Making headlines in the US in recent months: medical students incarcerated when a nosy co-diner thought they were planning terrorist attacks; a passenger on a plane thought to be a hijacker when he took out his comb, and now, a man who jokingly talked about ‘burning bushes’ in a bar has been sentenced to 38 months in jail. What on earth is going on?
As speedily as Communism was dismantled in the former Soviet Union to be replaced with relative democratic freedoms, American citizens are willingly sacrificing many of their civil liberties, much of their privacy, while some are even prepared to become snitches–all on the altar of Homeland Security. Eat your heart out you former KGB bosses. George Bush is achieving what you did by force, using a heady mix of psychology, patriotism and paranoid poppycock.
If, as President George W Bush is fond of saying ‘they are jealous of our freedoms’, whoever ‘they’ might be will certainly now be harbouring little envy for the rapidly diminishing freedoms enjoyed today by the average American.
Such supine acquiescence by a fearful citizenry was, indeed, predicted by former President Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during a 1992 speech given in Evian, France. “…the one thing every man fears is the unknown. When presented with this scenario, individual rights will be willingly relinquished for the guarantee of their well being granted to them by their world government,” he said.
Kissinger, a savvy elder statesman and a firm favourite of Washington’s version of the ‘old boy network’, is, of course, the perfect choice to head a long overdue commission to investigate September 11–at least, from the point of view of the American president.
George Bush, no longer able to resist pressure to authorise such an investigation, has nominated a man who believes that truth ranks way below the protection of national security. Indeed, the infamous Nixon tapes serve to show that Kissinger is a fervent protector of government secrets.
But even if Americans may not be destined to discover just why their secret services and law enforcement agencies failed to protect them in the past, they can now look forward to a dynamic new integrated authority–The Department of Homeland Security to do just that.
Ron Paul, M.D., who represents the 14th Congressional District of Texas, calls the new department “the biggest new federal bureaucracy since WW2”.
Paul not only worries about its effectiveness but is also deeply troubled by “searches without warrant, forced vaccinations of entire communities, neighbourhood snitch programmes, federal information databases, and a sinister new ‘Information Awareness Office’ at the Pentagon that uses military intelligence to spy on domestic citizens”.
The Pentagon’s new Total Information Awareness program comes under the umbrella of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, known for its state-of-the-art technologies.
Heading up the program is retired Admiral John Poindexter, formerly Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser. In 1990, Poindexter was convicted for defrauding the government and destroying evidence in the Iran-Contra scandal. The sentence was quashed in 1991 in return for his testimony before a Congressional Committee.
Now, Poindexter, thanks to Total Information Awareness, will have access to unlimited information about the American people. The scheme will use Genoa, a surveillance device that is a combination cutting edge search engine, sophisticated information harvesting programme and a file sharing system to glean as much information about both U.S. and . citizens as possible.
Information gathered may include credit purchases, flight and telephone records, while the system will be able to intercept emails and maintain dossiers on any ‘terrorist suspect’.
But even before the new Homeland Security bill was passed into law and the Total Information Awareness Programme comes into effect, the Patriot Act passed as a knee-jerk response to September 11 had already eroded personal privacy in the U.S. This act afforded the American government new powers, including being able to investigate an individual’s reading material.
A University of Illinois study of 1,020 libraries, undertaken earlier this year, showed that the government agents had demanded information from 85 libraries concerning their members. Worse, bookstores or libraries are gagged from telling anyone about the investigation. Violators of the gag order risk imprisonment.
But surveillance of the reading habits of Americans is just a drop in the ocean of dwindling personal privacy. The Washington Post recently reported that the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) is planning to test an airport profiling system, which analyses passengers’ living arrangements, travel history, real estate purchases, ethnicity and financial circumstances.
Each passenger will then be assigned a ‘threat rating’ and those who feature high on the threat index will be taken aside at ports and airports for intensive interrogation and intrusive searches.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is currently developing monitoring devices able to analyse brain wave and heart beat patterns. It wants to embed electronic sensors in airport gates to pick up tiny electric impulses emitted by the brain and the heart.
The pattern of these impulses would then be fed into computers programmed to correlate physiological profiles with data from ‘hundreds of thousands of data sources’ according to Nasa reports.
Political correctness cast aside, U.S. authorities are upfront now concerning the racial profiling carried out by immigration officers at the country’s borders with the main targets being male Arab and Muslim travellers. Thousands of Muslim visitors were arrested inside the U.S. post-September 11 and incarcerated for months for minor or trumped up visa violations.
Now, nationals of certain, mostly Arab, countries have until January 10 to submit themselves to fingerprinting. Strangely, this requirement has been scarcely publicised and visitors could find themselves unwittingly breaking the law, the consequences of which we will no doubt witness early next year.
Big Brother is also watching these days… and recording. An FBI memorandum, which recently came to light, showed that as far back as early 2000, its agents illegally videotaped suspects, intercepted emails and recorded telephone calls. Attorney General John Ashcroft is unapologetic saying: “We are doing everything we can to identify those who would hurt us, to disrupt them, to delay them, to defeat them.”
In the meantime, the CIA is expanding its domestic role and increasing its field staff. The CIA’s domestic field officers attempt to recruit foreigners who are temporarily in the US studying or on business as spies for the agency once they have returned home.
There is now another option open to the U.S. government for monitoring suspects. Applied Digital Solutions Inc. has recently begun sales of an FDA approved identification chip, which has been designed for implantation underneath a person’s skin. This could be just the thin end of the wedge. An era when all newly born babies will be designated a unique number and fitted with a depersonalising electronic sliver may not be far away.
And as the American government increases its authority, the president has been slowly working on gaining greater powers too. He has already received a mandate from Congress for a preemptive strike against Iraq and the ability to personally negotiate trade deals. As Commander-in-Chief, he now has the power to arrest and imprison U.S. citizens and to hold them without charge, without evidence and without due process for an indefinite period.
With the ‘War on Terror’ likely to be an everlasting Quixotic exercise resulting in semi permanent or permanent new laws, we may well be witnessing the disintegration of America as a democratic republic. Senator John Warner, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says that he wants to break down the constitutional barriers currently restricting the involvement of the military in civilian life.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has already displayed his preference for a more active military quoting the ancient maxim: ‘In time of war, the laws are silent’. Peculiarly silent are the American people, previously renowned for fiercely defending their civil rights and personal freedoms.
Ironically, the very way of life they are told that their government is in the process of defending may soon be relegated to the annals of history.
Increasing nationalism, xenophobia and fear together constitute a dangerous melange, leaving the population open to being controlled and exploited. As an ever-suspicious rest of the world and Lady Liberty herself look on, it is up to Americans to decide upon their own future. We can only hope it is one of which America’s Founding Fathers would approve.
Linda Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org