STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Terror for Domestic Repression
By Staff News & Analysis - February 05, 2010

America has slid back again into its own special brand of terrorism-derangement syndrome. Each time this condition recurs, it presents with more acute and puzzling symptoms. It's almost impossible to identify the cause, and it's doubtful there's a cure. The entire forensic team from House would need a full season to unravel the mystery of what it is about the American brain that renders us more terrified of terrorists today than we were five years ago and less trusting of government policies to protect us. The real problem is that too many people tend to follow GOP cues about how hopelessly unsafe America is, and they've yet again convinced themselves that we are mere seconds away from an attack. Moreover, each time Republicans go to their terrorism crazy-place, they go just a little bit farther than they did the last time, so that things that made us feel safe last year make us feel vulnerable today. Policies and practices that were perfectly acceptable just after 9/11, or when deployed by the Bush administration, are now decried as dangerous and reckless. The same prominent Republicans who once celebrated open civilian trials for Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," now claim that open civilian trials endanger Americans (some Republicans have now even gone so far as to try to defund such trials). Republicans who once supported closing Guantanamo are now fighting to keep it open. And one GOP senator, who like all members of Congress must take an oath to uphold the Constitution, has voiced his concern that the Christmas bomber really needed to be "properly interrogated" instead of being allowed to ask for a lawyer. – Slate

Dominant Social Theme: Those Republicans are to blame.

Free-Market Analysis: Maybe Slate has not realized that Republicans and Democrats are basically equal opportunity offenders when it comes to the alarming erosion of civil rights and privacy in the United States. While damage to the protections provided by the Constitution to US citizens accelerated dramatically under the Bush administration, the Obama administration has acceded to the trend (which continues unabated) – not surprisingly given that there is little difference between the two parties at this point.

The establishment of Homeland Security, the endless false terror alarms and the constant pressure for more and quicker spying on criminals and terrorists is turning the US into a kind of quasi-police state. The FBI's warrantless wiretapping, where large swathes of the public may be serially wiretapped and not know it, could well destroy what is left of the market-based entrepreneurial spirit of that country. In the past it was said of even the least regulated Western countries that "anyone could be arrested for anything." But these days the authorities in America have the means as well as the law to destroy almost anyone they wish. It is never enough, however. Here is a recent article from CNET reporting on yet more American intel and police demands:

Police want backdoor to Web users' private data … Anyone with an e-mail account likely knows that police can peek inside it if they have a paper search warrant. But cybercrime investigators are frustrated by the speed of traditional methods of faxing, mailing, or e-mailing companies these documents. They're pushing for the creation of a national Web interface linking police computers with those of Internet and e-mail providers so requests can be sent and received electronically.

CNET has reviewed a survey scheduled to be released at a federal task force meeting on Thursday, which says that law enforcement agencies are virtually unanimous in calling for such an interface to be created. Eighty-nine percent of police surveyed, it says, want to be able to "exchange legal process requests and responses to legal process" through an encrypted, police-only "nationwide computer network."

The survey, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, is part of a broader push from law enforcement agencies to alter the ground rules of online investigations. Other components include renewed calls for laws requiring Internet companies to store data about their users for up to five years and increased pressure on companies to respond to police inquiries in hours instead of days.

But the most controversial element is probably the private Web interface, which raises novel security and privacy concerns, especially in the wake of a recent inspector general's report (PDF) from the Justice Department. The 289-page report detailed how the FBI obtained Americans' telephone records by citing nonexistent emergencies and simply asking for the data or writing phone numbers on a sticky note rather than following procedures required by law.

Some companies already have police-only Web interfaces. Sprint Nextel operates what it calls the L-Site, also known as the "legal compliance secure Web portal." The company even has offered a course that "will teach you how to create and track legal demands through L-site. Learn to navigate and securely download requested records." Cox Communications makes its price list for complying with police requests public; a 30-day wiretap is $3,500.

The pressure that America's largest communications companies are under to cooperate with America's vast intel nexus is considerable and ongoing. The eventual result must be a seamless net of public/private surveillance in which the resources of America's still-innovative corporate enterprises are continually turned on the American public at the behest of the police.

The convergence of public policing and corporate resources is an inevitable sign of civic degradation. It means that all levels of society have been turned inward – on themselves – to facilitate the deterrence of criminal malfeasance. The result, unfortunately, is that the state can criminalize almost any activity and now has the wherewithal, increasingly, to enforce even the maddest conceits. Whether it is white-collar crime, the war on drugs or terrorism itself, the ability to gather endless amounts of evidence in order to find something – anything – that is provable in court is facilitated by this dismaying trend.

There is more of course. The recent insistence of American government intel spokesmen that Americans abroad can be targeted for assassination if they are deemed supportive of terrorism (and thus migrate to the status of "enemy") can be seen as part of a larger strategy aimed at suppressing DOMESTIC dissent. Those who are anti-war, or even against the current economic reign, may eventually find it prudent to move abroad given the wiretapping and other intrusive security arrangements increasingly being pursued domestically. But in such situations, US citizens (and eventually those from other countries) will face the uncertainties that stem from the US government's continued use of rendition and no doubt even more harassing activities. Again, it would seem, the mechanisms (illegal or not) purportedly developed to fight the war on terror inevitably are turned against those who would voice disapproval within the ambit of their own societies.

After Thoughts

Yet, having written all this, it remains our humble estimation that the rapid degradation of civil liberties in America and in the West will eventually be counteracted. Unlike past episodes of repression, the current environment must contend with the liberating effects of the Internet, which is constantly and inevitably exposing the justifications that are being used to install the foundations of a surveillance society. Of course many still do not believe that the Internet will truly have an impact on what's occurring, especially when it comes to the erosion of civil liberties. We think it will.

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