'Just Keeping You Safe': The Cheka Checks In

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“What are you doing here?” Paul asked the armed stranger who had materialized outside his workplace.

“Just keeping you safe,” replied the interloper, who had invaded the property without invitation or explanation.

The visitor was clad in what Paul described as a SWAT-style dark blue jumpsuit, mirrored sunglasses, and a baseball cap. He had arrived in a white SUV equipped with running lights and displaying police markings advertising that it belonged to the Department of Homeland Security.

Paul (who asked that his last name not be used) was the only employee who saw something amiss as the Homeland Security officer busied himself peering into windows and doorways and making notes on a clipboard. 

Understandably annoyed by the functionary’s unwarranted intrusion and patronizing reply to his question, Paul continued to demand an explanation. The visitor persisted in his Oracle at Delphi routine, offering cryptic, dismissive responses to Paul’s questions. 

Through sheer tenacity Paul managed to obtain a business card identifying the visitor as Mark Cerchione. His title is – take a deep breath – Inspector for Region 10 of the East Command for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, Federal Protective Service. This vital human cog in the State’s apparatus of public order has an office located at 550 West Fort Street, Room 370 in Boise. 

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Roughly an hour after Paul’s encounter with Mr. Cerchione, and about fifteen minutes after Paul related it to me, I contacted Mr. Cerchione on his cell phone.

“That’s very interesting,” Mr. Cerchione replied when I identified myself as a writer in Idaho who had been told that a Homeland Security official had paid a visit to an appliance repair company in Boise. “I’m not allowed to talk about specifics but I can refer you to the regional office in Seattle. This was just a normal, routine procedure – nothing special.”

“It hardly seems ‘routine’ for the Department of Homeland Security to pay a visit to a workplace,” I commented.

“Look, this was just a normal part of my day,” insisted Cerchione. “Asking me about this is like asking a Boise City police officer why he looked in on a construction site.”

“But you’re not a Boise police officer – you’re a Fed,” I pointed out, leaving aside the fact that a similar unannounced visit from a local cop could likewise be cause for concern. “That makes this newsworthy.”

“Well, I can’t comment about this, but I’d be happy to put you in touch with the office in Seattle,” he repeated, promising to do so in exchange for my contact information. 

From what I’ve been able to learn,* Mr. Cerchione is an Idaho native who served briefly in the Army as a military police officer before being employed by the Idaho Falls Police Department. He also worked as a security guard at the Idaho National Laboratory in Arco.

Cerchione’s most recent position prior to signing on with the DHS appears to have been with Securitas, a private insurance company that in 1999 acquired the Pinkerton Agency (which rose to prominence as Abraham Lincoln’s wartime secret service).

On the basis of our brief phone conversation, Mr. Cerchione strikes me as affable and quite professional – exactly the kind of decent, competent person upon which every secret police bureaucracy relies.  

Think of it for a second: What kind of government refers to its subdivisions as “Directorates”? That designation is as alien to the American political vocabulary as – well, the expression “Homeland Security” itself. The term “Directorate” makes a much better fit for the components of the Soviet secret police, whether known as the Cheka, KGB, or FSB. 

The subdivision of the American Cheka that employs Mr. Cerchione is the DHS’s equivalent of the KGB’s Ninth Chief Directorate, which supplied bodyguards for the CPSU’s ruling elite and maintained security at significant government installations. In fact, the current version of that Directorate under the FSB (the re-named KGB) has exactly the same title as its American counterpart: Federalnaya Sluzhba Okhrany, which in English is generally rendered “Federal Protective Service.”

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The workplace visited by Mr. Cerchione is located next to the offices of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, an outpost serving various federal regulatory agencies. It’s impossible to believe that Boise plays host to a Jihadist sleeper cell that covets an opportunity to attack the Natural Resources complex. It is marginally more believable that the bureaucracy stationed therein could provoke the hostility of some over-taxed, over-regulated productive citizen. 

What this means, in any case, is that Mr. Cerchione – who, remember, is employed by a Directorate tasked with protecting federal personnel and buildings – wasn’t there to keep Paul and his fellow members of the productive class “safe”; he was there to surveil them as potential threats to the safety of the tax-consuming class. And this is part of his “normal,” everyday routine in the service of the Homeland Security Cheka, which presides over a vast and metastasizing surveillance state.

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“If you see something – say something,” commands Commissarina Napolitano from Wal-Mart telescreens across the Rodina. Citizen Concepts, one of the ever-expanding school of corporate remoras battening onto the Homeland Security leviathan, has introduced a so-called “Patriot App” for the iPhone that will simplify things for informants by permitting them to interface directly with the hive mind. (Among its corporate “goals,” Citizen Concepts lists “decreasing variance in human behavior to mitigate risk and error” – or, rendered into intelligible language, eliminating non-conformity as a threat to the public interest). 

Did some vigilant citizen detect dangerous levels of non-conformity on the part of someone in Paul’s workplace, and do his duty to the Collective by summoning the Federal Protective Service? We don’t know, and those who do know refuse to let us in on this critical state secret. But this is exactly what happened to Boise resident Dwight Scarbrough four years ago. 

Mr. Scarbrough, a scientist employed by the U.S. Forest Service, is a retired Navy veteran and outspoken peace activist. During the early years of the Iraq war, Scarbrough made himself commendably conspicuous by adorning his pickup truck with signs and stickers demanding an end to that atrocity and the prosecution of the criminals responsible for it. 

By expressing sentiments of that kind as emphatically as possible, Scarbrough provoked criticism from some fellow employees. Complaints about Scarbrough’s protest stickers led to an admonition from his supervisor that he bowdlerize one bumper sticker seen by some as borderline obscene (the strip contained the inventive neologism “BUSHIT”). Since he wasn’t interested in giving needless offense, Scarbrough did as his supervisor recommended. But his gesture apparently didn’t placate Scarbrough’s co-worker, who remained aggrieved by the peace activist’s unabashed displays of non-conformity.

On February 7, 2006, Scarbrough received a phone call at work from a man identifying himself as an officer with the Department of Homeland Security. The officer informed Scarbrough that he was in violation of the Code of Federal Regulations, and risked receiving a citation unless he met the officer in the parking lot of the federal building where he worked. 

“I grabbed a friend to be a witness, and took along my tape recorder,” Scarbrough recounted to Pro Libertate. “When we got down there, there were two officers, both of them large, armed young men. One of them made a point of separating my friend from me, as if the two of us – guys in our 50s – constituted some kind of threat. He kept my friend twenty feet away from me, holding his arms out as if performing some kind of crowd control out of fear that we would overpower them.”

“Officer R.,” the agent who had called Scarbrough, “was a very large guy. I’m a sizeable fellow myself, but he dwarfed me; he was probably close to 6’5″ and had to weigh something on the far side of 300 pounds.” The agents “were in uniform – military-style blouses with shoulder boards, badges with Homeland Security insignia, and sidearms.”

Since it seemed as if the two Chekists were primed for a confrontation, Scarbrough – who recorded and transcribed the entire encounter – made a point of sitting down at a table “so there was no way I could be a threat,” he explained to me.

As the transcript documents, this gesture of de-escalation provoked immediate disapproval from Officer R., since it meant that he no longer had the initiative:

Officer R: Step back here, please.

Scarbrough: Let’s have a seat.

Officer R: I’d like to talk to you.

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Scarbrough: Let’s have a seat.

Officer R: Sir, come over here please.

Scarbrough: I don’t want to come over there. I want to sit down. 

Apparently thinking it wasn’t worthwhile to press the point, Officer R. told Scarbrough that he was in violation of a provision of the Code of Federal Regulations dealing with “posting or affixing signs, pamphlets, handbills, or flyers on federal property.” Scarbrough had done nothing of the sort; the materials described by Officer R. were affixed to Scarbrough’s privately owned vehicle, which was in the parking lot of the federal facility where he worked.

For a minute or two, Scarbrough – who had already discussed matters of this kind in detail with his supervisor – tried to reason with the obstinate, concrete-headed Chekist, to no avail.

“I’ve just given you an order and told you to remove those signs from the property,” he growled. 

Following several additional minutes of fruitless dispute, Scarbrough relented, moving his car into a privately owned parking lot next door. This act of armed bullying was also an exercise in content-based political censorship. No similar threats were ever made against any of the dozens of people – including employees – who parked in the same lot with bumper stickers expressing support for the Bush administration, the Iraq war, and opinions on other contentious political subjects.

Scarbrough took his story to the press, and his case to the ACLU. Public exposure of the incident caused the valiant defenders of the sacred Homeland to take refuge behind locked doors. 

 When a reporter for the independent Boise Weekly, which broke the story, tried to speak with someone at the Boise office of Homeland Security, “a woman emerged from a nearby cubicle and spoke to me through a tennis-ball-sized hole in the window. She would not confirm the name or identity of the officers, nor their badge numbers….” 

The reporter for the Weekly contacted an official of the U.S. Marshals Service, who confirmed the essentials of Scarbrough’s story – and then “referred me to the Department of Homeland Security’s media spokesman in Texas” for any further details about an incident that had occurred thousands of miles away. This makes a certain kind of sense, once one understands how matters of this kind are handled in a Soviet-style centralized bureaucracy.

After going public, Scarbrough resumed parking in his accustomed space. Eventually the matter was dropped entirely. In retrospect, Scarbrough told Pro Libertate, “I should have taken the citation and challenged it in court. The attorney at the ACLU told me that ‘this is the kind of stuff we live for,’ but the matter was moot because no citation was ever issued.”

Scarbrough points out that his experience with Homeland Security came at a time “when the department was young and it was flexing its muscles all over the place. There were several incidents at about the same time involving people who were arrested, cited, or harassed for peaceful acts of public dissent, most of them involving opposition to the war.” (Those incidents, and many others like them, are documented in You Have No Rights, an infuriating and indispensable book by Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive magazine.) 

Four years ago, Scarbrough’s experience struck those who learned of it as an anomaly, a bizarre instance of overkill. Paul’s encounter with his friendly neighborhood Chekist illustrates that invasive and intimidating federal surveillance has become – to use Mr. Cerchione’s expression – a “normal, routine procedure” for those of us sentenced to live in the contemporary Homeland Security State. 

*I sent Mr. Cerchione an e-mail seeking confirmation of his biographical information; a day later, I had received no reply.

December 20, 2010