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We all know that our phone calls are being monitored by the NSA – location, length of call, who we are calling and when. Likewise, our emails are being scanned by the NSA and our email providers alike. Recent court filings revealed what everyone already knew anyway – that Google reads Gmail users’ emails for targeted advertising. No one was surprised yet the overt admission by the company seemed to fan the flames concerning internet privacy and government/corporate spying which have grown to a wildfire in the past few months.
So no one should really be surprised to learn that this new-wave of tech/internet spying isn’t the only way we’re being monitored. The ACLU released documents this week of examples of the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which, according to the ACLU is “a vast information sharing program that encourages the collection and sharing of “suspicious activity” among private parties and local, state and federal law enforcement.” Basically, a database for those crazy terrorists lurking around every corner – you know, the guy taking pictures with a camera phone on a train, or the suspiciously “dark” looking man buying a lot of water, or maybe that lady taking pictures of the post office. The POST OFFICE! Who knows what dubious and sinister plot she could have planned!
This would be funny, if each of those weren’t actual examples of the ACLU report. These “suspicious activity reports” are meant to ferret out terrorists and threats to homeland security, people like Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the Boston Bombers) however, what this deluge of mostly useless information manages to do is to bury the real security threats. According to a report released by The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (co-authored by a policy analyst, a homeland security wonk, and the commanding officer in the LA Police Department’s Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau), these suspicious activity reports have inundated law enforcement. One of the co-authors, Chief Michael Downing of the Los Angeles Police Department, said that these SARs have “flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise.”
This torrent of information – whether from SARs or the NSA’s dragnet surveillance policy – is simply too much to handle. James Bamford, an investigative reporter who has covered the NSA for the past three decades and was instrumental in exposing its existence in the 80s said in a Democracy Now! interview that this new NSA policy of information gorging has made it even more difficult to find the real security threats. He said:
“You know, we’ve had this going on for seven years, this internal domestic metadata telephone collection and, up until 2011, the email collection also. And yet, we’ve had—after 9/11, we had the—we had the underwear bomber, the person that was flying to Detroit that was going to blow up a plane Christmas Day, the Times Square bomber, the two people in Boston that just committed the bombing on the marathon day, and so forth. Now, all those people were communicating internationally, basically. They were all communicating either to Chechnya, or the Times Square bomber was communicating to Pakistan, and the underwear bomber was in Yemen and communicating with other countries in the Middle East and also to Nigeria, for example. So if the NSA had been taking all this attention and paying attention to foreign communications and international communications instead of domestic communications, it might have discovered those. But to have a track record where you’re not able to discover those, because you’ve got too much electronic hay on the electronic haystack and—impossible to find that little needle.”
But these SARs go farther than just reports in a database. Following the ACLU release, NPR interviewed Hal Bergman, a freelance photographer in Los Angeles, who often photographs industrial areas like bridges, ports, and refineries; behavior that got him in trouble with the FBI after security guards reported him for photographing in public areas. The article continues:
“I show my portfolio. I show ‘em what I was shooting. I may have shown ‘em what I shot that day. And after five minutes of this, what felt like a really tense interrogation, they got really friendly. They realized I was harmless,” Bergman says.
A year later, one of the same agents called him again, following up on another report. Bergman said the agent already knew he wasn’t a threat, but he couldn’t close the file until he’d asked him certain questions.
“He said to me, ‘Do you hold any ill will toward the United States of America?’ And I said, ‘No, no I don’t.” And he says, ‘OK.’ “
Seemingly harmless? No, says Mike German, who spent 16 years in the FBI and is now senior policy counsel with the ACLU in Washington, DC. “This is a system that is dulling the response, rather than helping,” he says in the NPR piece. What’s more, the SARs are rife with racial, ethnic, religious, and political bias. “What we see here with these reports is that they are being based on people’s political speech in some cases,” German continues, “And people’s other First Amendment activity, like photography, and often based on their religion.”
So sure, you’ve got the Bill-of-Rights-ensured right to privacy in the United States, but only insofar as you accept that your government will collect metadata from every phone call you make, scan your emails, monitor your social media, and collect harmless data about your penchant for bridge photography. Privacy is surveillance – the ultimate in Orwellian double-think.
And this is what we’re encouraged to believe is right and good. In this shining beacon of equality, you can practice the religion (or non-theism) of your choosing, just don’t call your god Allah unless you want FBI agents and police departments infiltrating your place of worship and branding your entire congregation a terrorist organization (ahem, NYPD). And while we’re at it, don’t even look remotely Muslim, Middle Eastern, Asian, Arab, or any other word that could describe the “others” we’re encouraged to fear. Be clear that all dark-skinned folks from anywhere NEAR one of those “terrorist” countries we are fighting will be lumped all into one easy-to-identify group that we can all agree to hate (such as the beautiful Nina Davuluri, an American citizen with parents of Indian ancestry who just won Miss America to a flurry of confused, geographically-challenged racists tweets and remarks).
“If you see something, say something,” we’re told repetitively in airports, train stations, bus stops, and on billboards around the country, turning us all into spies for The State, willing to turn over our neighbors, our families, our friends; encouraging us to see all other humans as potential threats to our very way of life. Our culture, our values, our very survival is constantly under threat by The Other – the shifty scary man who calls his god something different from yours and wears weird head scarves.
“A sudden hot sweat had broken out all over Winston’s body. His face remained completely inscrutable. Never show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away.” Once Winston awoke to the horrors of his government and state in Orwell’s 1984, he regarded everyone with suspicion, not knowing who would give him up as a traitor to the ultimate in state overlords, Big Brother. One character, Mrs. Parsons, is paranoid even with her own children, who she is certain will give her away to the Thought Police, as children especially are subject to propaganda and can be easily manipulated tools of The State.
“Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it… All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children.”
It is fear that rules us: fear of each other, fear of Big Brother, fear of being outed. The irony of it all is that the State fears us more than we could fear them. They are under constant watch as well. Constantly gorging themselves on more and more information in a last-ditch effort to hold onto the empire that is quickly being lost to them. They must look for each little “flicker of the eye” in each and every person, constantly on the hunt, constantly looking over their shoulders. The State is so eager to jump at every shadow that it misses the rising tide of rebellion growing against it.
At least, that is my hope. The ACLU is working with a number of other advocacy groups to urge the government to reform this program, pushing for stricter standards requiring reasonable suspicion and to remove photography and other First Amendment protected rights from inclusion on the list. But even beyond that, the people are coming alive. We just passed the 2nd anniversary of the Occupy Movement as thousands took the streets in New York and elsewhere, a rallying cry showing that anger still simmers amongst us. And somehow, we have managed to slow the progress of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry dirty tar sands oil through the United States. A pipeline that would cross almost 2,000 waterways in the U.S. including major aquifers used for farmland irrigation. A pipeline that if there is a spill – and it isn’t unlikely – will contaminate the water sources instantly with a slew of toxic chemicals. A pipeline much like the Keystone I pipeline (both owned by TransCanada) built in 2010 which had 12 spills in the first 12 months of operation. A pipeline that climate scientist James Hensen says would mean “game over for the climate.” Yet a pipeline that has been met with hundreds of protesters staging sit-ins, chaining themselves to equipment, and blocking machines with their own bodies to put a stop to it.
In July, CodePink and other activists for human rights were arrested during a peaceful protest in front of the White House urging President Obama to close the Guantanamo Bay torture prison. Several of the protestors were on hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners of Guantanamo also on hunger strike. One woman, Diane Wilson, a co-founder of CodePink, was arrested after jumping the White House fence in an attempt to deliver her message to the White House doors. Wilson said, “I decided to take drastic action because in this situation time is of the essence.”
It is true, time is of the essence. Big Banks and Big Oil control the White House. Our civil liberties are being stripped down further and further with the FISA Amendment, the National Defense Authorization Act, and the Patriot Act. We are being monitored through our phones, our emails, and our everyday correspondence. The U.S. is carrying out special operations in over 100 countries around the world – over 60% of the world’s nations. We have drone wars in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and throughout Africa. Our defense budget grows astronomically high, yet we continue to close schools, cut education budgets, attack teachers, and cut programs for the poor, the elderly, the sick, and our veterans. The Keystone XL pipeline may have been slowed, but we continue to hurdle toward irreversible global climate change.
We cannot leave the fight against these injustices to a few. It must be all of us that join in the fight. Chris Hedges said it best: “If we don’t rebel, if we’re not physically in an active rebellion, then it’s spiritual death.”