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The Government Is Watching You


Most Americans seem detached from the U.S. government’s military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. U.S. forces not only engage in wanton killing and harsh treatment of prisoners, but also surveillance and other intelligence activities that might appall the American people if they were used at home.

Well, guess what: “Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America,” writes the Washington Post in “Monitoring America,” part of its continuing series “Top Secret America.”

The Post reports,

Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.

The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation’s history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing. [Emphasis added.]

The government’s goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States.

As we’ve come to expect, “The Department of Homeland Security, for example, does not know how much money it spends each year on what are known as state fusion centers, which bring together and analyze information from various agencies within a state.”

The authors, Dana Priest and William Arkin, identify the stakes as they see it: “The Post findings paint a picture of a country at a crossroads, where long-standing privacy principles are under challenge by these new efforts to keep the nation safe.”

But that’s the old false alternative between freedom and safety that Benjamin Franklin famously debunked many years ago.

Sad to say, this article has gotten little attention. Is it a matter of so little importance? Governments at all levels are united in a campaign to spy on Americans, gathering, analyzing, and storing data without probable cause and hardly anyone seems to care.

Have Americans become so docile that they roll over for anything rationalized as necessary to the “war on terror”? If so, they have abandoned one of greatest virtues of early generations: suspicion of power. They may as well stop talking about liberty and individualism because it is just a lot of empty chatter now.

The Post reports,

The FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously. It is accessible to an increasing number of local law enforcement and military criminal investigators, increasing concerns that it could somehow end up in the public domain. [Emphasis added.]

That sounds too much like what goes on under totalitarian regimes, in which the government keeps tabs on the population, encouraging everyone to spy on everyone else and provide tips on “suspicious” activity. How many people will end up in the database because someone who dislikes them reported them to the authorities? The Homeland Security Department’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign is truly threatening. Do we want to be a nation of informants?

“See Something, Say Something” is the brainchild of Arizona’s former governor, Janet Napolitano, who is now secretary of Homeland Security. The Post noted that under Napolitano, Arizona “built one of the strongest state intelligence organizations outside of New York to try to stop illegal immigration and drug importation.” It should surprise no one that surveillance tools honed in programs that oppress people who make, sell, or use drugs (misnamed the “war on drugs”) or who move freely in search of a better life are now being used generally on the American population.

The secretary sees her mission in ominously broad terms, says the Post:

Napolitano has taken her “See Something, Say Something” campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation’s capital for “Terror Tips” and to “Report Suspicious Activity.” She recently enlisted the help of Wal-Mart, Amtrak, major sports leagues, hotel chains and metro riders. In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists. “This represents a shift for our country,” she told New York City police officers and firefighters on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary this fall [2010]. “In a sense, this harkens back to when we drew on the tradition of civil defense and preparedness that predated today’s concerns.”

Everyone a suspect

The whole population is to be enlisted in this effort in two ways: as amateur spies and as the targets of that spying. To the extent it is actually taken seriously by people, it will transform the country.

As part of this effort, local police are being militarized in a menacing way. The process began with the war on drugs, but it is intensifying under the guise of the “war on terror.” The Post describes one scene:

On a recent night in Memphis, a patrol car rolled slowly through a parking lot in a run-down section of town. The military-grade infrared camera on its hood moved robotically from left to right, snapping digital images of one license plate after another and analyzing each almost instantly.

Suddenly, a red light flashed on the car’s screen along with the word “warrant.”

“Got a live one! Let’s do it,” an officer called out.

Is that the society we want? Well, that’s what we have. We’re not talking about preventing tyranny anymore. We need to roll it back.

Thanks to federal funding, local and state authorities are purchasing hand-held, wireless fingerprint scanners, like the ones used by U.S. troops in Iraq; equipment to obtain biometric digital mug shots; and surveillance cameras.

“We have got things now we didn’t have before,” Memphis Police Department Director Larry Godwin told the Post. “Some of them we can talk about. Some of them we can’t.” His department, adds the Post, “has produced record numbers of arrests using all this new analysis and technology.”

Meanwhile, at the federal level the FBI

is building a vast repository controlled by people who work in a top-secret vault on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington. This one stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. What they have done is appear to be acting suspiciously to a town sheriff, a traffic cop, or even a neighbor.

If the new Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, or SAR, works as intended, the Guardian database may someday hold files forwarded by all police departments across the country in America’s continuing search for terrorists within its borders.

The effectiveness of this database depends, in fact, on collecting the identities of people who are not known criminals or terrorists — and on being able to quickly compile in-depth profiles of them. [Emphases added.]

The Post informs us, “The government defines a suspicious activity as ‘observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity’ related to terrorism.”

Useless data

Don’t think this really has anything to do with “terrorism.” For one thing, even when a “suspicious” person is cleared of wrongdoing, the file resulting from the surveillance remains in the Guardian database. Why would that be? Moreover, the high volume of information flowing into the government’s computers — the Post previously reported that close to two billion emails are vacuumed up every day — will actually render law-enforcement agencies less able to detect real threats. Indiscriminate gathering of data makes us less, not more, safe. The Post reports that “some officials say [that the DHS reports] deliver a never-ending stream of information that is vague, alarmist and often useless.”

We shouldn’t be so naive as to think these new data-gathering powers won’t be used even when the authorities know there is no threat. The Post says that “state reports have sometimes inappropriately reported on lawful meetings.” In Virginia, the newspaper reports, “a terrorism threat assessment in 2009 nam[ed] historically black colleges as potential hubs for terrorism.” And, “From 2005 to 2007, the Maryland State Police went even further, infiltrating and labeling as terrorists local groups devoted to human rights, antiwar causes and bike lanes.”

That should surprise no one. Give government the power to spy on bad guys, and it will spy on anyone it feels like. Betting against that is like betting the sun won’t come up tomorrow.

Of course, government officials say only real threats are the target of surveillance. Notice that the war party was wrong when it said that “fighting them over there” would mean we won’t have to “fight them over here.” In fact, fighting over there is what brought the threat (if there truly is one) here. But now we’re told that home-grown “terrorism” is the new big danger. There is much reason for skepticism: The alleged plots exposed by the FBI seem to have been hatched by the FBI’s own informants. If the FBI has to furnish a “suspect” with phony explosives before arresting him, was there really a threat? Such cases should sicken every American. Government agents should not be giving security tests to people and arresting them if they fail.

But apparently in this age of the “war on terror” anything goes. Does anybody care?

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.