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Government Spying on Americans

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 America7” writes the Washington Post in 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.

“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.”

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 in the “war on terror”? If so, they have abandoned one of greatest virtues of early generations: suspicion of power. They might as well stop talking about liberty and individualism because it just a lot of empty words 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 frightening. Do we want to be a nation of informants?

Don’t think this has anything to do with “terrorism.” The high volume of information flowing into the government’s computers will actually render law-enforcement agencies less able to detect real threats. Indiscriminate gathering of data makes us less, not more, safe.

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.” 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 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, what threat was really involved? Such cases should sicken every American. Government agents should not be giving security tests to individuals and arresting them if they fail.

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

SHELDON RICHMAN is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of The Freeman magazine.

 

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Sheldon Richman, author of America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

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