Exporting the Tools of Repression: An Interview With Professor Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare is a well-known academic and professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. He is the author of Resource Wars and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Petroleum Dependency, along with numerous other books and articles. Klare is also a contributor to The Nation and Current History and serves on the board of the Arms Control Association. He is based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In this interview, Klare reflects on an article he co-authored along with Nancy Stein in 1976 for The Nation entitled, “Exporting the Tools of Repression: Handcuffs, Mace, and Armored Cars.” At the time, Klare was an associate of the Center for National Security Studies and a visiting fellow at the Center of International Studies, Princeton University. Stein was a staff member of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).

Dan Falcone: You wrote back in the 1970s that “millions of words have been written about US military sales abroad, but nothing has been said about the booming trade in police weapons and services [as] the US is still deeply involved in arming, training and advising foreign police forces.” What regions were you discussing particularly and is this still a concern in terms of US foreign policy?

Michael T. Klare: At that time, I was largely focused on two areas: Southeast Asia (notably Vietnam) and Latin America, then ruled in large part by US-backed military dictatorships. As a result of public protest in the US, direct US aid to foreign police forces was banned in the 1970s, but exceptions were made for anti-drug operations and anti-terror operations. Today, the US uses these exceptions to provide military and police equipment to many police and paramilitary forces in the developing world, some with a history of domestic repression and brutality (as in Nigeria).

Aside from discussing the guns, equipment and canisters of mace, in the article you mention additional forms of weapon exportation or “repression technology.” It consisted of computer data systems, night-vision devices, etc. The most amazing part of this reading was the uncovering of US small-town cops training foreign police forces. This could potentially mean that taxpayers were providing local law enforcement to essentially train battalions in other parts of the world while our school system or infrastructure failed. To your knowledge, is this sort of thing still practiced?

As I indicated, direct US aid of this type is no longer permitted under US law. However, aid for anti-drug and anti-terror operations is permitted, and there’s quite a bit of this. For example, the US provides extensive aid to police and paramilitary forces in Mexico and Colombia, some of which have been accused of human rights abuses.

You mention in the article that there was a statutory ban placed on military and economic assistance to any country whose government was in violation of human rights. I presume that this continues to be a major problem as seen with our current involvement with Saudi Arabia. We also show a refusal to ratify things like the Arms Trade Treaty. Is our foreign policy and inability to enforce laws such as the Arms Export Control Act allowing your article to be as pertinent as ever? After reading it, it seemed like it could have been printed yesterday.

Vermont Sen. [Patrick] Leahy, author of the human rights bill you mention, has worked hard to prevent US arms from falling into the hands of military and paramilitary forces deemed responsible for human rights abuses, such as those in Indonesia. However, under the guise of anti-terrorism, these concerns are often overlooked.

After the Baltimore uprising last year, the country witnessed how small police forces had turned into military machines. I thought it was in correlation to us pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq. You trace however, the militarization of local law enforcement back to Eisenhower and Kennedy. You cite the roles of the US Agency for International Development, the Office of Public Safety and the International Police Academy. These measures, intended to “neutralize,” were in fact offensive opportunities to jail, murder and assassinate in our imperial enterprises. Is my original thought regarding Baltimore based on historical myth?

All this goes back to the [uprisings] of the late 1960s, when, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many American cities experienced outbursts of anger on the part of African-American citizens who — then as now — were targets of police brutality. In response, many American police forces acquired military-type equipment for so-called “anti-riot” operations — now used in places like Ferguson and Baltimore.

It looks as though Hillary Clinton could be the next US president. I’ve noticed that her positions, especially with US foreign policy, seem like Obama’s, only more militant. Bernie Sanders, incidentally, won’t even discuss foreign policy and Trump blows in the wind. Clinton has been less than forthright with her role in the Honduras coup. President Bill Clinton was a steadfast supporter of Colombia’s paramilitary, and we have escalated terrorism sharply in the developing world since President Ronald Reagan. My question relating to this all is that since you wrote this article and mentioned how often narcotics units were actually being used as cover to export repression technology, has terrorism created yet another layer? I’m thinking that the recent Apple encryption case was really about drug trafficking and less about terrorism. In other words, now law enforcement has two covers (drugs and terror) instead of one.

Even under President Obama, we’ve seen a huge increase in US counterterror operations worldwide, often using advanced military capabilities like drone strikes. For example, the US is deeply involved in covert and not-so-covert operations all over Africa, as I’ve learned from the excellent reporting of Nick Turse at Tomdispatch.com.