One of the things that really bothers me a lot these days is the weakening of civil liberties; you know, those seemingly inconsequential items contained in The Bill of Rights
. For example, the "right of the people peaceably to assemble," and "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Things like that.
These immunities that we possess as citizens of the United States have been chipped away at from time to time, or clarified, stretched, and mutated by legal rulings. But weakened to the point that George Orwell's 1984
seems less like a political commentary on Stalinist Russia and more and more of a prescient look at the future-- our future to be exact-- it seems to be happening here in the good ol' USA.
There seem to be elements of Brave New World
here too-- discussions about and advances in medicine, cloning, reproduction, and other elements of what was once considered possibilities in the far future.
To illustrate my concerns, here are two articles: the first
is from a couple months ago, courtesy of the WaPo (registration req'd): "The FBI's Secret Scrutiny: In Hunt for Terrorists, Bureau Examines Records of Ordinary Americans." It discusses the FBI's seeming predilection for wasting their time by buttonholing and intimidating citizens rather than attending to more important duties.
The article starts out by describing an encounter between agents and their target du jour:
The FBI came calling in Windsor, Conn., this summer with a document marked for delivery by hand. On Matianuk Avenue, across from the tennis courts, two special agents found their man. They gave George Christian the letter, which warned him to tell no one, ever, what it said.
Under the shield and stars of the FBI crest, the letter directed Christian to surrender "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a specific computer at a library branch some distance away. Christian, who manages digital records for three dozen Connecticut libraries, said in an affidavit that he configures his system for privacy. But the vendors of the software he operates said their databases can reveal the Web sites that visitors browse, the e-mail accounts they open and the books they borrow.
Christian refused to hand over those records, and his employer, Library Connection Inc., filed suit for the right to protest the FBI demand in public...
The story goes on to state that this particular case highlights the use of "national security letters" under the Patriot Act-- the very same Patriot Act that is due to expire February 3, and will be revisited by Congress as they determine whether to renew it or not. These "letters,"
created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.
While I don't think anyone would object to surveillance of spies or terrorists, I think you'd find the average American would be at least a wee
bit concerned about clandestine snooping into the lives and business of citizens and visitors who have no ulterior motives other than to visit our country and leave behind some cash. These provisions within the Patriot Act permitting such "intelligence" work worries not only people like me, but such strange bedfellows as Bob Barr.
"The beef with the NSLs is that they don't have even a pretense of judicial or impartial scrutiny," said former representative Robert L. Barr Jr. (Ga.), who finds himself allied with the American Civil Liberties Union after a career as prosecutor, CIA analyst and conservative GOP stalwart. "There's no checks and balances whatever on them. It is simply some bureaucrat's decision that they want information, and they can basically just go and get it."
Barr was a Gingrich-era Congressman, who ideologically is not a pal of mine. But unlike many of our representatives on both sides of the aisle, Barr knows when our liberties are being threatened. While the library case outlined at the beginning of the article highlights one well-known aspect of the Patriot Act-- the possibility of seizure of library records-- the rest of the article really focuses on the use of national security letters by the FBI and the gummint in particular. This constitutes a grave danger to a valuable resource-- our liberties. Right now, it is very possible that in a few weeks, the use of national security letters could be made permanent. As the article indicates, these "tools" can be used to snoop into every documented aspect of your life, without ever having to tell you or reveal to practically anyone that you've been investigated. Anyone old enough to remember COINTELPRO is gonna have a huge sense of deja vu.
It isn't just through electronic surveillance and court records that our privacy is being invaded. Our First Amendment rights are being whittled away as well. There have been quite a few examples over the last few years, but one of the more recent ones occurred in Florida, as outlined in this piece, "The Price of Domestic Spying: Infiltrated by Feds, Antiwar Group Turns on Photographer." In this one, published just today, the travails of an antiwar group in the Miami area is documented. They were infilitrated three times by gummint agents, to the point that many members became extremely paranoid. The end result? A photographer was assaulted.
While I'm not a fan of bad behavior, and if the photographer chooses to file charges, he's totally correct to do so, it's chilling that the gummint succeeded in creating fear and paranoia where it wasn't totally necessary. They also sent in rather rank amateurs as well, as Ray Del Papa of the Broward Antiwar Coalition recounts :
For example, the first time the group was infiltrated was in 2003, when Del Papa was befriended by a new employee at his job in a hobby store.
"He would come in and work on Saturdays. He was an active duty officer stationed in Miami. And he knew a lot of stuff about me. What my interests were, people I associated with outside of politics.
"On his first day, he drops the name of a close friend of mine who lives in Baltimore. That was a red flag."
And as they got to know each other, the man kept prying into events that Del Papa attended with the Broward Antiwar Coalition.
"He told me he was a sympathizer to the cause and that his wife is a socialist," Del Papa said.
Del Papa, who is a professional model builder, said the man claimed to be a model aficionado.
"But as we started working together, I realized the man didn't know a whole lot about the hobby," Del Papa said. "I never trusted him. I always kept him at a distance."
Two months later, after the man stopped showing up to work, never to be heard from again, another man started showing up at the group's meetings. On Nov. 11, during the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami, the man showed up with a woman they had never seen before.
"They were dressed in Black Bloc attire, but he was wearing Nikes," Del Papa said. "Nobody in the Black Bloc wears Nikes. And he said he was from Pittsburgh, but when I asked him about Pittsburgh, his knowledge was very limited.'
What bothers me a lot about this is that information was obviously culled and pieced together to create profiles of people exercising their First Amendment rights (and doing so in a peaceful way!), and agents were dispatched to spy on this group. Not only is this a chilling violation of a principle many of us cherish, but it's a waste of valuable resources. First of all, we're supposedly chasing down Al-Qaeda members, and trying to safeguard our country from attacks. I somehow doubt it strongly that members of an antiwar group are a threat to the nation. Every minute some agent is monitoring this group is a minute taken away from more important matters.
Second, time had to be taken to gather the necessary information in order to infilitrate such groups. That means doing whatever data mining (and this is where those nifty national security letters come in handy! Research the past of anyone you don't like, without the threat of disclosure or ever having to give a reason to do so!) is needed, then educating and training the poseur in his "role," then transporting said snooper to where he or she is needed to be able to be a fink. That takes money and time-- both valuable resources that could be used elsewhere.
So in the end, what happens? A group that knows it's being conned by some outsider is being bothered by our gummint, which claims to have our best interests at heart. That same gummint also claims that in order to continue bothering harmless individuals exercising the same rights that we sent our soldiers overseas to die for, we must give up those very same rights, and waste time, money, and energy doing so.
I don't know about you, but I'd prefer the time, money, and energy of our gummint to be spent more wisely, and certainly without infringing on our Constitution-- the document we claim we want to share with the world, but a set of principles we seem to be having a difficult time upholding here in our own country.