Highway To Hell?

Ron Paul wants you to be scared. There's a conspiracy in the land—what he calls a "conspiracy of ideas"—to give up America's sovereignty. It's a shadowy scheme that begins with the NAFTA "superhighway," a road as wide as several football fields that will link Mexico, the United States and Canada. "They don't talk about it and they might not admit it," Paul said at the CNN-YouTube presidential debate last week. He didn't say exactly who "they" are, but perhaps one can guess. "They're planning on [taking] millions of acres … by eminent domain," warned the prickly libertarian. But elected government officials aren't acting alone. There's "an unholy alliance of foreign consortiums and officials from several governments" pushing the idea, Paul wrote in October 2006. "The ultimate goal is not simply a superhighway, but an integrated North American Union—complete with a currency, a cross-national bureaucracy, and virtually borderless travel within the Union."

Only it's not true. The main purveyor of this broad conspiracy theory is Jerome Corsi, coauthor of "Unfit for Command," the book that helped Swift Boat John Kerry's presidential ambitions. His latest offering is "The Late Great U.S.A.: The Coming Merger With Mexico and Canada," which became a best seller on The New York Times's business list this summer. Corsi plays on growing nationalist fears. He sees a scenario in which a North American Union is born and shares a currency, the "amero." Even some right-wing standard-bearers regard the fears as over-blown. Jed Babbin, editor of the conservative newspaper Human Events, says: "I guess there are people who believe in [the plan for a North American Union]. But there are people who believe in Bigfoot." "The evidence is out there," says Corsi.

Like all good conspiracies, the NAFTA superhighway is a strange stew of fact and fiction, fired by paranoia. There is a big road planned. It's called the Trans-Texas Corridor. The idea was unveiled in 2002 by GOP Gov. Rick Perry. And it's true the corridor was originally designed to be 1,200 feet wide, including a highway for vehicles, railway lines, petroleum pipes, electricity and water lines and broadband fiber optics. (It's since been scaled back slightly.) A considerable swath of Texas land, perhaps as much as a half-million acres, will be taken by eminent domain.

It's also true that more than one organization wants to improve commerce between North American countries. The "unholy alliance" Paul speaks of is the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP). It was launched in 2005 by the heads of state of the United States, Mexico and Canada. Part of the SPP mandate is to increase security cooperation against terror threats. It also aims to improve trade. But much of the home page of the SPP Web site is devoted to "Myth vs. Fact." It dispels tales about a "secret plan" to build a superhighway.

Texas officials are still trying to convince locals their $180 billion idea was not hatched to undermine American sovereignty. Controversy stalled the project for several years, but now construction could begin in 2009. Perry has had to explain repeatedly that no federal funds will be used to build the project, and that Texas turned to private firms to finance the road because they could build it quickly without taxpayer money. (The contractor, Cintra-Zachry, is a Spanish-Texan consortium that expects to earn a profit by collecting tolls. Critics, even those who don't see a conspiracy, say the state is mortgaging its infrastructure to foreign investors.) Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson says he's startled by superhighway fears. He tells NEWSWEEK he had never heard of a North American Union until people started badgering him about it. "They say, 'Is this part of the NAU and the amero?' … And I say, 'What the hell are you talking about?' "

National politicians are facing similar questions. According to press reports, campaign aides have said that anxieties about the supposed scheme are the second most popular topic Mitt Romney is asked about in New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani, whose law firm represents Cintra, has also taken questions about it. Ordinary people may be taking the conspiracy seriously because mainstream news organizations—and countless blogs—have. CNN newscaster Lou Dobbs, a trade protectionist, has featured the superhighway on his show as if it were a fact.

Corsi is only too happy to stir things up. When the Eagle Forum, a conservative association, presented him with an award in September for "courage and leadership in protecting America's sovereignty," Corsi offered a warning: President Bush's supposed determination to force North American integration, he told the audience, could cost the GOP the 2008 presidential election. Corsi may have a conspiratorial bent. But he sure knows how to spin stories that shake up an election—and at least one candidate seems happy to help him.