America’s Electronic Police State

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Big Broth­er is not only watch­ing, but gath­er­ing more power

The mod­ern sur­veil­lance state is referred to as an elec­tron­ic police state because it uses tech­nol­o­gy to mon­i­tor peo­ple in order to detect and pun­ish dis­sent. The author­i­ties exert social con­trol through spy­ing, harsh law enforce­ment, and by reg­u­lat­ing “priv­i­leges” such as the abil­i­ty to trav­el. But all of this starts with surveillance.

Infor­ma­tion is pow­er. Imag­ine if agents of the State didn’t know where you live. How could it col­lect prop­er­ty tax­es, arrest you, con­script you or your chil­dren, or record phone calls? Imag­ine if the State did not know your finances. How could it snatch your mon­ey, gar­nish your wages, freeze accounts, or con­fis­cate gold? Total infor­ma­tion is total pow­er. That’s why the sur­veil­lance state views pri­va­cy itself as an indi­ca­tion of crime—not as one of vio­lence, but as a crime against the State.
Beyond the NSA

The Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency (NSA) keeps mak­ing head­lines as the quin­tes­sen­tial force behind the Amer­i­can sur­veil­lance state. Civ­il rights advo­cates should be equal­ly con­cerned about a qui­eter but no less insid­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tion: the Nation­al Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter (NCTC).

The NCTC coor­di­nates at least 17 fed­er­al and local intel­li­gence agen­cies through fusion cen­ters that amass infor­ma­tion on aver­age Amer­i­cans. A fusion cen­ter is a phys­i­cal loca­tion at which data is processed and shared with gov­ern­ment agen­cies. Fusion cen­ters also receive “tip line” infor­ma­tion from pub­lic work­ers, such as fire­fight­ers, who report “sus­pi­cious” behav­ior observed dur­ing their inter­ac­tion with peo­ple. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS) and the Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DOJ) began cre­at­ing the cen­ters in 2003. To date, there are sev­en­ty-eight acknowl­edged fusion cen­ters.

The stat­ed pur­pose of fusion cen­ters is to pre­vent ter­ror­ist acts. But, for years, inves­ti­ga­tions have revealed that the mon­i­tor­ing has been used to exert social con­trol and pun­ish polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion. In 2007, the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU) pub­lished a report titled, “What’s Wrong with Fusion Cen­ters?” One prob­lem? Mis­sion creep. The scope of their “pro­tec­tive” mis­sion has “quick­ly expand­ed” to include the vague cat­e­go­ry of “all haz­ards.” The “types of infor­ma­tion” gath­ered were also broad­ened to include non-crim­i­nal pub­lic- and pri­vate-sec­tor data.

Two years lat­er, the ACLU issued anoth­er paper that sketched the impact of this broad­en­ing mis­sion. The ACLU quot­ed a bul­letin from the North Cen­tral Texas Fusion Sys­tem; law enforce­ment offi­cers were told it was “imper­a­tive” to report on the behav­ior of their local lob­by­ing groups, includ­ing Mus­lim civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions and anti­war groups.

Despite warn­ings, the fusion cen­ters con­tin­ue to col­lect data on the “sus­pi­cious activ­i­ties” of non-crim­i­nals. In Sep­tem­ber 2013, the ACLU pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion from “actu­al Sus­pi­cious Activ­i­ty Report (SAR) sum­maries obtained from Cal­i­for­nia fusion cen­ters.” Includ­ed in the SARs were Mid­dle East­ern males who bought pal­lets of water, a pro­fes­sor who pho­tographed build­ings for his art class, a Mid­dle East­ern male physi­cian whom a neigh­bor called “unfriend­ly,” and pro­test­ers who were con­cerned about the use of police force.

If ever one were inclined to let such activ­i­ties pass because those being watched have been Mus­lim, remem­ber that pow­er rarely restricts itself to any stat­ed goal. As the def­i­n­i­tion of poten­tial ter­ror­ist groups has been expand­ed to include groups such as the Tea Par­ty, it has become evi­dent that the line between ter­ror group and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion has blurred.

The fusion cen­ters share many char­ac­ter­is­tics of a sur­veil­lance state with the NSA. These char­ac­ter­is­tics include a dis­re­gard for civ­il rights, secret records, the use of infor­mants, lit­tle to no trans­paren­cy, the tar­get­ing of polit­i­cal oppo­nents, and an ever-expand­ing mission.

In at least one sense, the fusion cen­ters are more typ­i­cal of the sur­veil­lance state. Since Edward Snow­den’s rev­e­la­tions, the NSA has been under a spot­light that reduces its abil­i­ty to hide activ­i­ties such as the war­rant­less record­ing of emails and phone calls. But fusion cen­ters still func­tion with lit­tle vis­i­bil­i­ty. The NSA is sub­ject­ed to pub­lic con­tro­ver­sy, with civ­il lib­er­ty groups push­ing to rein in its pow­er. By con­trast, the fusion cen­ters are com­par­a­tive­ly invis­i­ble, which allows them to oper­ate covert­ly in a man­ner more typ­i­cal of a sur­veil­lance state.

J. Edgar would be proud

The sur­veil­lance state was root­ed in a desire to sti­fle polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion, not to thwart crim­i­nal acts. In his book J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Inter­ven­tion­ists, his­to­ri­an Dou­glas M. Charles traced the birth of per­va­sive sur­veil­lance back to the Great Debate on whether Amer­i­ca should enter World War II. Specif­i­cal­ly, Roo­sevelt want­ed to sup­port the war and to silence pow­er­ful anti-inter­ven­tion­ists like the avi­a­tor-hero Charles Lind­bergh. Thus, Hoover focused on the Amer­i­ca First Com­mit­tee (AFC) in which Lind­bergh and sev­er­al sen­a­tors were prominent.

Hoover, direc­tor of the FBI from 1924 to his death in 1972, is the found­ing father of the Amer­i­can sur­veil­lance state. It arose because nation­al secu­ri­ty alleged­ly required con­stant vig­i­lance against “the ene­my,” exter­nal and inter­nal. The inter­nal ene­my could be indi­vid­u­als or a con­cept, like com­mu­nism or terrorism.

As head of the Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (lat­er the FBI), Hoover ini­ti­at­ed the poli­cies of extreme secre­cy that bypassed the over­sight of data col­lec­tion. Iron­i­cal­ly, Hoover had assumed lead­er­ship with a pub­lic pledge to end the agen­cy’s civ­il lib­er­ty vio­la­tions. Like sur­veil­lance agen­cies before and since, how­ev­er, the FBI’s pub­lic state­ments direct­ly con­tra­dict­ed its acts. For exam­ple, Hoover qui­et­ly coor­di­nat­ed with local police in much the same man­ner as the cur­rent fusion cen­ters do. Infor­ma­tion on a “sus­pec­t’s” sex­u­al pref­er­ences (espe­cial­ly homo­sex­u­al­i­ty), reports on his chil­dren and oth­er fam­i­ly, as well as oth­er sen­si­tive data went into unof­fi­cial files that were labeled “per­son­al, con­fi­den­tial”; these were inac­ces­si­ble to unap­proved eyes. When tid­bits from the secret files were shared, the stan­dard method was through a memo that had no let­ter­head, no sig­na­ture, nor any oth­er indi­ca­tion of the recip­i­ent or sender.

After Decem­ber 7, 1941 (Pearl Har­bor), Amer­i­ca’s entry into the war became inevitable. Fear­ing a reduc­tion in his pow­er, Hoover claimed the AFC had gone under­ground even though the orga­ni­za­tion had clear­ly dis­band­ed. Thus, Hoover con­tin­ued sur­veil­lance by lying about the need to counter active subversion.

The gam­bit worked. Indeed, Roo­sevelt and sub­se­quent Pres­i­dents were eager to weak­en their oppo­nents. The FBI’s growth was phe­nom­e­nal. Charles explains, “In 1934 the FBI employed 391 agents and a sup­port staff of 451 and was appro­pri­at­ed $2,589,500…. In 1945, the FBI had 4,370 agents, 7,422 sup­port staff and an appro­pri­a­tion of $44,197,146.” It embraced ille­gal wire­tap­ping and tres­pass, mail mon­i­tor­ing, anony­mous infor­mants, point­ed inves­ti­ga­tions by gov­ern­ment agen­cies such as the IRS, the selec­tive enforce­ment of law, and FBI plants in tar­get­ed groups.

The Cold War built upon the infor­ma­tion-gath­er­ing infra­struc­ture. The Cold War’s exten­sive data shar­ing with for­eign gov­ern­ments was also root­ed in pre-WWII pol­i­tics. “A hall­mark of the Sec­ond World War, Cold War, and War on Ter­ror­ism, the inti­mate intel­li­gence rela­tion­ship between the Unit­ed States and Great Britain had its ori­gins dur­ing the Great Debate,” writes Charles.

Hoover’s secret files on polit­i­cal fig­ures made him vir­tu­al­ly untouch­able. After his death, how­ev­er, the FBI came under con­cert­ed attack for its domes­tic sur­veil­lance. The pub­lic was par­tic­u­lar­ly out­raged by rev­e­la­tions of how the FBI had tar­get­ed pop­u­lar heroes such as the civ­il rights leader Mar­tin Luther King. After the famous August civ­il rights 1963 march dur­ing which King deliv­ered his icon­ic “I Have a Dream” speech, a top Hoover aide wrote in an inter­nal memo, “In the light of King’s pow­er­ful dem­a­gog­ic speech … We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dan­ger­ous Negro of the future in this Nation from the stand­point of com­mu­nism, the Negro, and nation­al secu­ri­ty.” Sur­veil­lance of King increased. Among oth­er “infor­ma­tion” gath­ered, the FBI taped an adul­ter­ous sex­u­al encounter, which anony­mous­ly appeared in the mail­box of King’s wife.

FBI inves­ti­ga­tions into polit­i­cal­ly-ori­ent­ed groups were offi­cial­ly restrict­ed. Fol­low­ing the 9/11 ter­ror­ist attacks and pas­sage of the PATRIOT Act, how­ev­er, the FBI and oth­er agen­cies gained the abil­i­ty to con­duct polit­i­cal domes­tic sur­veil­lance. The sur­veil­lance state that had been root­ed in war and polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing was giv­en new life by the same two fac­tors. It was also giv­en pow­er of which Hoover could only have dreamed.

The ACLU declared in yet anoth­er report (2008), “There appears to be an effort by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to coerce states into exempt­ing their fusion cen­ters from state open gov­ern­ment laws. For those liv­ing in Vir­ginia, it’s already too late; the Vir­ginia Gen­er­al Assem­bly passed a law … exempt­ing the state’s fusion cen­ter from the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act. Accord­ing to com­ments by the com­man­der of the Vir­ginia State Police Crim­i­nal Intel­li­gence Divi­sion and the admin­is­tra­tive head of the cen­ter, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment pres­sured Vir­ginia into pass­ing the law.… There is a real dan­ger fusion cen­ters will become a ‘one-way mir­ror’ in which cit­i­zens are sub­ject to ever-greater scruti­ny by the author­i­ties, even while the author­i­ties are increas­ing­ly pro­tect­ed from scruti­ny by the public.”

Since then, State sur­veil­lance has become more secre­tive and increas­ing­ly exempt from both over­sight and account­abil­i­ty. Fusion cen­ters now reach into pri­vate data­bas­es such as Accu­rate, Choice Point, Lex­is-Nexus, Locate Plus, insur­ance claims, and cred­it reports. They access mil­lions of gov­ern­ment files like DMV records. Why is this impor­tant? Var­i­ous laws have been adopt­ed to pre­vent the main­te­nance of data­bas­es on aver­age Amer­i­cans, but if fusion cen­ters access the exist­ing files, espe­cial­ly pri­vate ones, they can bypass those laws.

The fore­go­ing is a descrip­tion of elec­tron­ic total­i­tar­i­an­ism. If its cre­ation is invis­i­ble to many peo­ple, then it man­i­fests yet anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic of a police state: Peo­ple do not believe their free­dom is gone until there is a knock on the door—one that comes in the mid­dle of the night.