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The American Taliban (Part 1)

Over the last few months, I have written several pieces on what I have called the Talibanization of America. I have consolidated, rewritten and updated those pieces into this extended essay. It is long and so I have divided into three Parts. This is Part One. Parts Two and Three follow in separate posts.

There is also a file of the entire essay.



There is a chill in the air, and it has nothing to do with the season. There is the chill of fear, a feeling still sub-conscious for most; the fear of the knock on the door, the fear that something you are doing – or something someone thinks you are doing -- will cause offence to the authorities and cause you to disappear into the Gulag that certain parts of the American incarceration system have become. And this fear is not misplaced; there is a growing list of activities that are no longer acceptable to the government, and they are determined to know exactly when you stray.

NosesThe Bush Administration – with John Ashcroft on point -- is at the heart of a plan to make the population of the United States the most closely monitored people in the world, with technologies and legislation that make the old KGB and East Germany’s Stasi look like amateurs. As a new report from the ACLU vividly recounts, the government’s efforts “run the gamut from old-fashioned efforts to recruit individuals as eyes and ears for the authorities, to the construction of vast computerized networks that automatically feed the government a steady stream of information about our activities.”

Close monitoring and control of its citizens’ activities is, of course, a defining characteristic of authoritarian regimes throughout history and across the globe. The harshly exclusionist tenor and self-righteous morality that informs the religious background of the present regime is sometimes reminiscent of the Inquisition and sometimes it recalls more modern examples of intolerance. Either way, it deserves the title of an American Taliban.

The Surveillance-Industrial Complex

What makes the current policies stand out are the ways in which the administration has teamed up with private sector corporations in what the ACLU dubs “The Surveillance-Industrial Complex.” This intimate linkage between corporations and the government allows “the government to carry out privacy-invading practices at ‘arm’s length’ by piggy-backing on or actually cultivating data collection in the private sector that it could not carry out itself without serious legal or political repercussions.”

In many cases, corporations have voluntarily passed over information to the government. Famously, several airlines turned over lists of millions of passengers unprompted, allowing the government to examine every traveler’s records. Perhaps less well known is that the Professional Association of Diving Instructors voluntarily turned over personal information on more than 2 million Americans who had learned to scuba in the previous three years; that 195 colleges and university had transferred personal information to the FBI in 2001; that 64% of travel companies had provided data to the government; that a single Internet Service Provider (BellSouth) received more than 16,000 subpoenas from law enforcement for information in 2002 alone. The examples could go on and on.

More formally, the FBI and private corporations have joined together in something called InfraGard. This operation was called by the Cleveland Plain Dealer a “vast informal network of powerful friends designed to funnel security alerts away from the public eye and receive tips.” InfraGard apparently has a membership of 10,000 companies, the names of whom are kept secret.

For those corporations that need a little persuasion to cooperate, the government has the Patriot Act and the FBI have National Security Letters through both of which they can demand records held by companies. It used to be that National Security Letters could only be used against “agents of a foreign power.” However the Patriot Act changed all that, allowing their use by the FBI against anyone “including persons not suspected of a crime.” In November 2003, Ashcroft announced new procedures under the Patriot Act that included giving the FBI the power to gather information on Internet users even when this was not part of an official investigation and to initiate online surveillance on the basis of a priori suspicion.

In a move stunningly reminiscent of the old Soviet-style neighbourhood spying regimes, Bush announced in his 2002 State of the Union address the formation of the “Terrorism Information and Prevention System”, or TIPS. This massive intrusion into the private lives of Americans sought to recruit literally millions of civilian spies to snoop on their neighbours. Even the GOP’s Congress found it too hard to swallow and shut the program down. However, even though TIPS-like activity was banned, the ACLU report lists a dozen or more TIPS-style programs operating around the country. For example: “In a direct local imitation of the original TIPS concept, police in Orange County, Florida are planning to train emergency personnel, cable workers and other public and private workers to look for and report evidence of terrorism, drug trafficking, or child pornography in private homes.” Some of these programs – “Eagle Eyes”, “Talon” are two examples -- are operated by the military within the US.


Many of these programs are specifically directed at getting civilians to report anyone who looks out of place. For example, many counties are using materials prepared by the Department of Homeland Security which describe “out of place” as ”persons not fitting into the surrounding environment [such as] … beggar, demonstrator, shoe shiner, fruit or food vendor, street sweeper, or a newspaper or flower vendor.” These kind of broad-stroke suggestions leave a wide scope for racial profiling and paranoia directed at anyone who is different or stands out.

In fact, as Chisun Lee wrote in a recent Village Voice article, racial profiling “is all the more insidious today, because the war on terrorism has lent profiling the veneer of legitimacy.” When Bush announced in 2003 that "racial profiling is wrong and will not be tolerated" and that "stereotyping certain races as having a greater propensity to commit crimes is absolutely prohibited,” he specifically excluded “current federal policy with respect to law enforcement activities and other efforts to defend and safeguard against threats to national security." In other words, “national security” could be used as the excuse for any kind of profiling by any government agency. As an example, it was recently revealed that the US Census Bureau release detailed demographic information on Arab Americans – US citizens – to the Department of Homeland Security.

Regardless of race or national origin, in the end, of course, it is individuals who are the targets of all this data mining. And it is individuals who are now more closely monitored than ever before, and who have to live with the consequences. For instance, through the new powers granted by the Patriot Act, the government now has a system of near-total surveillance of the US financial system. Financial institutions are now obliged to check all their customers against government supplied “watch lists”. According to the ACLU, “[i]ndividuals must now be checked against terrorism watch lists whenever they buy or sell property – including [at] jewellers, pawnbrokers, and even average families buying or selling a home.”

In addition, there is a broad system for the reporting of “suspicious” financial transactions, and the government has built itself the ability to conduct what the ACLU describes as “broad-ranging, nationwide ‘Google searches’ through financial records”. Section 314 of the Patriot Act forces financial institutions to check their records to see if they engaged in any transactions with any “individual, entity or organization” on lists provided by virtually any arm of government.

And they are not now just looking for the type of transactions that drug dealers and gun runners might make to launder their cash. Under the guise of monitoring funds that might at some later date fall into terrorists’ hands, the government is tracking “money derived from legitimate purposes” handled by people – you, me -- who have not committed any crime. According to figures obtained by Newsweek magazine, more than two-thirds of Section 314 searches in 2003 were unrelated to terrorism.

Smile, Please, You’re On Camera

Don’t think any of this concerns you? Under the Congress-approved PROTECT Act, the FBI estimates that they will be allowed to fingerprint more than 26 million Americans who donate their time to volunteer organizations. In addition, they are preparing to conduct criminal background checks on 3.5 million truck drivers under Patriot Act regulations concerning hazardous materials. The State-level MATRIX operation includes 20 billion plus records derived from several hundred public and private databases.

From a posting at the Max Speaks website, I learn that the US Internal Revenue Service have hired a private corporation -- ChoicePoint -- to collect on its behalf demographic and financial information on US taxpayers. If that doesn't scare you, it should. You now have a private corporation collecting information that even the FBI is not allowed to collect on you, and it has the government's seal of approval.

The situation is not made any better by the fact that ChoicePoint was also the company that helped draw up the terrible Florida voters' registers for the 2000 Federal election. As Greg Palast reported at the time: "A close examination suggests thousands of voters may have lost their right to vote based on a flaw-ridden list that included purported "felons" provided by a private firm with tight Republican ties. Early in the year, the company, ChoicePoint, gave Florida officials a list with the names of 8,000 ex-felons to "scrub" from their list of voters. But it turns out none on the list were guilty of felonies, only misdemeanors." The company's methods seem to have been both secretive and less than adequate: "Last year, DBT Online, with which ChoicePoint would soon merge, received the unprecedented contract from the state of Florida to ‘cleanse’ registration lists of ineligible voters -- using information gathering and matching criteria it has refused to disclose, even to local election officials in Florida ... [The ChoicePoint] computer program automatically transformed various forms of a single name. In one case, a voter named "Christine" was identified as a felon based on the conviction of a "Christopher" with the same last name ... ChoicePoint would not respond to queries about its proprietary methods. Nor would the company provide additional verification data to back its fingering certain individuals in the registry purge. One supposed felon on the ChoicePoint list is a local judge."

This certainly wasn't the first time ChoicePoint had caused problems. As Palast goes on to report: "In January [2000], the state of Pennsylvania terminated a contract with ChoicePoint after discovering the firm had sold citizens' personal profiles to unauthorized individuals." And this is the company that the IRS is allowing to poke around in your bank accounts and loans!

Of course, all of the information that ChoicePoint collects is automatically available to any government agency that requests it under the Patriot Act. Private data aggregators claim that they have data “defined for over 90 million households (90 percent of US)” with records of more than 3.5 billion transactions. One of the largest of such aggregators has contracts with the FBI, DEA, IRS, US Marshals Service, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and ATF to share their data. Information and services supplied include “financial reports, education, professional credential and reference verification, felony checks, motor vehicle records, asset location services, and information on an individual’s neighbours and family members.”

And as if that wasn’t enough, there are the super-secret surveillance programs carried out by the CIA, the NSA, the Defence Intelligence Agency and others. The CIA, for example, has a personal information surveillance program called Quantum Leap that is described by the Agency’s deputy chief information officer as “so powerful it’s scary … could be Big Brother.” Even the Army is in on the act. As Newsweek recently revealed, the Pentagon has sought to expand its spying role within the United States: "Ever since the 1970s, when Army intel agents were caught snooping on antiwar protesters, military intel agencies have operated under tight restrictions inside the United States. But the new provision, approved in closed session last month by the Senate Intelligence Committee, would eliminate one big restriction: that they comply with the Privacy Act, a Watergate-era law that requires government officials seeking information from a resident to disclose who they are and what they want the information for. The CIA always has been exempt … The new provision would now extend the same exemption to Pentagon agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency." Note, this was slipped into a bill "in closed session". In other words, there has been no public debate or input for a change that could be devastating to civil liberties.

The same article gives an example of what this might mean: "Last February, two Army counterintelligence agents showed up at the University of Texas law school and demanded to see the roster from a conference on Islamic law held a few days earlier. Their reason: they were trying to track down students who the agents claimed had been asking "suspicious" questions." The Pentagon's justification? According to spokesman Bryan Whitman: "It's a new world we live in. We have to do what is necessary for force protection." So, all you civilians out there, force protection is now more important than civil rights protection.

Travel Controls

One of the most obvious changes resulting from all this scrutiny has been the increased waiting times at airports. Always re-fighting the previous war, the Bush Administration has concentrated enormous resources on beefing up security at airports and on airlines in general. This “security” includes the infamous no-fly watch lists. According to papers released by the Transportation Security Administration, the government's official "no fly" list has grown by leaps and bounds each year since 2001. There are now more than 20,000 names on the list, and no-one really knows whether the names should be on the list or not. The whole system is a mess, but it is growing like Topsy.

An equally worrying development is reported by Time magazine. They say that the Transportation Security Agency "will announce the launch of a three-month trial of its Registered Traveler program, which will start at five airports, beginning in Minneapolis—St. Paul and then in other cities, including Los Angeles and Houston. A sort of fast track for frequent flyers, the program aims to let approved passengers use less crowded lanes to the security checkpoints and possibly avoid such routine security measures as removing their shoes and coats. To gain that privilege, passengers must submit to an extensive background check, including searches of commercial and government databases. After being approved and paying a small annual fee (yet to be determined), they would be issued a card—containing a biometric identifier (a fingerprint, for example) and personal data—that shows they're entitled to the special security treatment."

Not surprisingly, Time plays this up as a major benefit ("finally taking a significant step", "the initiative comes not a moment too soon") and the only critics they cite are those who suggest this won't really improve security. The real danger that they choose not to mention is that such "privilege" cards soon become the norm and anyone who doesn't have one -- anyone that is, not willing to give yet another government agency access to "an extensive background check, including searches of commercial and government databases" -- will quickly be seen as suspicious and therefore worthy of even more monitoring.

But, of course, an airline card isn’t all you’ll need if some in Congress have their way. The House and Senate have separately been debating changes to drivers’ licenses to make them uniform across the country and more amenable to law enforcement tracking. Under the Senate version, the Director of Homeland Security would be able to decide what supporting documents a State would be required to accept as proof of identity for a license application. Moreover, “[t]he secretary could require the license to include fingerprints or eye prints. The provision would allow the Homeland Security Department to require use of the license, or an equivalent card issued by motor vehicle bureaus to nondrivers for identification purposes, for access to planes, trains and other modes of transportation. The House's version of the intelligence bill … would require the states to keep all driver's license information in a linked database, for quick access. It also calls for "an integrated network of screening points that includes the nation's border security system, transportation system and critical infrastructure facilities that the secretary determines need to be protected against terrorist attack.”

As the Marv Johnson of the ACLU has pointed out, if this system is then expanded to cover all forms of transportation – buses, subways, highways – the end result is "to require you to have some national ID card, essentially, in order to go from point A to point B." James C. Plummer Jr., a policy analyst at Consumer Alert, quoted in the Times article, said, "You're looking at a system of internal passports, basically." Anyone familiar with the history of totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Empire, apartheid South Africa, and modern dictatorships will readily understand the importance of travel controls of this type.


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


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