Americans should not be shocked to learn that Big Brother has been eavesdropping on their telecommunications. It’s been an open secret for years that the hush- hush National Security Agency’s big electronic ears on the East and West coasts of the USA have been hoovering up all international phone, fax, and email communications.
When you call your aunt in Palermo, or your friend in Egypt, or your girlfriend in Paris, NSA’s super computers pick up and process the transmission. State of the art programs search the messages for key words, locations, repetitions and patterns of interest. This process has been going on long before 9/11.
I have always wondered what government listeners do with highly sensitive financial information passing between corporations, banks and securities or commodity markets. Obviously, there is enormous potential for the state listeners to profit from secret information about mergers, acquisitions, large trades of stocks or commodities, and the movement of currencies.
One may expect a huge scandal to erupt one day when it is revealed that US intelligence agencies used secret financial data to speculate in markets and produce huge profits to pay for "black" operations not authorized by Congress. A prime example of such hanky panky was the Reagan administration’s notorious arms for hostages deal back in 1980’s and the diversion of funds from Iran to pay for the Nicaraguan contras.
The Bush administration went one step further by giving NSA — and probably the Pentagon’s intelligence agencies — the power to listen in on domestic communications supposedly "linked to terrorist activities."
At first glance, such permission might make some sense at a time when extremists may be plotting attacks within the US. A secret security court is supposed to grant permission for such intercepts. But according to Congressional records, only five cases out of 18,000 were turned down by the rubber-stamp court.
But the Bush White House went much further by simply ignoring the security court altogether, leading to the resignation in protest of one of its judges. As usual, vague national security concerns were cited by the administration as a reason to ignore due process of law and the constitution.
Unfettered government electronic and data-mining surveillance of its citizens is a genie that once released from its legal bottle becomes a grave menace to democratic society. So-called terrorism is such a loose and flexible concept that it can easily be applied to just about any activity.
Soviet bloc security agencies knew that the most effective way of monitoring "anti-state" activities was by massive random checking. Stop one thousand citizens, or monitor their calls, and a small percentage of potential malefactors, real or imagined, and enemies will be turned up.
East Germany took this sinister practice to the extreme. Its security agency, the Stasi, monitored at least half of all phone and telex calls, employed an army of informers, ran routine spot checks of pedestrians, and even retained tens of thousands of samples of the body scents of "subjects of interest."
Give any intelligence or security agency carte blanche to spy on citizens and it will eventually take this power to extremes. It’s only a small step from monitoring real subversive activities to spying on anyone who disagrees with current government policies. Their friends and relations will also fall under suspicion.
Electronic spying develops its own bureaucratic momentum. Data mining, which tracks and correlates such diverse activities as air travel, credit card purchases, bank and credit card records, tax payments, and association memberships, is the greatest leap forward for totalitarian governments since the Stasi’s millions of index files on individual citizens.
Last week we learned that the FBI had been spying on such "potential terrorist groups" as vegetarians and animal rights activists. This is both ludicrous and extremely scary. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has come under particular attention by the FBI. I just sent them a cash contribution to aid their work in fighting cruelty to animals and the stomach-churning horrors of factory farming.
I can assume that my name is now on an FBI file as a potential subversive. An electronic file that meshes with "no-fly" lists, tax records, Homeland Security watch lists and god knows what else. When vegetarians and animal rights groups come under FBI scrutiny, along with librarians and anti-war protestors, we know that Big Government has crossed the Rubicon from defending the republic to targeting all who in any way oppose its policies, or those who simply look suspicious and uncooperative.
As Benjamin Franklin wisely noted, government is like fire: a useful servant but a terrible master. We have now reached that point in the United States where a non-mortal threat to the nation — assorted would-be terrorists — is being allowed to endanger the world’s second oldest and most admired democracy.
There is no such thing as a little domestic spying, or a limited repression of dissidents. Once this evil process begins, it is almost impossible to halt. Electronic files live on no matter what efforts are made to curtail their use or destroy them. They are every security agency’s most precious asset and stock in trade.
Congress bears a heavy responsibility for having allowed this danger to develop under its very nose. Ever since 9/11, most of our gutless legislators have averted their eyes to the growing totalitarian impulses of the current administration. Now, belatedly, some members of both houses are finally taking alarm at the grave erosion of America’s freedoms.
But the majority of our legislators are still too brain dead, or terrified of being called "soft on terrorism," or too servile to the party line, to exercise their responsibility as the premier arm of government. At least the US court system is slowly beginning to react to the blatant violations of the constitution and domestic and international law.
Every totalitarian state has used the bogeyman of internal or foreign threats to justify the expansion of their repressive and intrusive powers. The Soviet Cheka (secret police) was created to fight "anti-state elements." The Gestapo was unleashed after the German Reichstag was burned down by "communist terrorists." Now, Muslims Under Our Mattresses is the 2005 version of the 1950’s "Reds Under Our Beds," except that the Reds were a real threat while no major domestic terrorist threat to the US has been uncovered in spite of the arrest of over 2,000 Muslims in America.
As we enter 2006, there is still time for Americans to stop this dire threat to their freedoms, but not very much. Who will follow vegetarians and animal activists onto state security’s watch lists? Rosicrucians, Christian Scientists, bird watchers or liberal Democrats?