The Other Domestic Spying Numerous
R evelations surrounding domestic spying by the NSA have been in the news since December. However, other reports of domestic spying operations by the U.S. government have flown under the corporate media radar.
Investigations this past winter by groups such as the ACLU and some media outlets have revealed numerous occasions of FBI, Defense Department, and local police infiltration and monitoring of domestic peace groups. Further, some of the details surrounding the NSA program and other surveillance operations point to a new paradigm in intelligence operations, which involve massive “datamining” reminiscent of the government’s supposedly shelved Total Information Awareness program.
Scandals have erupted regularly almost every month of Bush’s five-plus years in office, yet the corporate media have treated each revelation as a standalone item, offered without historical context, worthy of a few weeks at most in the spinning heads news cycle before being drowned out by the latest trivia. The spying revelations, what little is discussed publicly, have particularly suffered from corporate media’s structural and ideological barriers to offering context and history.
History of Civil Liberties Abuses
T here’s no shortage of precedent in U.S. history for today’s revelations of domestic spying. However, the lessons learned and cautionary institutional reforms resulting from previous government civil liberties intrusion are not much discussed in the corporate media, nor is even the fact that this history exists.
From the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s to government spying on peace and environmental activists during the 1980s, an ugly picture emerges of a government that manages to simultaneously blunder and bludgeon. Inevitably, the tendency to overreach is revealed, briefly excoriated, and then dismissed as an aberration.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 declared that anyone “opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President” could be imprisoned for up to two years. It was also illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything critical of the president or Congress. Though partially intended to protect a Federalist administration from its political opponents, this plan backfired amid much outcry, and a few prosecutions, while the most egregious portions of the laws expired two years later with little result except to have the Federalists ousted from power.
Throughout the 1800s civil rights were denied Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and African Americans by federal and local government decree. Ongoing “Indian Wars” denied Native Americans basic civil rights and saw the U.S. government consistently break its own laws and treaties. Chinese immigrants, encouraged to come work as near slaves on the railroad and in other industries, were forcibly expelled from entire regions afterwards. Even after slavery ended, African Americans suffered from sundown laws, denial of voting and property rights, and lynching.
The rise of the workers unions in the late-1800s elicited a violent response from the government: spying, illegal detentions, executions, and a notable early case of outsourcing repression—through Pinkerton and other goon squad violence. Massive government and industry campaigns were launched against them through a series of federal injunctions, court rulings, and local and state police repression.
By 1900 the U.S. had acquired a foreign empire stretching from Guam to Cuba, and continued to proclaim all of Central and South America as under its sphere of influence. Constant low-intensity military expeditions ensued and continue to this day in maintenance of this empire. Besides radical worker groups, popular pacifist and anti-imperialist groups now also arose to denounce elite priorities.
During WWI, unprecedented propaganda by the U.S. government and “public relations” firms, large-scale domestic surveillance operations by the U.S. Army, and the criminalization of pacifist dissent by the justice system were followed by massive operations against political “radicals” after the war. More than 10,000 people were arrested, most without warrants, during the Palmer Raids (1918-1921), which was named after the attorney general at the time. Hundreds of targeted activist leaders (legal residents) were deported and a young J. Edgar Hoover of the Justice Department amassed a database of more than 100,000 names of political “reds.” Palmer’s grasp for power was partially intended to buoy his continued political career, but a backlash against civil rights violations later cost him a presidential nomination.
During the 1920s, Hoover was put in charge of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI) and continued amassing a database of often wildly inaccurate but derogatory information on U.S. citizens—especially dissidents, but also politicians—which could be used for blackmail and ensured his lifetime tenure as director until his death in 1972.
Ideological battles between worker/anti-imperialist groups and government/business interests intensified during the Great Depression, before the political repression was softened somewhat by paternalistic reforms under FDR. Post-WWII, the next multi-generational war (the Cold War) was launched and an even more sweeping domestic red scare was implemented with several government agencies conducting purges and amassing blacklists against political dissidents.
D uring the previous history of political surveillance and repression, multiple law enforcement and intelligence agencies were often employed. Cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and many medium-sized towns, had their own “red squads,” as did state police and militias, special “railroad police,” and the U.S. military. Like the federal government under Hoover, these groups amassed large databases and conducted warrantless “black bag jobs” to break into private homes and gather more info for their files. By the 1950s, this information was then used in secret “blacklists” to discriminate against leftists or get them fired.
In 1956 the FBI went a step beyond this with its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which was originally designed to “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections” inside the Communist Party USA. The program quickly came to target many more groups than domestic communists and socialists, and by the 1960s was going after: civil rights groups generally, and Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically; antiwar groups, including many student, church-based, and veterans groups; national liberation organizations, such as the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement.
The intention was to discredit and disrupt these groups and many illegal dirty tricks were used. Methods included infiltration and provocation, misinformation and forgery, planting false stories in the media, intimidation through government investigations such as tax audits and spurious criminal charges, violence through proxy goon squads and local police, as well as continuing black bag break-ins and electronic surveillance.
Additionally, the now huge “national security state” of dozens of federal and military intelligence agencies conducted similar acts, sometimes coordinated with and sometimes competing against COINTELPRO. The names of these operations sound like something from a 1960s spy show, like “The Man From Uncle”: Operation CHAOS, Projects RESISTANCE, MERRIMAC, MINARET, and SHAMROCK.
Local police agencies, such as New York City and Los Angeles, compiled their own blackmail files, with LA’s lists ending up in the hands of a private right-wing group in the 1980s. Chicago’s police arguably participated in a planned assassination of a political leader, Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1969, while other police framed leaders on trumped up charges (such as California Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, finally exonerated in 1997 after more than 20 years in prison).
The final straw that brought this system down was President Nixon’s own program of White House-centered dirty tricks program and his “enemies list.” The break-in by Nixon’s “plumbers” into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Watergate was almost ignored at the time and a comparatively minor infraction. However, since Nixon was revealed to be spying on more than the usual suspects—in this case other power elites such as Democrats, and (as revealed later) business and media leaders—Nixon’s minor league spy operation spiraled into the greatest scandal in U.S. history.
Domestic Spying Reforms & Reaction
A fter Nixon’s resignation, congressional investigations by Senator Frank Church and others revealed the depths of domestic political surveillance and repression from the 1950s to 1970s. Also revealed were programs of foreign assassination, large scale foreign propaganda (Operation MOCKINGBIRD), and drug experimentation on U.S. citizens (Project MKULTRA).
Details of these operations, which continued to leak throughout the later 1970s and afterwards, initially shocked the U.S. public and led to a number of laws limiting the power of the government to spy on U.S. citizens and disrupt their legal political activity. One such law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, governed the electronic eavesdropping (and later physical searches) of U.S. citizens in national security investigations. Another was the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980, codifying congressional monitoring of spying activities.
Also revealed during the 1970s and later, through investigations and such insider accounts as Philip Agee’s Inside the Company and Leslie Swearingen’s FBI Secrets: An Agent’s Expose , was how gross incompetence fit quite neatly with covert propaganda and intervention abroad and illegal repression and surveillance at home. Swearingen, for instance, revealed FBI field offices filled with lazy agents who neglected their primary duties towards investigating violent crime, but brought great energy to bear on harassment of dissidents.
Other than a few years of Hollywood filmmaking just after Watergate, such true stories of bumbling agents never found much purchase in the imagination of the U.S. public or its media. Instead, the corporate media was soon again offering the standard diet of “action stories” featuring super-competent secret agents and cops, heroically ignoring civil liberty protections like warrants and bans against torture. The news media simultaneously suffered massive budget cuts and ownership consolidation that practically eliminated the kind of investigative journalism that revealed Watergate.
The revelations of the 1970s faded from discussion and public consciousness in the 1980s and thereafter, amid nationalistic rhetoric, continued low intensity conflict in maintenance of empire, and a series of foreign wars against weak nations designed to end the dread “Vietnam Syndrome.”
Though not put into effect, one frightening rebirth of a massive planned civil liberties violation under Reagan was Rex 84 (Readiness Exercise 1984), a test by the United States federal government (including FEMA) to detain large numbers of U.S. citizens in case of massive civil unrest or national emergency. This was a revival of the similar 1960s-era Operation Garden Plot, adjusted from a context then of inner-city unrest to a likely mass opposition to wider war in Central America in the 1980s. A similar plan is on the books post-9/11, with hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for Halliburton to build the processing facilities in the event of a “national ermergency.”
Revelations about Rex 84 came out in the Iran-Contra hearings (1987), a congressional investigation into Reagan’s illegal use of power to fund a war in Central America that Congress had specifically removed from the budget so as to eliminate U.S. involvement in the war. The central constitutional question was lost in the media spin, as were ancillary revelations of CIA collusion in drug smuggling, arms deals with Iran that pre-dated the supposed justification (hostages in Lebanon), CIA banking and money laundering schemes, and active support for mass death squads and torture.
Under Clinton, the law enforcement pendulum swung back and forth following much criticized heavy handed police response at Ruby Ridge and Waco and then the bombing in Oklahoma City by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh. The Oklahoma City bombing resulted in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, making it easier to execute prisoners by limiting their appeals and also instituting a number of PATRIOT Act-type provisions on surveillance and expanded criminal provisions related to a broader definition of “terrorism.”
Despite this revision of the post-Watergate intelligence reform laws, the basic system of congressional and judicial oversight remained in place until September 11, 2001.
Domestic Spying Today
D ue to recent revelations surrounding the National Security Agency program to spy on U.S. citizens, we now know that the Bush administration has justified such surveillance on a contested theory of the president’s inherent “wartime” powers—which presumably will also last for “generations” along with the “war on terror.” Not even the increased powers given him under the PATRIOT Act, hastily passed just after 9/11, were enough for Bush. Thus, the president simply bypassed the FISA court and congressional oversight requirements for domestic spying put in place after Watergate as “unnecessary.”
Perhaps related to this, but more likely the lumbering response of a massive surveillance system long in place, a number of investigations in the past two years have revealed that the government is once again spying on, and amassing databases of, U.S. citizens due to their political beliefs and legal political actions. The surveillance is being conducted by the Department of Defense (DOD), the FBI, the multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), local and state police, and, of course, the NSA.
In December 2005, NBC News revealed details from a 400-page DOD database document on domestic “threats” to its installations, detailing 1,500 “suspicious incidents” from a 10-month period. Dozens of peace groups were on the list, with a special focus on counter-recruitment activities. According to NBC News, the database “includes nearly four dozen antiwar meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far from any military installation, post or recruitment center.” Though hundreds of incidents were discounted as not a threat, they remained in the database, along with names and details, which indicate possible infiltration or aggressive surveillance.
The document was produced by a little-known group called the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), created two years ago to “maintain a domestic law enforcement database that includes information related to potential terrorist threats directed against the Department of Defense.” A now widely used reporting system was put in place called Threat and Local Observation Notices (or TALONs) for “non-validated domestic threat information” from military units throughout the United States, which is collected and retained in a CIFA database.
According to the NBC report, “Since March 2004, CIFA has awarded at least $33 million in contracts to corporate giants Lockheed Martin, Unisys Corporation, Computer Sciences Corporation and Northrop Grumman to develop databases that comb through classified and unclassified government data, commercial information and Internet chatter.”
In the past two years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched dozens of investigations into domestic spying activities in more than 20 states on behalf of more than 100 organizations, the latest inquiries based on the DOD document. Numerous earlier Freedom of Information Requests by the ACLU have also revealed surveillance by local police, the FBI, and JTTF of thousands of domestic activists from groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Greenpeace, United for Peace and Justice, Food Not Bombs, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and dozens of local peace groups around the country.
In just one example from the many cited on the ACLU website: “The FBI responded to a June records request from the MCLU with revelations that it has intercepted and collected past communications from members of the Maine Coalition for Peace and Justice.” The investigations and (heavily redacted) government documents forcibly made public by the ACLU are mostly initiated and maintained under the guise of “counterterrorism,” even information about pacifist groups like the Quakers’ AFSC. The documents reveal both active surveillance and databasing of groups, and point strongly to undercover infiltration of the groups.
Local law enforcement is still in on the action. A 2003 memorandum from the FBI sent to 17,000 local police agencies urged surveillance of a wide range of demonstrations, telling them to be alert for “possible indicators of protest activity and report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.” (There are now more than 100 JTTFs around the country operated jointly by the FBI, Homeland Security, and other agencies; according to a 2004 report in USA Today , the CIA has also assigned dozens of agents to work with the FBI, mostly through the JTTFs.)
In March 2005 the Colorado chapter of the ACLU revealed the existence of thousands of files on peace and environmental activists maintained by the city of Denver, many files from well-before 9/11, including license plate numbers taken down at protests and demonstrations, and the designation of peaceful protesters with no criminal records as “criminal extremists.” During anti-war protests in Colorado in 2003, police infiltrators were observed trying to provoke violence. According to local organizer Nancy Peters in an interview on “NOW,” one undercover officer urged the demonstrators to “storm” heavily fortified police positions.
A December 22 article in the New York Times revealed, “Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert surveillance in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident, a series of videotapes show.” The Times reported that in one incident an undercover officer even initiated an event that led to a violent arrest, though that may not have been the intent.
According to the Chicago Sun Times , Chicago police infiltrated five peace groups in 2002 and launched four other domestic spying operations against activists the next year. Local police in Fresno and Washington, DC have also infiltrated peace groups, according to media accounts.
Besides surveillance, infiltration, and occasional provocations, several incidents of apparent intimidation have been noted with FBI agents coming to the homes of activists to interview them about their plans and associates. Two students in Missouri planning to attend the 2004 Democratic Convention were questioned, subpoenaed, and put under 24 hour surveillance for a week, though they were never charged, according to the ACLU. FBI agents also went to the homes and interrogated members of Food Not Bombs in Colorado and North Carolina.
In Georgia in 2003 a DeKalb County Homeland Security detective jailed a vegan activist at a meat processing plant protest for refusing to hand over a piece of paper on which she had written the license number of an unmarked government car. A new paradigm for managing protests, the so-called “Miami Model,” now sees activists’ offices raided during the planning stages of protests, relegated to small “free speech zones” during demonstrations, and then swept up and incarcerated en masse in makeshift holding pens, as happened in NYC during the Republican Convention and at earlier FTAA protests in Miami. Arrested protesters then often face months of legal battles and possible long-term incarceration, as with protesters at the School of Americas who were recently sentenced to six month prison terms.
Databases and Datamining
T he final element of current domestic surveillance operations involves networked databases of information on U.S. citizens, government and commercial, being created and “mined” for information supposedly related to terrorism, but much broader in scope.
In 2002, the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency revealed it had an Office of Information Awareness with a mission to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness.” The office had plans to integrate massive amounts of public and private electronic information and mine the data for “patterns of suspicious activity.” The revelation created tremendous opposition and, even though it renamed its mission “Terrorist Information Awareness,” the program was officially cancelled in 2003.
Similarly, the government’s air passenger screening programs have suffered from negative scrutiny because of overly broad and inconsistently maintained “no fly” lists since 9/11. These lists have netted anti-war activists and other non-terrorists and today is estimated to number at least in the tens of thousands. In November 2005 the TSA indicated that 30,000 people had contacted the agency in the last year alone to contest their inclusion on the lists.
Additionally, in 2002 and 2003 numerous airlines and reservation agencies provided full customer information and histories to the TSA for datamining. The TSA planned to contract out much of the data integration and searching, and paid numerous contractors such as Lockheed Martin hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the prototypes of such a surveillance system.
An even more far-reaching replacement program, Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II), was withdrawn from consideration in 2004 after a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report criticized its privacy intrusions and even wider potential for errors than the current system. Nevertheless, two programs with some features similar to CAPPS II have been implemented, which rely on unverified commercial databanks, such as credit histories, to evaluate passengers’ “threat level.” The programs, Secure Flight and Registered traveler, are under legal challenge by the ACLU.
Just as CAPPS II morphed into other programs following public revelation and criticism, Total Information Awareness programs have continued, albeit under different names.
A 2004 GAO report noted more than 200 federal datamining efforts. A February 2006 investigation by the Christian Science Monitor entitled “U.S. Plans Massive Data Sweep” offers a glimpse of a Homeland Security Department system called ADVISE (Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement), which received $50 million in funding last year. The article says ADVISE “would collect a vast array of corporate and public online information—from financial records to CNN news stories—and cross-reference it against U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement records. The system would then store it as ‘entities’—linked data about people, places, things, organizations, and events.”
Like the passenger screening system, ADVISE would rely on commercial databases for information on individuals, information which has proven both notoriously inaccurate and easily prone to hacking and theft. Nevertheless, a convergence of huge defense and information contractors are rushing to create and integrate massive databases for the plethora of government contracts.
As one example, like ADVISE, the MATRIX (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) program analyzed many government and commercial databases to find associations between suspects and suspicious activity. However, MATRIX is run by a private contractor with federal funding and special law enforcement access. Of note, the creator of MATRIX was also founder of the database company that incorrectly stripped tens of thousands of African Americans from the Florida voting roles before the 2000 election.
Other indications of data intrusion, such as the availability and sale of private cell phone records by database companies, NSA collusion with domestic telephone conglomerates, FBI access to Internet service provider information, and more, keep popping up on the back pages of newspapers or as minor items on the network news.
For those who want more than the scattershot reports of the superficial corporate media, the websites of the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation offer a good starting point for much needed self-education about ongoing threats to civil liberty.
Andy Dunn has worked for Z Magazine since 2003. In the 1980s he worked as an interpreter and intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy and National Security Agency.