In 1928, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that the real threat to American freedom was not from an outside assault, but from the devious manipulations of our own misguided leaders. “The greatest dangers to liberty,” he observed, “lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.”
Nearly 80 years after Brandeis’s warning, the zealots have been brought in from the far-right fringe on the golden chariot of George W, and they’ve shown that they have no understanding of the essence of America, which includes our hard-won liberties, our rule of law and our system of checked-and-balanced governmental power.
But these men of zeal — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. — are hardly well-meaning. They are deliberately and determinedly striving to impose the AntiAmerica on our own land — an unrecognizable America of supreme executive authority, constant surveillance of the citizenry, secret government and suppression of dissent. Their chief weapon is fear. They feverishly wave the bloody flag of 9/11, shouting that the citizenry must surrender liberties or be attacked again by The Madmen, that we mustn’t question authority for this only encourages The Madmen, that all government operations must be cloaked in a dark veil of secrecy to keep The Madmen off balance, and that executive and police power must drastically expand to protect us from The Madmen.
While claiming that they must “secure” America for a post-9/11 world, the BushCheney zealots are taking us back to a pre-1776 world. They have been astonishingly successful in a remarkably short time, insidiously taking autocratic step after step, which a compliant Congress and the establishment media have mostly missed, ignored, minimalized or applauded. These two “institutions of vigilance” have failed us. So it is up to “We The People” to assert ourselves against this dangerous rise of authoritarianism in Bush’s America.
The spook society
“You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you have to concentrate on,” George W said with a laugh at Washington’s Gridiron dinner in 2001.
If only we’d known then that behind George’s snickers, the Bushites were serious. Employing a combination of deceit, defiance, arrogance, flag-waving and secrecy, they have fooled a majority of Congress and the media into accepting the overlay of a “spook society” on our “Land of the Free.” The far-reaching extent of their efforts are only now becoming clear.
Last month’s installment covered Bush’s secret and blatantly illegal directive for the National Security Agency to spy on citizens here at home. This clandestine four-year program of executive eavesdropping — scooping up billions of phone calls and emails sent or received by innocent Americans — has now been getting wide media coverage. But to focus only on this one piece is to miss the more startling reality: the quiet installation inside our country of a massive snoopervision complex, much of it initiated, funded and controlled by Donnie Rumsfeld’s Orwellian Pentagon.
Since the founding of America, a central tenet of our liberty has been that the military is not to be turned on our own people. Violations of this guiding rule have occurred in the past, but rarely and only temporarily, and when it’s been violated, public outcry has forced the reinstatement of the rule.
Bush & Co., however, has not only turned loose the military to spy extensively on the American people, but has also asserted the right to do so in perpetuity. Its claim is that 9/11 turned the homeland into a foreign battlefield, so the nation’s historic prohibition against military surveillance of Americans is null and void. And since this war on terrorists has no end (“the long war,” Rumsfeld calls it), the Bushites maintain that the Pentagon can engage in domestic spying ad infinitum.
This military intrusion into our privacy has come with a heavy dose of linguistic perversions by top officials. For example, a secret Pentagon memo from Nov. 5, 2001, has now surfaced. In it, the Army’s chief intelligence officer insists that while the Pentagon cannot “collect” information on citizens who have no connection to foreign terrorists, it can “receive” such information. “Remember,” he wrote with Machiavellian delight, “merely receiving information does not constitute ‘collection’ … [Military intelligence] may receive information from anyone, anytime.”
Meanwhile, the ever-sneaky Bushites have quietly been pushing legislation that would compel the FBI and other police agencies to give information that they collect on you and me to the Pentagon, as long as the info is somehow “related” to a foreign intelligence investigation. This does not mean that, to spy on you, the snoops must have cause to think that you are in any way tied to terrorism, but only that they claim their investigation to be vaguely related to some foreign matter — a catchall that sweeps up war protestors, for example.
The legislation has yet to pass, but intelligence watchdogs say that Bush has already implemented it by fiat — Executive Order 13388 appears to authorize the Pentagon to access domestic intelligence files. Also, the military has already created a robust collection system of its own. A new Northern Command, established in Colorado in 2001 to monitor Americans, now employs more intelligence analysts than does the Homeland Security Department. Also, the Marines launched an operation under a 2004 executive order for the “collection, retention and dissemination of information concerning U.S. persons,” noting that the corps will be “increasingly required to perform domestic missions.” And, during the past five years, each of the service branches has created its own domestic snooping enterprises. As Sen. Ron Wyden complained last year, “We are deputizing the military to spy on law-abiding Americans in America. This is a huge leap without even a [public] hearing.”
TOTAL INFORMATION AWARENESS. A nightmare right out of 1984, complete with the ominous, all-seeing name it was given, TIA was the ugly spawn of John Poindexter, the convicted master schemer behind the Iran-Contra scandal in Reagan’s White House. George W and Rummy had snuck him back into the government in 2001, ensconcing him deep inside the Pentagon, where he ran a team to develop TIA’s unprecedented and voracious ability to grab every speck of private data on Americans from every public and corporate data bank. The plan was to put it all in a Pentagon supercomputer and mine it to build files on anyone the authorities might deem suspicious.
Luckily, a couple of years ago, this massive invasive madness came to light. The public howled so loudly that Congress rose up and demanded that the program be terminated, and Poindexter was forced to slink away.
But wait — who’s that guy in the shadows, and what’s he doing? He’s Brian Sharkey, Poindexter’s close pal who was a key player in the creation of TIA. He now heads a firm that’s been getting government contracts to keep pursuing TIA’s shadowy projects. In an internal email to TIA’s subcontractors, Sharkey gleefully announced: “Fortunately, a new sponsor has come forward that will enable us to continue much of our previous work.” He added that the TIA effort would henceforth go by the cryptic code name of “Basketball.”
The new “sponsor” of this hoops game is a highly classified outfit called Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA) that is housed inside NSA (yes, the very agency that’s been running George W’s illegal domestic spying program). In a February public hearing, Sen. Wyden asked Bush’s director of national security and the head of the FBI a direct question: “We want to know if Mr. Poindexter’s programs are going on somewhere else.” We don’t know, replied our nation’s top two snoops. When a reporter asked an NSA spokesman whether TIA had been moved to ARDA, he clammed shut: “We can neither confirm nor deny actual or alleged projects.” ARDA itself is now being moved to the national intelligence agency and given a new name: “Disruptive Technology Office.” It’s hard to follow all of the trick passes of “Basketball,” but the bottom line is that TIA was halted in name only, having been stealthily slipped into another agency that has been moved and had its own name changed.
SALUTE YOUR BIG BROTHER. Three years ago, the Pentagon set up a new, ultrasecret agency called CIFA, for Counterintelligence Field Activity. Its initial task was to detect terrorist plots against military installations in the United States, but two years ago, a directive from the Pentagon’s top ranks ordered CIFA to broaden its scope by creating and maintaining “a domestic law enforcement database.” The agency’s motto became “Counterintelligence to the Edge.”
In May 2003, Rumsfeld’s top deputy, “Howling Paul” Wolfowitz, authorized a new snooping operation code-named TALON (Threat And Local Observation Notice). It directed military officers throughout the country to collect raw information about suspicious activities by local people and to feed reports on them into CIFA’s humming computers. In its first year alone, TALON’s far-flung network of military snoops fed more than 5,000 “local activity” reports into the electronic maw of CIFA.
Nearly everything about CIFA, including its budget, is kept secret, but it is known that the agency has generously spread its budgetary wealth to Pentagon contractors. Northrop Grumman, for example, received funds to develop a CIFA database dubbed “PersonSearch,” and Computer Sciences Corp. got a grant for an electronic system to detect and monitor people’s “abnormal activities and behaviors.” You might say, OK, Hightower, but surely these fine public servants and civic-minded corporations are merely protecting us homelanders by watching known terrorist types with Arab-sounding names and Muslim affiliations. Right?
Uh-uh. Forget about merely needing to defend the rights of Arab-Americans — the Pentagon is invading everyone’s liberties. You could ask these folks:
In October 2004, the Broward County Anti-War Coalition was discovered by the ever-alert snoops to be planning a demonstration outside a military recruitment office. The group ended up in the CIFA database, even though the only crime of the 15-20 members who protested was to wave a giant sign proclaiming, “Bush Lied.”
In 2004, George Main, head of the Sacramento chapter of Vietnam Veterans for Peace, had organized a small Veterans Day protest in front of a military office. Not only did he and his VVP buddies end up with their names in a TALON report, but he also got a call from his government the night before the protest, pointedly suggesting that he was a threat to national security. “It was very intimidating to have a special agent call out of the ether,” George says.
About 10 peace activists who showed up outside Halliburton’s Houston headquarters in June 2004 also were reported to CIFA by a TALON team. Why would Halliburton warrant coverage under a program supposedly designed to stave off attacks on military installations? Pentagon officials say that its “force protection” mission now includes its private contractors.
These intrusions into perfectly legitimate First Amendment activities are not isolated mess-ups by a few overzealous military officers. Even the Pentagon concedes that thousands of TALON reports have been filed on totally innocent, nonthreatening civilians and are retained in CIFA’s computer banks.
DATA MINING. The Pentagon is hardly alone in rummaging through America’s vast array of computerized records — collecting, crosschecking, storing, analyzing and monitoring trillions of bits of our personal data, from our credit card transactions and our phone calls to every single internet search we’ve ever made. The Government Accountability Office reports that 52 federal agencies now operate nearly 200 of these data-mining programs, building files on anyone that the computers and bureaucrats deem the least bit suspicious. As one privacy expert puts it, “We have lists that are having baby lists at this point. They’re spawning faster than rabbits.”
The irony is that this mass invasion of our privacy does nothing to make Americans safer. Internet security expert Bruce Schneier points out that these data-mining systems are “so flooded with false alarms” that they’re “useless,” forcing agents to waste money and time chasing after thousands of innocent people.
POLITICAL ENEMIES. Dick Nixon must be grinning in his grave, for the FBI is now reprising the abusive role it played in tracking down Tricky Dick’s infamous enemies list. The FBI’s own “terrorist” files show that the agency has again been spying on such nonthreats as peaceful demonstrators at the 2004 political conventions, while also maintaining a “Terrorist Watch” list that includes such groups as “Food Not Bombs,” a volunteer group that serves vegetarian meals to homeless people.
Also, in 2002, the FBI’s Pittsburgh office spied on a group of “terrorists” operating in a “cell” called the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice. An agency memo warned that the center “holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh.” The memo notes that the Merton Center “is a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism.”
Pacifism! Holy J. Edgar Hoover! Forget about terrorists attacks — there are pacifists passing out leaflets in Pittsburgh!
SECRET SERVICE. Speaking of disruptive, the newly extended Patriot Act creates a new class of federal felon: the disruptor.
This chilling provision, tucked into the bill in January without a hearing or debate, authorizes the Secret Service “to charge suspects with breaching security or disruptive behavior at National Special Security Events.” What is NSSE? An event where the president or other protected official “will be temporarily visiting,” such as a public speech, a political rally, an inauguration ball, the Olympics, the Super Bowl or any other event designated by the Secret Service as being of “national significance.”
We’ve seen that simply wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt or having a pro-Democrat bumper sticker is enough to get you branded a disruptor, bounced from a Bush event and thrown in jail. But this provision broadens the reach of Bush’s exclusion zones, sanctions the lockdown on free speech and assembly rights, and turns what was a trespassing misdemeanor into a felony. Also, you can be considered a disruptor even if the VIP has not arrived at the NSSE or has already left. Under this provision, not only is the public official protected from “disruptors,” but also the NSSE itself becomes the protectee, criminalizing free speech at public events.
There are a thousand other cuts that the Bushites are making to America’s Bill of Rights, the rule of law and separation of powers. Theirs has become, for example, the most secret government in our history, spending billions of tax dollars a year to classify millions of even mundane documents, issuing executive fiats to deny “We The People” access to crucial public information under right-to-know laws, and trying to make it a federal crime not only to leak internal executive information (unless, of course, the White House does the leaking), but also to receive any leaked info.
The Bushites have made unprecedented efforts to silence scientists and dissenters within government. This administration has also launched a sweeping array of “citizen watch” programs with names like Coastal Beacon, CAT Eyes and Eagle Eyes, enlisting individuals and groups to spy on neighbors and report even the most unsubstantiated gossip to authorities. The eerie slogan of these watch programs is “Be our eyes and ears so we can calm your fears.”
Using its never-ending war as a bugaboo, the BushCheney regime is asserting that it is entitled to operate as a military presidency. The Madmen hate our freedoms, the Bushites screech, so in order to defeat The Madmen, our freedoms must be suspended … for as long as it takes. Not only is that grotesquely absurd, it is entirely un-American.