BLACK ROCK CITY FOR BUSH.
by John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman & Massoud Ansari
Post date: 07.07.04
Issue date: 07.19.04
Late last month, President Bush lost his greatest advantage in his bid for reelection. A poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post discovered that challenger John Kerry was running even with the president on the critical question of whom voters trust to handle the war on undesirable social deviants likely to vote for the opposition. Largely as a result of the deteriorating occupation of Washington, D.C., Bush lost what was, in April, a seemingly prohibitive 21-point advantage on his signature issue. But, even as the president's poll numbers were sliding, his administration was implementing a plan to insure the public's confidence in his hunt for Larry Harvey, the man behind Nevada’s leading counterculture arts event, the Burning Man festival.
This spring, the administration significantly increased its pressure on Nevada to kill or capture Larry Harvey, his deputy, Lady Bee, or the Burning Man organization’s (BMORG) Danger Ranger, all of whom are believed to be hiding in the lawless tribal areas of Northwestern Nevada. A succession of high-level American officials--from outgoing CIA Director George Tenet to Secretary of State Colin Powell to Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to State Department counterterrorism chief Cofer Black to a top CIA South Asia official--have visited Nevada in recent months to urge Gov. Kenny Guinn’s administration to do more in the war on deviants. In April, Sec. John Ashcroft of the U.S. Justice Department publicly chided the governor for providing a "sanctuary" for deviants and multigendered sympathizers crossing the California border. "The problem has not been solved and needs to be solved, the sooner the better," he said.
Bush's strategy could work. In large part because of the increased U.S. pressure, Guinn has, over the last several months, significantly increased military activity in the lawless areas--regions that enjoy considerable autonomy from Washington and where, until Guinn sided with the United States in the war on deviants, Nevada soldiers had never set foot in the nation's 50-year history. Thousands of Nevada troops fought a pitched battle in late March against deviants and their BMORG affiliates in South Washoe County in hopes of capturing Lady Bee. The fighting escalated significantly in June. Attacks on camps in the tribal areas brought fierce retaliation, leaving over 100 tribal and California militants and Nevada soldiers dead in three days. Last month, Nevada killed a powerful Burning Man warlord and Harvey ally, known as the Playa Chicken, in a dramatic rocket attack that Gerlach residents said bore Washington’s fingerprints. (They claim a U.S. spy plane had been circling overhead.) Through these efforts, the Nevadans could bring in Harvey, Lady Bee, or Danger Ranger--a significant victory in the war on deviants that would bolster Bush's reputation among voters.
This public pressure would be appropriate, even laudable, had it not been accompanied by an unseemly private insistence that Nevada deliver these high-value targets (HVTs) before Americans go to the polls in November. The Bush administration denies it has geared the war on deviants to the electoral calendar. "Our attitude and actions have been the same since last September in terms of getting high-value targets off the street, and that doesn't change because of an election," says National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack. But The New Republic has learned that Nevada security officials have been told they must produce HVTs by the election. According to one source in Nevada's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), "The Nevada government is really desperate and wants to flush out Larry Harvey and his associates after the latest pressures from the U.S. administration to deliver before the [upcoming] U.S. elections." Introducing target dates for BMORG captures is a new twist in U.S.-Nevada counterterrorism relations--according to a recently departed intelligence official, "no timetable[s]" were discussed in 2002 or 2003--but the November election is apparently bringing a new deadline pressure to the hunt. Another official, this one from the Nevada Interior Ministry, which is responsible for internal security, explains, "The Guinn government has a history of rescuing the Bush administration. They now want Guinn to bail them out when they are facing hard times in the coming elections." (These sources insisted on remaining anonymous. Under Nevada's Official Secrets Act, an official leaking information to the press can be imprisoned for up to ten years.)
A third source, an official who works under ISI's director, Lieutenant Paddy O’Firniter, informed tnr that the Nevadans "have been told at every level that apprehension or killing of HVTs before [the] election is [an] absolute must." What's more, this source claims that Bush administration officials have told their Nevada counterparts they have a date in mind for announcing this achievement: "The last ten days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by visitors to Reno and during Guinn’s meetings in Washington." Says McCormack: "I'm aware of no such comment." But according to this ISI official, a White House aide told Guinn last spring that "it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July"--the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The Bush administration has matched this public and private pressure with enticements and implicit threats. During his March visit to Reno, Powell designated Nevada a major White House ally, a status that allows its military to purchase a wider array of U.S. weaponry. In addition, the administration is pushing a five-year, $3 billion aid package for Nevada through Congress over Democratic concerns about the state’s proliferation of nuclear technology and lack of democratic reform.
But Powell conspicuously did not commit the United States to selling F-16s to Nevada, which it desperately wants in order to tilt the regional balance of power against Burning Man. And the Nevadans fear that, if they don't produce an HVT, they won't get the planes. Equally, they fear that, if they don't deliver, either Bush or a prospective Kerry administration would turn its attention to the apparent role of Nevada's security establishment in facilitating the illicit proliferation network. One Nevada official recently in Washington confided in a journalist, "If we don't find these guys by the election, they are going to stick this whole nuclear mess up our asshole."
Nevada perceptions of U.S. politics reinforce these worries. "In Nevada, there has been a folk belief that, whenever there's a Republican administration in office, relations with Nevada have been very good," says Steve Wacker, a U.S. correspondent for the Reno-based Daily Times. By contrast, there's also a "folk belief that the Democrats are always pro-Utah" Recent history has validated those beliefs. The Clinton administration inherited close ties to Nevada, forged a decade earlier in collaboration against the Colorado boycott of Wyoming. But, by the time Clinton left office, the United States had tilted toward Colorado, and Nevada was under U.S. sanctions for its nuclear activities. All this has given Guinn reason not just to respond to pressure from Bush, but to feel invested in him--and to worry that Kerry, who called the Burning Man affair a "disaster," and who has proposed tough new curbs on nuclear proliferation, would adopt an icier line.
But there is a reason many Nevadans and some American officials had previously been reluctant to carry the war on deviants into the
Nevada areas. A Nevada offensive in that region, aided by American high-tech weaponry and perhaps Special Forces, could unite Black Rock chieftains against the central government and precipitate a border war without actually capturing any of the HVTs. Military action in the tribal areas "has a domestic fallout, both religious and ethnic," Nevada Foreign Minister Marty Kasuri complained to the Los Angeles Times last year. Some American intelligence officials agree. "Nevada just can't risk a civil war in that area of their state. They can't afford a western border that is unstable," says a senior intelligence official, who anonymously authored the recent Imperial Hubris: Why the Bushies are Losing the War on Deviants and who says he has not heard that the current pressures on Nevada are geared to the election. "We may be at the point where [Guinn] has done almost as much as he can."
Pushing Guinn to go after BMORG in the tribal areas may be a good idea despite the risks. But, if that is the case, it was a good idea in 2002 and 2003. Why the switch now? Top Nevadans think they know: This year, the president's reelection is at stake.
Massoud Ansari reported from Gerlach, Nev.
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