at least the end of May.

For months now it has been clear that the state of emergency answered two pressing needs faced by François Hollande, the French president. On the one hand, the legal regime gave the government what prime minister Manuel Valls has described as “modern and effective tools to fight the terrorist threat.” In a speech to the National Assembly earlier this month, Valls claimed that the government’s new powers had allowed it to stop at least one planned attack. On the other hand, however, the laws offered Hollande’s government—which was visibly panicked after a year that began with the terror of the Charlie Hebdo killings and ended with the massacres at the Stade de France, the Bataclan Theater, and five restaurants in Paris’s trendy northeast quarter—a drastic means to try to reassure the public, and itself, that it was still in control.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Hollande’s administration decided to place under indefinite house arrest between 350 and 400 people who had been designated Fiche S, a category used by the French intelligence services to indicate potential threats to state security. Most of the perpetrators of the November massacres had been Fiche S, as had the Charlie Hebdo killers before them. After failing to prevent both groups from staging highly coordinated spectacles of violence, Hollande’s government used the state of emergency to impose house arrests without a warrant or a trial. A person subject to house arrest is required to check in at the local police station three times a day, and is bound by a curfew, usually between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. If the terms of the arrest order are violated, an individual can end up in jail.

When I visited Paris in December, I spoke with Xavier Nogueras, an attorney who represents about a dozen people, including the manager of a halal restaurant and the head of a Muslim aid organization, who have been subject to house arrest. In his office on a posh boulevard in the Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne, Nogueras showed me the two-page document that the Ministry of the Interior issued to one of his clients. The document informed its recipient that he was henceforth under house arrest. Nogueras read aloud the explanation for the arrest order, which was just a few lines long:

Radicalized individual, whose conduct arouses concern in his professional environment. The indicated person is the manager of a subcontracting company working on behalf of a logistics firm, for which he is making deliveries of hazardous materials to several dozen sensitive sites, including French military sites.

Nogueras told me that the government was not required to seek judicial authorization for its arrest orders in advance. And while an injunction can be contested in court after the fact—according to the New York Times, more than a hundred people have appealed their arrests—the government’s refusal to disclose the evidence it had on his clients, as well as the sources of its information, makes it difficult to mount a defense. What’s more, the circumstances under which someone is designated Fiche S are often arbitrary. It could be enough, Nogueras suggested, for a person to attend a mosque where “two or three years ago, there was a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who was a cousin of Amedy Coulibaly or the Kouachi brothers”—the assailants in the January attacks—to be designated Fiche S. The government keeps the information on file, just in case, but in many instances, he said, “there’s no evidence, nothing.”

“In reality, these individuals are not being accused of anything. They are under suspicion,” Nogueras said. “Because if there is already something to accuse you of, they’re not going to just let you be. They come and get you and throw you in prison. There are legal procedures for that,” he said. The people who had been subject to the emergency house-arrest orders, meanwhile, are mostly people for whom the authorities “don’t have enough to initiate a case.”

At the same time that the French Parliament was debating yesterday’s extension of the state of emergency, it was also considering a tranche of proposed changes to the country’s constitution. One controversial change would allow France to strip the citizenship of a French-born citizen who is convicted of a terrorist crime. Others would allow for longer periods of emergency law, and would lower the legal hurdles for shutting down public spaces and conducting searches of homes and private property. The proposals have caused a number of experts to express concern that elements of an authoritarian police state were threatening the rule of law. Jacques Toubon, who leads an independent government institution charged with defending human rights, told Le Monde that the constitutional-reform projects were “making the exception the rule.

Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch issued an alarming report that detailed testimonies from eighteen people whose homes had been raided or who had been subject to under house arrest. (The government has carried out more than 3,000 raids since the state of emergency began, most without a warrant; French officials say that they have led to five terrorism-related criminal proceedings.) The report called the government’s behavior “abusive and discriminatory.”

At the end of January, Halim Abdelmalek, a thirty-five-year-old Parisian, became the first person to successfully challenge his arrest order. (Since then, at least forty of the arrest orders have been lifted.) Abdelmalek wrote an op-ed in Le Monde explaining that he had been flagged by intelligence after being photographed, unwittingly, near the home of a Charlie Hebdo journalist. He was there, he said, because his mother lived nearby. “I am simply one of the majority of Muslims who are at peace with their religion and their country. Seeing myself reproached for belonging to a ‘radical Islamist movement’ was even more unbearable than the loss of liberty,” Abdelmalek wrote. “I don’t hold a grudge against anyone, but I’m afraid, because this decision could have made me reexamine my convictions…. I’m afraid for these thousands of young people who are stigmatized by these decisions. I’m afraid for the other people under house arrest. The state must take care not to create enemies within its own camp.”

Many more people who have been affected by the government’s clampdown don’t want to speak publicly in any way. “They don’t want to talk about it because they’re not radicals,” Nogueras told me. “The neighborhood bakery learns that you’re under house arrest because you’re an Islamic radical, your life changes,” he said. “It creates a real tension.” A spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France told Le Monde recently that among some Muslims who’d been affected by the measures, “a feeling of retaliation” had been building.

As Scott Sayare wrote in “The Ultimate Terrorist Factory” (Report, January 2016), the French state has been trying to prevent terrorism by using provisions of questionable efficacy for years. With the heightened security apparatus after the November attacks, however, those provisions risk becoming far more widespread. Taken together, the efforts to expand and enshrine the emergency laws in the constitution have created a sense that the legal framework of the French Republic, and all that it stands for, is under threat. “Two hundred and fifty years we’ve been fighting,” Nogueras said, “and now we’re ready to wipe it all out.”

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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