You are browsing the archive for civil liberties.

A Ripley’s Believe It or Not National Security State

7:17 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt

White House Tilt Shift

What would aliens think of our national security state?

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.  These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list.  Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries — but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie at its heart.  Perhaps reimagining what has developed in these last decades as a faith-based system — a new national religion — would help.  This, at least, is the way I would explain the new Washington to that wayward Martian.

Holy Warriors

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion.  It has its holy orders.  It has its sacred texts (classified).  It has its dogma and its warrior priests.  It has its sanctified promised land, known as “the homeland.”  It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.  It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.  It is Manichaean in its view of the world.  As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

Read the rest of this entry →

Engelhardt: Paying the Bin Laden Tax

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The American Lockdown State 
Post-Legal Drones, the Bin Laden Tax, and Other Wonders of Our American World 
By Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Osama Bin Laden

Americans have paid a high price for the paranoia created by Bin Laden's actions.

Consider Inauguration Day, more than two weeks gone and already part of our distant past.  In its wake, President Obama was hailed (or reviled) for his “liberal” second inaugural address.  On that day everything from his invocation of women’s rights (“Seneca Falls”), the civil rights movement (“Selma”), and the gay rights movement (“Stonewall”) to his wife’s new bangs and Beyoncé’s lip-syncing was fodder for the media extravaganza.  The president was even praised (or reviled) for what he took pains not to bring up: the budget deficit.  Was anything, in fact, not grist for the media mill, the hordes of talking heads, and the chattering classes?

One subject, at least, got remarkably little attention during the inaugural blitz and, when mentioned, certainly struck few as odd or worth dwelling on.  Yet nothing better caught our changing American world.  Washington, after all, was in a lockdown mode unmatched by any inauguration from another era — not even Lincoln’s second inaugural in the midst of the Civil War, or Franklin Roosevelt’s during World War II, or John F. Kennedy’s at the height of the Cold War.

Here’s how NBC Nightly News described some of the security arrangements as the day approached:

[T]he airspace above Washington… [will be] a virtual no-fly zone for 30 miles in all directions from the U.S. capital.  Six miles of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers will be shut down, with 150 blocks of downtown Washington closed to traffic, partly out of concern for car or truck bombs… with counter-snipers on top of buildings around the capital and along the parade route… [and] detectors monitoring the air for toxins… At the ready near the capital, thousands of doses of antidotes in case of a chemical or biological attack… All this security will cost about $120 million dollars for hundreds of federal agents, thousands of local police, and national guardsmen from 25 states.

Consider just the money.  It’s common knowledge that, until the recent deal over the renewal of the George W. Bush tax cuts for all but the richest of Americans, taxes had not been raised since the read-my-lips-no-new-taxes era of his father.  That’s typical of the way we haven’t yet assimilated the new world we find ourselves in.  After all, shouldn’t that $120 million in taxpayer money spent on “safety” and “security” for a single event in Washington be considered part of an ongoing Osama bin Laden tax?

Maybe it’s time to face the facts: this isn’t your grandfather’s America. Once, prospective Americans landed in a New World.  This time around, a new world’s landed on us.

Making Fantasy Into Reality

Read the rest of this entry →

Tom Engelhardt: The Intelligence Bureaucracy That Ate Our World

7:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Data Mining You
How the Intelligence Community Is Creating a New American World

By Tom Engelhardt

I was out of the country only nine days, hardly a blink in time, but time enough, as it happened, for another small, airless room to be added to the American national security labyrinth.  On March 22nd, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Jr. signed off on new guidelines allowing the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a post-9/11 creation, to hold on to information about Americans in no way known to be connected to terrorism — about you and me, that is — for up to five years.  (Its previous outer limit was 180 days.)  This, Clapper claimed, “will enable NCTC to accomplish its mission more practically and effectively.”

Joseph K., that icon of single-lettered anonymity from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, would undoubtedly have felt right at home in Clapper’s Washington.  George Orwell would surely have had a few pungent words to say about those anodyne words “practically and effectively,” not to speak of “mission.”

For most Americans, though, it was just life as we’ve known it since September 11, 2001, since we scared ourselves to death and accepted that just about anything goes, as long as it supposedly involves protecting us from terrorists.  Basic information or misinformation, possibly about you, is to be stored away for five years — or until some other attorney general and director of national intelligence think it’s even more practical and effective to keep you on file for 10 years, 20 years, or until death do us part — and it hardly made a ripple.

If Americans were to hoist a flag designed for this moment, it might read “Tread on Me” and use that classic illustration of the boa constrictor swallowing an elephant from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.  That, at least, would catch something of the absurdity of what the National Security Complex has decided to swallow of our American world.

Oh, and in those nine days abroad, a new word surfaced on my horizon, one just eerie and ugly enough for our new reality: yottabyte.  Thank National Security Agency (NSA) expert James Bamford for that.  He wrote a piece for Wired magazine on a super-secret, $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center the NSA is building in Bluffdale, Utah.  Focused on data mining and code-breaking and five times the size of the U.S. Capitol, it is expected to house information beyond compare, “including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails — parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’”

The NSA, adds Bamford, “has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net.”

Which brings us to yottabyte — which is, Bamford assures us, equivalant to septillion bytes, a number “so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.”  The Utah center will be capable of storing a yottabyte or more of information (on your tax dollar).

Large as it is, that mega-project in Utah is just one of many sprouting like mushrooms in the sunless forest of the U.S. intelligence world.  In cost, for example, it barely tops the $1.7 billion headquarters complex in Virginia that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, with an estimated annual black budget of at least $5 billion, built for its 16,000 employees.  Opened in 2011, it’s the third-largest federal building in the Washington area.  (And I’ll bet you didn’t even know that your tax dollars paid for such an agency, no less its gleaming new headquarters.)  Or what about the 33 post-9/11 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work that were under construction or had already been built when Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote their “Top Secret America” series back in 2010?

In these last years, while so many Americans were foreclosed upon or had their homes go “underwater” and the construction industry went to hell, the intelligence housing bubble just continued to grow.  And there’s no sign that any of this seems abidingly strange to most Americans.

A System That Creates Its Own Reality

To leave the country, of course, I had to briefly surrender my shoes, hat, belt, computer — you know the routine — and even then, stripped to the basics, I had to pass through a scanner of a sort that not so long ago caused protest and upset but now is evidently as American as apple pie.  Then I spent those nine days touring some of Spain’s architectural wonders, including the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba, and that city’s ancient synagogue (the only one to survive the expulsion of the Jews in 1492), as well as Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, his vast Barcelona basilica, without once — in a country with its own grim history of terror attacks — being wanded or patted down or questioned or even passing through a metal detector.  Afterwards, I took a flight back to a country whose national security architecture had again expanded subtly in the name of “my” safety.

Now, I don’t want to overdo it.  In truth, those new guidelines were no big deal.  The information on — as far as anyone knows — innocent Americans that the NCTC wanted to keep for those extra 4½ years was already being held ad infinitum by one or another of our 17 major intelligence agencies and organizations.  So the latest announcement seems to represent little more than bureaucratic housecleaning, just a bit of extra scaffolding added to the Great Mosque or basilica of the new American intelligence labyrinth.  It certainly was nothing to write home about, no less trap a fictional character in.

Admittedly, since 9/11 the U.S. Intelligence Community, as it likes to call itself, has expanded to staggering proportions.  With those 17 outfits having a combined annual intelligence budget of more than $80 billion (a figure which doesn’t even include all intelligence expenditures), you could think of that community as having carried out a statistical coup d’état.  In fact, at a moment when America’s enemies — a few thousand scattered jihadis, the odd minority insurgency, and a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran, North Korea, and perhaps Venezuela) — couldn’t be less imposing, its growth has been little short of an institutional miracle.  By now, it has a momentum all its own.  You might even say that it creates its own reality. Read the rest of this entry →

Karen Greenberg: A New Age of Enemies

6:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Afghan Boy at Mazar-e-Sharif (photo: United Nations Photo, flickr)

Afghan Boy at Mazar-e-Sharif (photo: United Nations Photo, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Just a couple of days after “Sergeant Massacre” left his base in southern Afghanistan and singlehandedly perpetrated the My Lai of the Afghan War, shooting and evidently in some cases stabbing to death 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, a district police chief in Kapisa Province reported that a NATO air strike had killed three civilians and injured two more. Mistaken for insurgents, two shopkeepers had, he claimed, died on the spot, as had an elderly man later. A NATO spokesman responded that the dead were, in fact, insurgents, though “additional information” on those deaths was being collected.

Since then, while the media has been filled with discussion of the until recently unidentified sergeant’s atrocity and what it means for America’s war in Afghanistan, those other dead Afghans have typically faded into obscurity. There have been no further reports on what happened to them, nor, as far as we know, has one of the scores of U.S. and NATO “investigations” so-thorough-they-never-manage-to-see-the-light-of-day been launched. But those three contested deaths, not the sergeant’s grim, up-close-and-personal slaughter, best catch the nature of America’s Afghan War, ever since in December 2001 a B-52 and two B-1B bombers took out 110 of 112 Afghan villagers celebrating a wedding. Though the sergeant’s acts have been headlined, Afghans have been dying, largely unnoticed here, for a long while now. The truth is this: from the air and on the ground, Americans have been profligate with Afghan lives.

Now, thanks to the Koran burnings and those 16 deaths that have refused to fade into obscurity, Washington faces its destiny in Afghanistan, long written in dead bodies. The Obama administration, which doubled down on “the right war” in 2009, confronts a situation that was guaranteed to end badly from the moment George W. Bush and his top advisors decided that taking out al-Qaeda wasn’t enough, that the U.S. was going to stay in Afghanistan and dominate the Greater Middle East for generations.

Sergeant Massacre, like those charred Korans, is simply a harbinger of the arrival of the predictable endpoint of that disastrous decision. Even Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta knows that if we stay in Afghanistan, so, after a fashion, will the staff sergeant. As he said recently, “These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place… in any war… and this is not the first of those events, and it probably will not be the last.” Yet the Obama administration seens incapable of stopping. Panetta finished his comments this way: “But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy.” That sums up the folly of Washington today. “These events” are, in reality, making a mockery of that strategy, but the momentum of these last years still carries them toward an Afghanistan forever policy, even when their eyes tell them otherwise and the panic sets in.

Not surprisingly, this leads to a striking set of inanities. A New York Times piece on the debate in Washington about speeding up the troop pullout, for instance, included these bizarre passages from an assortment of typically unnamed American and European “officials.” Speaking of an upcoming Afghan War meeting in Chicago, they claimed that “Mr. Obama and the NATO allies… must… present a picture of success that includes… a NATO withdrawal that is coming only after a job well done… A European official said… that it was imperative that the United States and its NATO partners project a public face to the Afghans that while NATO troops will be leaving Afghanistan, the West will not abandon the country. ‘The most important thing now is the messaging,’ the official said.” Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Stephan Salisbury, Keeping an Eye on Everyone

8:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Let H. David Kotz put American surveillance activities in context by focusing our attention on what this government hasn’t spent much time looking at while it was putting its 24/7 efforts into watching the rest of us.  Kotz is the inspector general for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and last week he arrived on Capitol Hill for another round of damning testimony on his bumbling employer, the nation’s top financial regulator. It was Kotz who, in a 456-page report released last year, revealed the SEC’s spectacular failure to uncover Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, despite mountains of clues and tips. Now, Kotz laid bare for a Senate subcommittee the SEC’s pathetic investigation of Texas financier Allen Stanford’s $8 billion Ponzi scheme, a staggering monument to fraud and deception built over nearly two decades.

Kotz’s report unearthed plenty of gems. For instance, an SEC examiner in Fort Worth, Texas, described Stanford’s investor return rate as "absolutely ludicrous" and, as early as 1997, suspected the wealthy Texan of running a scam. (The commission wouldn’t file a suit until 12 years — and billions of dollars of investors’ money — later.) Or that the enforcement chief in the SEC’s Fort Worth office, Spencer Barasch, had blocked six different opportunities to investigate Stanford. Or that after seven years of stymieing the commission’s efforts, Barasch left the SEC and immediately sought to represent Stanford as his counsel in — you guessed it — the SEC’s fraud suit.

As in his report on Madoff, Kotz painfully illustrated how our financial watchdogs, from examiners on the ground to executives in Washington, flubbed one of the biggest fraud cases in American history. If only the federal government were half as rabid about sniffing out Ponzi and pyramid schemes as it is in "protecting" our national security, where no lengths are ever too great, including secretly monitoring screenings of the documentary Gasland, a documentary film about the dangers of natural gas drilling. As Stephan Salisbury, author of Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, points out, a rash of recent controversies has further illuminated the widening gyre of the American surveillance state, which weekly threatens to reach ever further into our daily lives. Andy


Surveillance, America’s Pastime 
A Hall of Shame of State Snooping, Prying, and Informing Aimed at Destroying the Fabric of Civil Society
By Stephan Salisbury

The dried blood on the concrete floor is there for all to see, a stain forever marking the spot on a Memphis motel balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. lay mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet.

It is a stark and ghostly image speaking to the sharp pain of absence. King is gone. His aides are gone. Only the stain remains. What now?

That image is, of course, a photograph taken by Ernest C. Withers, Memphis born and bred, and known as the photographer of the civil rights movement.  He was there at the Lorraine Motel, as he had been at so many other critical places, recording iconic images of those tumultuous years. 

In addition to photographing moments large and small in the struggle for black civil rights in the South, Withers had another job. He was an informer for the FBI, passing along information on the doings of King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Ben Hooks, and other leaders of the movement. He reported on meetings he attended as a photographer, welcomed in by those he knew so intimately. He passed along photos of events and gatherings to his handler, Special Agent William H. Lawrence of the FBI’s Memphis office. He named names and sketched out plans.

In an exhaustive recent report, the Memphis Commercial Appeal detailed Withers’s undercover activities, provoking a pained and complex response from the many who knew him and were involved in the civil rights movement.  His family simply refuses to believe that the paper’s report could be accurate. On the other hand, Andrew Young, with King during those last moments, accepts Withers’s career as an informant, saying it just doesn’t bother him.  Civil rights leaders, including King, viewed Withers as crucial to the movement’s struggle to portray itself accurately in Jet, Ebony, and other black journals. In that Withers was successful — and the rest, Young suggests, doesn’t matter.  Besides, he told the Commercial Appeal, they had nothing to hide.  “I don’t think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side.”

Activist and comedian Dick Gregory, hearing Young’s comments, turned on his old comrade. “We are talking about a guy hired by the FBI to destroy us and the fact that Andy could say that means there must be a deep hatred down inside of him,” he said. “If he feels that way about King only God knows what he feels about the rest of us.”

This is the way it is with informers, so useful to reckless law enforcement authorities and employed by the tens of thousands as the secret shock troops of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Surveillance has multiple uses, not the least of which is to sow mistrust, which in turn eats at the cohesion of families, social and political movements, and ultimately the fabric of community itself.

D’Army Bailey, a former Memphis judge and target of FBI surveillance in the 1960s, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the use of informers in everyday life ruptured fundamental civic bonds, fomenting deep suspicion and mistrust. “It’s something you would expect in the most ruthless totalitarian regimes.  Once that trust is shattered that doesn’t go away.”

Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter and now a professor of journalism at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University, pointed out that the black community in the South in the 1960s granted a special trust to black journalists. Indeed, some of those journalists took out an ad in black newspapers in February 1970 pledging not to spy or inform or betray that trust.

“If all that we’ve been told through these documents that have been released, if that’s true, then it puts a… very, very, very heavy, heavy mark not just on [Withers] and his work but on the trust that the black journalists made many years ago with the black community,” Caldwell said.

Keeping Tabs on Americans for Fun and Profit

That was then, this is now.  The Withers story is, of course, ancient history, shocking to many, yes, even though it is well known that FBI and police informers permeated the movement in general and King’s circle in particular, and illegal wiretaps and bugs snared even the most private conversations of civil rights leaders. But few who thought or wrote about the Withers news found it an especially relevant tale for our present moment.  How wrong they were. 

If, amid anti-communist hysterias and social upheaval decades ago, the U.S. government employed armies of informers and other forms of often illegal surveillance, government and law enforcement agencies today are actually casting a far broader surveillance net in the name of security in a relentless effort to watch and hear everything — and to far less attention or concern than in the 1960s.

In fact, a controversy in Pennsylvania has just erupted over secret state surveillance of legitimate political groups engaged in meetings, protests, and debates involving subjects of public importance — natural gas drilling, abortion, military policy, animal mistreatment, gay rights. Such controversies over domestic political spying have surfaced remarkably regularly since September 11, 2001 — police and FBI informers in mosques, Defense Department surveillance of antiwar groups and even gay organizations, National Security Agency illegal wiretapping, and surveillance of groups planning protests for the political conventions of the major parties. Revelations of such activities have become almost white noise.  All were covered in the media, but cumulatively it’s as though none of them ever happened.

The Pennsylvania surveillance case, which is just the latest of these glimpses into the secret surveillance world of our ever more powerful national security state, does not directly involve informers (as far as we know). It marks a different point on what FBI Director Robert Mueller has referred to as the “continuum” — the whole environment of daily life, really, which in the post-9/11 world has been appropriated by law enforcement officials in the name of “terrorism prevention.”

“There is a continuum between those who would express dissent and those who would do a terrorist act,” Mueller said ominously in a 2002 speech. “Somewhere along that continuum we have to begin to investigate. If we do not, we are not doing our job. It is difficult for us to find a path between the two extremes.”

What does that mean? Just last week, FBI agents raided half a dozen homes of anti-war activists in Minneapolis and Chicago, carting away papers, computers, clothing, and other personal effects, all in the name of investigating “material support of terrorism.” The activists, their supporters, and their attorneys have a different view: they see the raids as designed to intimidate and disrupt legitimate political dissent — points on “the continuum.” It is a virtual certainty that evidence of intrusive surveillance will surface as these cases mature.

In Pennsylvania the continuum has meant, most recently, that the state Office of Homeland Security contracted with a small outfit, the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research, run by a couple of ex-cops, one from York, Pennsylvania, the other raised in Philadelphia and a veteran of Israeli law enforcement. For the past year, the institute has been providing secret intelligence reports via the state Homeland Security Office to Pennsylvania police departments and private companies in order, the reports say, to “support public and private sector, critical infrastructure protection initiatives and strategies.”

Many of these reports focused on groups opposed to Marcellus Shale drilling, which you may not have known was a breeding ground for terrorism. In fact, you may not even know what it is. But particularly in Pennsylvania and New York, Marcellus Shale means big bucks. The shale is part of a 600-mile-long geological formation containing a huge reservoir of natural gas.  Energy companies are seeking to exploit that formation in ways that have raised serious and widespread environmental concerns.  Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania, facing severe budget problems, wants to impose a tax on the eager drillers. With Marcellus Shale, there’s something for everybody — except for environmentalists concerned about the impact of drilling on the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Delaware River basin.

Opposition from various environmental groups, then, has threatened to spoil the party. What a surprise to find many of those groups mentioned in one “counterterrorism” report after another. For instance, a report on an “anti-gas” training session in Ithaca, New York, noted that the group conducting the training (part of a radical environmental network) was nonviolent, but should be considered dangerous anyway.

“Training provided by the Ruckus Group does not include violent tactics such as the use of IEDs [roadside bombs] or small arms,” a 2009 institute report assured its no-doubt-relieved readers. “The Ruckus Group does, however, provide expertise in planning and conducting demonstrations and campaigns that can close down a facility and embarrass a company.” To spell it out: this counterterrorist monitoring institute was providing public-relations alerts for private energy companies at tax-payer expense.

For nearly a decade, 9/11 has been used to justify this kind of “intelligence” provided to corporate and private interests. Such information may have nothing to do with terrorism, but it serves nicely to illustrate how the protection of private profit has trumped concern for real public security. What was missed as institute “analysts” pondered potential Ruckus Group embarrassments to energy companies?

Rendell, who claimed shock and embarrassment when the reports became public this month, has now cancelled the institute’s $103,000 state contract.  He also insisted that he knew nothing about the contract, and reaffirmed the right of peaceful protest in the United States.

Not so fast. My colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer Dan Rubin first reported the institute’s questionable focus on July 19th. At that time, the state director of homeland security, James Powers, defended the institute’s work, citing intelligence warnings about protests at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last year. “Powers said that Institute analysts posed in chat rooms as sympathizers of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which opposed the summit, and learned where the group would be mobilizing,” Rubin wrote. ‘“We got the information to the Pittsburgh police,’ he said, ‘and they were able to cut them off at the pass.”’

How could Rendell not know about this? Among the many unanswered questions to date: Who received these reports and for what purpose? The state has declined so far to disclose a list of the recipients. But in an email that Powers inadvertently sent to an anti-drilling group, he all but admits that the intelligence operation, at least in part, served corporate drilling interests.

“We want to continue providing this [intelligence] support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies,” Powers wrote. (He resigned at the beginning of October amid on-going criticism over the institute’s reports.)

The Institute of Terrorism Response and Research was not alone in monitoring the Pittsburgh G-20 summit, of course. The Pennsylvania State Police also kept tabs on those potential demonstrators, funneling information gathered into the state “fusion center,” its surveillance and intelligence data hub.

Fusion centers are largely products of the war on terror, a result of the massive waves of federal “security” counterterrorism funding that flowed nationwide in the wake of 9/11. More than 70 such centers now exist around the country, serving to gather “intelligence” from private and law-enforcement sources and state and federal agencies. This information is stored for future use as well as distributed to local police, state police, private corporations, and various public agencies.

In the case of the Pittsburgh G-20 summit surveillance, Pennsylvania’s fusion center passed its information on protests and protest groups along to other local and federal law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and the U.S. military. (An instance of this probably resulted in the arrest of Elliott Madison, a self-described anarchist who was supposedly distributing information to demonstrators via Twitter, an activity applauded by U.S. authorities when utilized by Iranian dissidents, but apparently frowned upon when employed stateside.)

The specter of bombs, vandalism, disruption, violence, and anarchy infused these reports and hundreds of arrests were made during largely peaceful protests. Civil rights suits have, not surprisingly, followed in the aftermath of the summit.

Names, Names, and More Names

Here is the continuum at work. A group is singled out by an intelligence report — a Quaker “cell” opposed to the wars in the Middle East, for instance, or opponents of Marcellus Shale drilling, or those who disagree with G-20 policies. Once the group is identified, federal agencies and state and local police move to insert informers in it and/or aggressively investigate it. Such surveillance, whether done by informers or by agents picking through trash bags, generates names. Names go into databases and are networked nationwide.  Databases grow.

Michael Perelman, one of the principals in the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research, defended his group’s work by arguing that even peaceful protests have security implications and that the institute did not track individuals. This is disingenuous. The institute and the state fusion center, officially known as the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, may work in parallel worlds, but their methods mirror each other. The state fusion center, run by the state police, provides access to law enforcement nationwide. Names of groups and members of groups are its stock in trade, the meat of all surveillance.  In the same way, the state Homeland Security Office distributed the institute’s reports to hundreds of agencies and private companies.  

The tracking of legitimate political groups and people engaged in lawful political activity is, of course, a fundamental corruption of American democracy. Consider what happened in Oakland at the onset of the Iraq war. A peaceful protest at the Oakland port was met by police who opened fire on fleeing demonstrators and bystanders alike, shooting wooden bullets and tear gas canisters. In my book, Mohamed’s Ghosts, I report that police had been alerted to potential violence by the California Anti-Terrorism Training Center, a state fusion center tracking political groups — exactly the same thing done by the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research. About 60 people were injured, including 11 longshoremen, and 25 protestors were arrested. This event was justified by the fusion center’s spokesman who claimed that a protest of a war waged against “international terrorism” is itself “a terrorist act.”

But the story didn’t end there. A month after the initial 2003 protest, demonstrators, led by Direct Action to Stop the War among other groups, held another Oakland protest to denounce the earlier police violence. Leaders of that protest, it turned out, were undercover Oakland police operatives who directed the protest’s planning. Deputy Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan shrugged it all off, saying it was important for his department “to gather the information and maybe even direct [protestors] to do something that we wanted them to do.”

The identification of dissident political groups, the gathering of names, the manipulation of actual acts — these are the overt purposes of surveillance and informing. In reality, the goal of all this furtive, fervent activity is not to dismantle terrorist networks but to disrupt legitimate civic and political activity — and especially, in the post-9/11 world, to identify and infiltrate U.S. Muslim and Middle Eastern congregations, civic groups, neighborhoods, and activist organizations.

Toward that end, the FBI has moved to beef up its ranks of informers. In its 2008 budget, the bureau sought more than $13 million simply to vet and track more than 15,000 working informants, and noted that new informants are signing up every day. Information provided by those informants and by other increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated surveillance techniques is now funneled to fusion centers — making it all just a mouse-click away from public and private agencies nationwide.

In the 1960s, when Ernest Withers was an informant, such computer-driven intelligence storage and distribution was only a gleam in J. Edgar Hoover’s eye. Nevertheless, in Memphis, where Withers did the bulk of his work, information he passed along helped dismantle the Invaders, a radical group that saw 34 members arrested. Withers also gave government handlers photographs of religious leaders, political activists, and labor organizers, shadow portraits for shadow profiles in the FBI’s burgeoning files. These were used by law enforcement authorities in efforts to control the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis.

Withers’s image of striking Memphis sanitation workers holding aloft an unbroken sea of signs reading “I Am A Man” remains as vivid today as it was half a century ago. That a photographer who documented the segregated South so powerfully labored as a police informer may seem an unnerving contradiction. But Ronald Reagan also served as an FBI informer. So did the ACLU’s famed First Amendment lawyer, Morris Ernst. Gerald Ford, a member of the Warren Commission, funneled information about the Kennedy assassination directly to J. Edgar Hoover as well.

Informers have multiple, often conflicting motives, and Withers, who died in 2007, is not around to explain or defend himself. The report on his activities during the civil rights movement, his betrayals of the movement’s most prominent leaders, and his hand in destroying local activist groups, however, is a powerful reminder of the long history of political surveillance in this country and the corruptions and animus it breeds. Whether it is the FBI’s use of informers within the civil rights movement or the state of Pennsylvania’s monitoring of legitimate dissent in the post-9/11 world, the ultimate victim of such activity is American civil society itself.

The tainting of character, the undermining of basic trust, the disruption of democratic politics — these are the great achievements of state surveillance. Thanks to 9/11 and truckloads of homeland security money, the stain of those achievements is now flowing as swiftly and freely as streams of data on a vast fiber optic network.

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland.

[Note on sources: Analysis of the use of surveillance and fusion centers at G-20 summits in Pittsburgh and elsewhere may be found in .pdf file format here.  Alarmist police reports disseminated on G-20 threats in Pittsburgh can be found in .pdf file format here.  The 2008 FBI budget document can be seen in .pdf file format here. The Justice Department’s Inspector General has just issued a report examining the propriety of FBI investigation and surveillance of domestic political activity; the report, well worth reading, can be found, also in .pdf file format, here.]

Copyright 2010 Stephan Salisbury