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The American Taliban (Part 2)

(Part One)

Mobile Tracking

In an excellent article at Dissent Magazine, David J. Phillips describes how “[t]oday the United States has at least 130 million cell phone users. All are subject to increasingly precise tracking. The infrastructure that supports such tracking has evolved rapidly through a series of technical, legal, and political mutations, all stemming from the choices of highly interested actors. The resulting configuration of laws, networks, and corporate interests determines who is able to use the phone system to gather information about the mobility, not only of individuals, but of the population as a whole.” Phillips goes on to explain exactly how our obsession with gadgets -- especially communications gadgets and electronic payment cards -- has led to a situation where governments and corporations monitor virtually everything you do.

Phillips interestingly traces a technical history linking the original 911 emergency phone system with the current ability to track the exact position in real time of a cell phone in use, concluding that "[t]aken together, changes invisible to ordinary citizens have moved us into a world where all mobile phone users are potentially subject to precise monitoring. Specialized location systems pinpoint calls. Specialized database systems collect and distribute that data ... For the most part these systems are operated by private companies. Yet they have been developed with public money ... In effect, then, what has developed in the United States in the past decade is a publicly funded, privately operated, generic, adaptable, and pervasive surveillance infrastructure."

So, OK, perhaps you can rationalize away this lack of privacy safe in the knowledge that, should you need it, an ambulance will be speeding toward you in the most efficient fashion. But is that all it is used for? You wish! "[W]ireless carriers are exploring the possibilities of linking data generated by the systems described above on phone users' location and movements to commercially developed marketing data on users' social characteristics and purchasing patterns,” Phillips reports. “Think of the possibilities: when certain trigger conditions are met-when the right sort of person appears in the right sort of region at the right sort of time-the carrier could deliver an advertiser's message to the user. Nearing a Pizza Hut, one could find one's cell phone ringing with a recorded ad suggesting that a snack is waiting at the next fork in the road."

That sounds really annoying to me, but not life-threatening. However, how about this? "Police and national security agencies increasingly seek to use the vast amounts of locational data generated by emergency calls, not simply to respond to particular callers, but to trace patterns of normal and aberrant behavior. For example, some regional call centers share the locational data from medical emergency calls with third parties. Those third parties then analyze that locational data to look for patterns suggesting an epidemic or bioterrorism ... [I]nitiatives such as Total Information Awareness (TIA) (now strategically renamed Terrorism Information Awareness) and the Computer Aided Passenger Profiling System (CAPPS) are intended to churn huge amounts of personal data in order to find patterns of normalcy and deviance. After those patterns are established, they are used to profile individuals and assign them a certain risk level.”

And how about this little nugget from page 14 of the ACLU “Surveillance-Industrial Complex” Report. The “Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) … forced telecommunications providers to design their equipment according to the FBI’s specifications in order to make eavesdropping easier and more convenient ” Law enforcement agencies have recently been trying to expand the applicability of CALEA. They claim an interpretation that would allow them to collect tracking data on cell phone users, “turning cell phones into what, for all practical purposes, are location tracking bugs.” Moreover, the FBI is trying to insist that Internet phone providers – a growing new industry – build their equipment so that the FBI can listen in at any time. The ACLU correctly concludes that this “is the constitutional equivalent of the government requiring that all new homes be built with a peephole for law enforcement to look through.”

And talking of loopholes, if you were under any illusions that the emails you are sending and receiving were private, the First Court of Appeals of Massachusetts has recently set the record straight by taking a hair-splittingly narrow interpretation of the Wiretap Act, that email sitting on a server (and therefore "in storage" rather than "in transit") is fair game for anyone to read. In the case in question, a bookseller created email accounts for his customers, and then set up software to read any communication those clients had with Amazon.com in order that he could gain a commercial advantage. When this came to light, the authorities charged the bookseller with violating the Wiretap Act, which governs unauthorized interception of communication. However, as Wired reported, “the court found that because the e-mails were already in the random access memory of the defendant's computer system when he copied them, he did not intercept them while they were in transit over wires and therefore did not violate the Wiretap Act, even though he copied the messages before the intended recipients read them. The court ruled that the messages were in storage rather than transit."

Of course, I am not the only one to think this is bizarre and dangerous: "[T]his court has effectively given Internet communications providers free rein to invade the privacy of their users for any reason and at any time," says Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I hope my ISP has fun reading all those Viagra and Nigerian fortune emails that seem to dominate my inbox!

The government is also studying ways to monitor the endless noise on the Internet’s thousands of chat rooms. Researchers are looking for a mathematical model that will allow them to predict messages of interest amid the gigabytes of traffic. Looking for what they call “hidden communities”, they will check messages for certain keywords that could reveal something about what's being discussed in groups.

Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil …

The fundamentalist current in this charge toward authoritarianism is expressed in ways both large -- in the push for discriminatory anti-gay legislation, for example, and the attempt to eliminate inclusive literature in school libraries – and small.

Wal-Mart has pulled ‘The Today Show’ book from its shelves because it contains a humourous picture of naked Supreme Court Justices because “our customers would not be comfortable with it.” And they know best of course. In the heartland, Kansas Attorney General Phill Klein and Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter have decided they know best what you should be allowed to hear. When Kansas and Indiana received 108,000 music CDs as part of a nationwide price-fixing settlement with the music industry, the discs were destined for public libraries. But between them, the two Attorneys General have censored about 7,000 of the records, with the Kansas spokesman declaring the banned music "did not mesh with the values of a majority of Kansans." Again, the majority of the citizens did not get a say in this; their minds were made up for them by the two politicians. So much for freedom of expression.

Michael Powell's authoritarian hardline on "decency" in the media, launched on the springboard of Janet Jackson's nipple, brought to the public's attention a rightwing movement of repression that does not yet seem to have crested. And the media's craven kowtowing to these fascistic diktats should equally have raised the public alarm.

The New York Daily News’s Lloyd Grove discovered one sublimely stupid example of damage that such an atmosphere can create. “The Federal Communications Commission apparently has broadcasters so scared that radio stations that air "Broadway's Biggest Hits," a nationally syndicated weekly show, refused to air a satirical song from the 1975 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical "A Chorus Line”." Some stations refused to play "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”, which, Grove says, “contains a comical reference to surgical enhancements and the showbiz-hiring advantages of "T & A”." The show’s producer, Bud Wilkinson, told Grove “he won't include such racy material in the future. "As a producer, I would love to, but as a businessperson, I'm caving, because my customers are concerned about being fined," he said. "And it just makes me want to vomit”."

The FCC’s crackdown on TV is better known. After the Super Bowl fiasco, ER reshot scenes so as to avoid showing an accident victim's naked breast; a parental warning was thought necessary for an episode of That 70s Show in which a male character is caught masturbating off-camera; and The O.C. decided not to show a female character having an orgasm. And that was just in the first blush of the repression. Now, we have the bizarre situation where a good ol’ boy NASCAR driver talking in a garage can’t say “Shit” without getting a $10,000 fine and having NASCAR institute a 7-second delay on its TV broadcasts in an effort to avoid a repeat incident.

When TV shows with an open attitude to sexual mores do get on the screen, they are likely to come under pressure from any number of fundamentalist organizations. For example, ABC’s new hit “Desperate Housewives” has found itself facing advertiser boycotts launched by the American Family Association which CNN Money calls “a self-described ‘traditional family values’ group that has over the years been a relentless critic of the entertainment industry … Through two of its member Web sites, the American Family Association has rallied thousands of followers, who last week began inundating the e-mail servers and phone lines at Tyson, Lowe's and ConAgra … Conagra got about 36,000 e-mails last week from American Family Association members.” Conagra seems to have stopped advertising on the show, and other targets – Tyson Foods, Kellogg and Lowes – confirmed that they, too, had decided against spending ad dollars on “Desperate Housewives”. Other shows targeted by American Family association include NBC's "Father of the Pride," CBS's "Big Brother," and ABC's "Life As We Know It."

And then there's the case of the T-shirt, as reported by the Palm Beach Post: “A couple returning home from a Costa Rican vacation was ejected from an American Airlines flight because the man was wearing a T-shirt depicting a bare breast. Oscar Arela and his girlfriend, Tala Tow, were removed from Flight 952 on Saturday after he refused to change the shirt or turn it inside out at Miami International Airport.” This is the Land of the Free, isn’t it?

…Even In Your Own Bed

OK, so the media and airlines are public space, maybe that makes a difference. But what about stuff you do at home? That's private, yes? Not in Alabama it isn't. Not if you want to use a vibrator or any other sexual aid or toy. The majority of the justices ruled that it was a slippery slope; if they were to allow sex toys, they would soon have to allow “adult incest, prostitution, obscenity, and the like”. So, it doesn't matter that you are a consenting adult with or without other consenting adults, in Alabama the local Taliban tell you what you can and cannot do in bed.

By now you should have noticed a trend: that the American Taliban mimic their Islamic brothers in how they try to use public policy to solve their own sexual hangups. Neither have any problems with violence. By the time an American kid finishes school he will have seen scores of thousands of violent acts on TV and in the movies, along with 10,000 or so murders. But if the American Taliban have their way, he will never have seen a woman's breast and would have no idea what to do if he did see one. This reversal of the concept of "family values" can perhaps be laughed at when we hear the anguished screams over "wardrobe malfunctions"; but it can be deadly when such ill-informed "values" take over the education and health of our children.

For example, in Texas, the state Board of Education is deciding on books for its sex-education curriculum. CNN reported that there are four books being considered, "all of which extol the virtues of abstinence. Three make no mention of contraceptives at all while one makes passing reference to condoms ... [O]ne textbook under review advises that a good way a teen-ager can prevent a sexually transmitted disease is to get plenty of rest so he or she can have a clear head about sex." This kind of ideologically-driven arrogant stupidity will cost lives, for sure. Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network agrees: "The key thing here is that the textbooks do not contain a trace of information about family planning and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases other than through abstinence … There are other contraceptive methods in addition to abstinence and you are just not going to find it in these textbooks." CNN further reported that Quinn “charged the textbook publishers have engaged in self-censorship to appease social conservatives in the state."

Texas is not alone in these moves. To Margaret Young, vice chairman of the Charles County Board of Education, the required reading lists in her Southern Maryland school system are teeming with "profanity and pornography, fornication and adultery”. So, Young supported a recent recommendation that calls for "removing anything [from reading lists] that provides a neutral or positive view of immorality or foul language." Other recommendations included handing out Bibles, removing science books "biased towards evolution" and, just like Texas, teaching sexual education classes focused exclusively on abstinence. Mark Crawford, a Charles County school board member, said “he believes Bibles could be beneficial for instilling morals and character,” while Board Chairman Kathy Levanduski added, "I believe that if we are teaching evolution, we should have a section on creationism as well, and any other theory." Scientology’s “Thetans seeding the earth theory”, perhaps?

Ashcroft v. Threshold Rights

In America, many important freedoms have disappeared over the last three years. Sure, you have the freedom to spend as much as you want on any one of fifty-three similar tubes of toothpaste, but don't you dare say anything out of line, or potentially odd. Especially in a public place, like an airplane. Sure you have the freedom to shoot anyone who comes near your private property, but don't even think of singing a racy show tune, or trying to make consensual sex more exciting with your spouse. Sure you have the right to write anything you want to anyone, but they have the right to read it too, and to lock you up without trial if they don't like what you wrote. And we haven't even touched upon the repression of homosexuals, the noose tightening around womens' rights to choose their own medical care, and the elimination of auditable election results.

It is safe to say, that ad-hoc groupings of powerful rightwing bigots, many of them professing to be evangelical Christians, with enormous clout among Bush-appointed regulators and sleazy Congressmen, have truly become an American Taliban, deciding what you can see, what you can hear, even what you can do in your own home, based entirely on their own beliefs and motives, and without regard to your wants and needs. You don't get to have much say, if they get their way.

These social changes are accompanies and supported by attacks on what Harvey Silverglate and Carl Takei have called “threshold rights” – “fair elections, open and publicly accountable government, judicial review of executive action, the right of the accused to a public jury trial, separation of powers among the three branches of government.” They note that the “degree to which a society protects threshold rights speaks to whether it is free and open, and whether self-correction can occur without violence." Silverglate and Takei concentrate on perhaps the most important right available to the Anglo-Saxon -- that of habeas corpus which is supposed to protect individuals from unwarranted seizure and incarceration by the government. They note that just six days after 9/11, Ashcroft tried to put the right to suspend habeas into the earliest drafts of the Patriot Act, but he was beaten back at that time by Congressional disapproval. However, habeas corpus has been suspended by Presidential fiat for all those terrorist suspects in Gitmo and certain others, including American citizens, held in miltary prisons on the mainland.

The writers stress the importance of the Supreme Court’s decisions on habeas corpus: “Once threshold rights are stripped away, the only thing that stands between any of us and arbitrary imprisonment is the good will of the president, the attorney general, and the secretary of defense ... What’s at stake in all three [habeas corpus cases] is essentially whether we are governed by a president or a king. All other post-9/11 legal issues pale in comparison." Should Ashcroft and his cronies win this fight, they warn, "[t]he evisceration of habeas corpus, creating a shadowy network of military brigs and prison camps, would also have a profound impact on the part of the justice system the public does see. It would turn those trials into show trials rather than true adversarial legal proceedings in which defendants and their lawyers can actually question the government’s evidence and present evidence of their own ... [I]t is dangerous to adopt a device that totalitarian governments have found so useful."

Beyond habeas corpus, Ashcroft's troops are snooping more aggressively than ever before, using the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. According to Christopher Smith in his article at The Salt Lake Tribune: "Last year, the FISA court issued 1,724 surveillance warrants -- the most since the law was passed 25 years ago. Meanwhile, state and federal judges issued 1,442 authorizations to conduct wiretaps for criminal investigations, the first time the number of terrorist wiretaps exceeded the number of eavesdropping authorizations in traditional crime cases, such as drug trafficking ... [However] details on how the FISA law is being used are cloaked in secrecy." Not that some Senators haven't been trying to find out. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy along with two Republican Senators, Arlen Specter and Charles Grassley, have complained that Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch "kept bottled up for more than a year bipartisan legislation that would shine additional light onto the court's proceedings, arguing the secrecy is vital to protect the country."

And if all this cumbersome and frightening machinery of State power works properly, are they really protecting the citizens of the United States from horrific acts? Not likely. Social controls, including the suppression of anti-corporate behaviour, seem more likely targets as Will Potter reports: "FBI agents rounded up seven American political activists from across the country Wednesday morning, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey held a press conference trumpeting that "terrorists" have been indicted ... The activists have been charged with violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 1992, which at the time garnered little public attention except from the corporations who lobbied for it. Their crime, according to the indictment, is "conspiring" to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company that tests products on animals and has been exposed multiple times for violating animal welfare laws.” And that, of course, is the real danger when people like Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft have control over the levers of coercive authority. In a trusting democracy like America, it is easy to get these laws passed with rhetoric aimed at Osama bin Laden and his ilk. But then untrustworthy goons use them to prey on citizens who are simply following political and cultural paths with which the goons disagree.

And they will go to any lengths. Bill McKibben has written in the Los Angeles Times that Ashcroft is trying to use an 1872 law against prostitution to shut down Greenpeace. The Justice Department has indicted Greenpeace for "the speech-related activities of its supporters." How far did the government have to stretch to make its case? “The law it cited against boarding ships about to enter ports was passed in 1872 and aimed at the proprietors of boardinghouses who used liquor and prostitutes to lure crews to their establishments. The last prosecution under the "sailor-mongering" act took place in 1890." McKibben goes on to make sure we understand the import of this case: "[I]f Greenpeace loses, the organization could be fined $20,000 and placed on probation. The money's no big deal; outraged supporters would probably turn such a verdict into a fundraising bonanza. But the probation would be. The group might well be prevented from engaging in any acts of civil disobedience for years to come. If it crossed the line, the group's officers might be jailed and its assets seized. Since civil disobedience is what Greenpeace does best, the Justice Department might in effect be shutting the group down.
That would be too bad, and not just for Greenpeace. The potential precedent here — that the government can choke off protest by shutting down those who organize it — undermines one of the most important safety valves of our political life. During the civil rights era, Southern sheriffs used every law they could think of to jail protesters — loitering was a favorite charge. Imagine some group being put on probation because it had helped organize sit-ins. But even J. Edgar Hoover didn't try to criminalize the NAACP. As the veteran civil rights campaigner Julian Bond said recently, "If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s, black Americans would not be voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters, or sitting on bus front seats."

The courts eventually struck out Ashcroft in this particular case, but the totalitarian momentum has certainly not been derailed. Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union says that, “[a]s a result of this obsession with control, there's been this increased use of screening and eliminating people" at political events, for example. The Des Moines Register has reported that “John Sachs, 18, a Johnston High School senior and Democrat, went to see Bush in Clive last week … But when he got there, a campaign staffer pulled him aside and made him remove his button that said, "Bush-Cheney '04: Leave No Billionaire Behind." The staffer quizzed him about whether he was a Bush supporter, asked him why he was there and what questions he would be asking the president. "Then he came back and said, 'If you protest, it won't be me taking you out. It will be a sniper,' " Sachs said. "He said it in such a serious tone it scared the crap out of me”.” The Register noted that this was not an isolated incident: “Other incidents include five protesters arrested outside an event in Cedar Rapids; black and Hispanic students frisked in Davenport; and two people denied admission in Dubuque because they either didn't support Bush or were affiliated with someone who didn't. Iowa's stories are similar to those being told around the country. According to media reports, Missouri students were in tears after they were removed from a Bush rally because they were wearing Kerry buttons. Others in Minnesota and Wisconsin were asked to leave Bush rallies because they had Kerry T-shirts or stickers.”

In Oregon, the Bend Bugle reports that “President Bush taught three Oregon school teachers a new lesson in irony – or tragedy – Thursday night when his campaign removed them from a Bush speech and threatened them with arrest simply for wearing t-shirts that said ‘Protect Our Civil Liberties’ … Thursday’s actions in Oregon set a new standard even for Bush/Cheney – removing and threatening with arrest citizens who in no way disrupt an event and wear clothing that expresses non-disruptive party-neutral viewpoints.” The paper went on to note that when “Vice President Dick Cheney visited Eugene, Oregon on Sept. 17, a 54-Year old woman named Perry Patterson was charged with criminal trespass for blurting the word "No" when Cheney said that George W. Bush has made the world safer. One day before, Sue Niederer, 55, the mother of a slain American soldier in Iraq was cuffed and arrested for criminal trespass when she interrupted a Laura Bush speech in New Jersey.” Meanwhile, in West Virginia, a man who heckled Bush at a political rally has been fired from his job. "I was told that my actions reflected badly on the company and that a client was upset," Glen Hiller of Berkeley Springs said.

In Bush’s home state of Texas, indeed in his own home town of Crawford, the local newspaper, The Lone Star Iconoclast, lived up to its name by endorsing John Kerry for President. It was surprised at the vehemence of the response. “We expected that perhaps a few readers might cancel subscriptions, and maybe even ads, but have been amazed at a few of the more intense communications, some of which bordered on outright personal attacks and uncalled-for harassment … Unfortunately, for the Iconoclast and its publishers there have been threats — big ones including physical harm. Too, some individuals are threatening innocent commercial concerns, claiming that if they advertise in The Iconoclast, they will be run out of business … Several young members of our staff covering Tonkawa Traditions this past weekend were angrily harassed and threatened that they must leave, which cut short their ability to fully do their jobs and instilled in them considerable fear for their safety.”

So much for free elections, and the idea that differences are good and vital. But what else should we expect from a regime in which one of its junior minions, Adolf Dean of the Attorney General’s office in Alabama, is happy to tell a public meeting that searching people’s houses without a warrant, and snooping into personal Internet accounts is not “a vast intrusion.” He is after all just mouthing the desires of his bosses all the way up to John Ashcroft and George W. Bush

(concludes in Part 3)

October 23, 2004 in America Inc, Bush Administration, Government Intrusion, Right wing, US Justice System | Permalink


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Damn, you're a writing fool!

I actually tripped across your blog looking into school board candidates for Charles County Maryland - my county.

Ms. Young actually only wanted to have more sayso over REQUIRED reading - and even though most folks consider me pretty liberal I like having more control over what my child is REQUIRED to read.

I have 18 candidates to wade through. Wish me luck!



Posted by: Heather Bartlett | Aug 27, 2006 1:46:05 PM