Checking Big Brother

This column was written by Christopher Pyle.
How many terrorists do you suppose we have in the United States today? Real terrorists, like Mohammed Atta, who led the attacks of September 11, as opposed to anti-war Quakers?

Seriously. What's your best guess? Fifty? One hundred? More?

Before 9-11, the FBI's watch list consisted of only 16 names. Today it contains 80,000. As of June 2005, the National Counterintelligence Center had amassed files on 190,000 individuals. Do these numbers strike you as reasonable, or are suspicions getting out of hand?

The Pentagon is especially suspicious of Americans. Its Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) employs a thousand people to monitor "threats" to the military within the United States. Between July 2004 and May 2005, CIFA's "Operation TALON" recorded 1,519 "suspicious incidents," many of them involving lawful political activity by domestic peace groups. In one instance, a Quaker meeting appears to have been infiltrated.

The military's Northern Command, which is supposed to help civilian agencies clean up after a terrorist attack, employs more than 150 intelligence analysts charged with developing "actionable intelligence" to "prevent" terrorist attacks. "Prevent" presumably means compiling round up lists of civilians in case the military needs to "secure" the site of an attack. But the military does not need to know anyone's name in order to secure a site. It just needs to impose a curfew and turn the violators over to the police. Military enforcement of civilian law is illegal. Indeed, it is a crime.

In 2002, President George W. Bush secretly ordered the military's National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the telephone communications of hundreds, if not thousands, of American citizens without prior judicial authority as required by the Fourth Amendment. That, too, is a crime.

This is not the first time military agents have wandered off the reservation. During the 1960s and 1970s, Army intelligence secretly employed 1,500 plainclothes agents, working out of 300 offices coast-to-coast, to spy on all civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of 20 people or more. They collected a warehouse full of files on lawful civilian political activity. That operation was shut down by Congressional protests, but has returned, larger than ever.

Today's military spies do not work alone. They are closely linked to a dozen federal agencies, 65 FBI field offices, 2,000 police departments, and scores of foreign police and intelligence agencies, all of which collect information on suspected "terrorists." If you think "terrorists" refers to al Qaeda and its associates, you would be mistaken. The FBI has labeled environmental activists "eco-terrorists" simply for protesting a lumbermen's convention by hanging a banner. The Pentagon considers nonviolent Quakers a "threat" because they oppose military recruitment at high schools. The California National Guard monitored the "Raging Grannies," an anti-war singing group, because, as a spokesman explained, no one can tell when terrorists might infiltrate the grannies.

Flush with federal funds, states are creating "intelligence fusion centers" to process, index, and store reports of suspicious people that flood in through interagency pipelines. Like the FBI and the military, states are hiring private companies like Choice Point to flesh out dossiers on thousands of law-abiding protesters, which are then shared with more than 100 "joint terrorism task forces."

Why has a legitimate effort to identify suicide bombers metastasized into the massive surveillance of protest politics? One answer is that the people who run this system can't tell a terrorist from a Quaker. Another is that it is easier to investigate Americans, because they speak the only language our intelligence agents understand.

Whatever their excuse, one thing is clear: These domestic spies are eager to add to, not subtract from, their files and lists. If a suspect shares your name, you are likely to be stopped at the airport, rejected for employment, or denied a security clearance, over and over again. Unfortunately, there is no way to correct such an erroneous file, because the files are secret. And, even if the files of one agency could be corrected, the files the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other agencies on the network would still be infected. Years later, when the network is queried, the original error will come back as a hundredfold "truth," simply because so many agencies believe it.

The time has come to scale back this bloated system, before intelligence analysts drown in trivia, before the reputations of decent citizens are destroyed, and before the sheer scale of the spying intimidates Americans from ever questioning their government. Thankfully, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings next month to look into the legal justifications of the NSA wiretapping program. Whether or not these hearings will succeed in limiting the scope of the wiretapping is something we can only speculate on at this time. But in either case, Congress must act soon to restore a sense of proportion to a surveillance system that has gotten way out of hand.
By Christopher Pyle
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved