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'Who is Watching the Watchers?' A Taste of Big Brother in U.S.
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<-- Return To Right-to-Know or Left-to-Wonder?

Source: Common Dreams.

Published on Sunday, October 7, 2001 in the Toronto Star

'Who is Watching the Watchers?'
A Taste of Big Brother in U.S.
by Jim Wurst

AT THE Ministry of Truth, government clerk Winston Smith labored to rewrite speeches and rewrite history, with the singular knowledge burned into his brain: "Big Brother Is Watching You."

Big Brother was the ever-present video eye, the Hitlerian leader watching over the citizens of Oceania. This was Winston's world, a place constantly at war with shifting enemies, its passive populace accepting that the "enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil."


In the course of George Orwell's novel, 1984, about a completely monitored state of Thought Police, Newspeak and Hate Week, poor Winston is betrayed and crushed, at last casting aside the last vestiges of his soul to realize that he, too, loves Big Brother.

The fictional Oceania in 1984 isn't the United States in 2001.

And yet, privacy advocates say, in the aftermath of the worst attack on American soil since the founding of the republic in 1776, in a climate of grief and fear, America is, indeed, moving closer to Orwell's terrible vision.

Orwellian words ring out in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Homeland Defense: Tomorrow afternoon, in the Oval Office, U.S. President George W. Bush swears in Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania as homeland defense secretary, with cabinet rank and sweeping powers to fight terrorism on American soil as he sees fit, with troops and warplanes and the support of law-enforcement agencies across the country.

Ridge takes power without Senate confirmation, without the president's executive order yet defining his job, of an agency whose unfortunate namesake existed in pre-World War II Austria and turned into a Nazi super-spy agency.


The Patriot Bill: As early as this week, lawmakers will take their so-named compromise anti-terrorist bill to a vote in the House of Representatives, while the Senate tackles its own version of legislation presented by Attorney-General John Ashcroft in the first days after the attack.

"Who could oppose that bill without being a non-patriot?" says Michael Ratner of the Washington-based rights group, Center for Constitutional Rights.

It's the worst slur imaginable in the United States. Un-American. Unpatriotic.

Communist-bashing U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy headed the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, a witch-hunting congressional panel that blacklisted artists, academics, and politicians, destroying lives, careers and families in the process.

"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?" is a phrase that echoes down through history.

Even Bush's current stark terminology � "the evil-doers," "with us or against us" � casts the enemy on a larger Orwellian scale, according to Ratner, and tries to quash any dissent that might be aimed at the perceived "absolute good" of America's leaders.

Since Sept. 11, state and federal politicians have passed, or tabled, wide-ranging legislation that curtails immigrant rights; introduces broad new rules for wiretapping and electronic surveillance and expands them to the Internet; increases law-enforcement powers; and broadens the definition of terrorist to include, according to civil rights lawyers, kids demonstrating on a college campus or freedom-of-choice demonstrators.

"It's all happening really fast," says Nadine Strossner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is the country's pioneering rights organization, cutting its teeth during the Red Scare of the 1920s, when thousands of union organizers and workers were jailed in 33 cities.

"Big Brother was watching people, not punishing them, and when Orwell's book came out, I think people understood what a terrible fate it would be," says Strossner. "But we have come a long way down the road to the surveillance society."

She describes the ACLU's work since Sept. 11 as "triage," with rights-lawyers rushing to scenes of the most visible abuse � in this case, the federal legislation pending on Capitol Hill � as state legislatures hurry to pass laws of their own.

On Sept. 12, for example, New York state passed legislation that applies the death penalty for terrorist crimes that are, as Strossner points out, far more broadly defined and without proper judicial review. She says a student demonstrator breaking a window could be tried as a terrorist.

A broad-based coalition from the left and right, with groups from gun owners to gay-rights activists, is fighting back.

Civil-rights advocates, like other Americans, are overwhelmed by the horror of Sept. 11. In interviews this week with The Star, several spoke defensively, as if their fight for constitutional rights somehow signifies a soft attitude on terrorism.

"We are all struggling now with the issue of personal privacy versus collective security, which we know is important," says Harold Krent, a professor at Chicago-Kent Law School.

Mark Lloyd, executive director of the watchdog agency, Civil Rights Forum, says that "while all of us want the government to take reasonable steps to eliminate dangers to our safety and security, we don't want to live in police state in an environment in which we are constantly watched."

But they argue that new intrusions into personal privacy and greater law-enforcement powers won't do anything to stop terrorism in the United States.

That's the crux of their argument. Take away all the liberties you want. You will just have a less-free society � but no more protection against terrorism.

"I think the surveillance standards in place before Sept. 11 were not an impediment to the investigation of the suicide hijackers," says James Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group.

Dempsey says authorities didn't know how to share information they already had. For instance, suspected terrorists Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaf Almazi, aboard two of the hijacked airliners, were already on the CIA "watch list." The agency reportedly had videotape of them with prime terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden.

"Nobody has contended this terrible tragedy was related to inadequate information through electronic communication," says the ACLU's Strossner, arguing that legal powers of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are already vast.

Concerns for systemic abuse of rights includes greater militarization under homeland defense It's a scene that's still unfolding, with measures to be announced. Friday, however, troops began moving into selected airports, the first stage of what will be a massive deployment and a shift in airport control from civilian to military.

"That scares me," says Strossner. "Greater involvement of the military in domestic law enforcement is an enormous concern to those who cherish civil liberties. The firewall between government and the military is one of the founding principles of this country."

Rights advocates are hopeful the American public will balk at increased surveillance if they come to believe it won't protect them against terrorism.

However, polls suggest the opposite is true. A recent CBS-New York Times survey shows that 74 per cent of Americans are ready to give up some civil liberties if it will help get bin Laden.

Some rights monitors says they are heartened that members of Congress didn't jump to pass Ashcroft's original legislation, filed within days of the Sept. 11 attack. Ashcroft told the politicians: "We need to unleash every possible tool in the war against terrorism, and do so promptly."

Says Lloyd of the Civil Rights Forum: "I've been encouraged by the degree to which people on both the left and right in Congress decided to slow it down and take a hard look, despite the fever pitch,"

Civil rights concerns about the federal anti-terrorism bill, expected to be passed as early as this week, include:

Vastly widened powers of electronic surveillance, including roving wiretaps (with warrants issued on a national basis) and greater intrusion into computers, including the reading of e-mails, stored messages and files and examining Internet Web-browsing habits.

"Everybody's computer is going to be vulnerable," says Lloyd. "They are going to be able to search what is stored in your computer, and the terms of the warrant are going to be very broad ... to the point they can look at all the clients of an Internet service provider, not just the person they are investigating."

Experts say the role of judicial oversight � already low � will be further stripped.

Are you interested in sites with information about AIDS? Are you investigating your Arab ancestors? Are you a student of revolutionary movements with a history of accessing the Zapatista Web page?

"The argument is always, `Well, what do you have to hide?'" says Strossner. "What I have to hide is my privacy � my personal thoughts, my intimate conversations with friends, my political views ... It's just not the government's business."

AT&T research scientist Matt Blaze recently wrote an open letter against greater electronic intrusions for the newly formed group, In Defense Of Freedom. Its 150 members include Gun Owners of America, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Japanese-American Citizens Committee, God Bless America, American-Arab Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Christ Covenant Metropolitan Church and Amnesty International.

"I fear we will be seduced into accepting what seems at first-blush as nothing more than reasonable inconveniences, small prices to pay for reducing the risk that terrorism happens on our soil again, without assessing fully the hidden costs to our values," Blaze wrote.

"Like it our not, computers and networks, as much as our constitution, are now endowed with the power to either protect us from, or make us more vulnerable to evils like unreasonable search and seizure."

Greater powers for secret investigations against both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens under foreign-intelligence provisions being broadened to include terrorism. People can be charged with a criminal offense, without criminal code protection, say critics.

It affects people working for foreign governments or agencies. For example, says privacy advocate Dempsey, a person working in the U.S. for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation could be investigated, even if he or she is not involved in a crime, and jailed without due process of law.

Definition of terrorism broadened.

"We know who the targets are likely to be," says Strossner. "There are historical resonances here.

"You look at the `terrorist' label and see how easily someone could be stigmatized as a terrorist, and it's not anybody close to what the public has in mind when they think of the people who committed these horrific crimes."

Another fear is that government agencies are going to drown in all the murky personal information they gather.

"Would the FBI know what to do with its new snooping power?" asked the Wall Street Journal last week, about what it described as the "most sweeping expansion of federal law enforcement power since the Cold War."

Even after Sept 11, said the newspaper, there wasn't co-operation among agencies. Ashcroft's office, for example, announced the FBI was shutting down crop-dusting operations across the country because a suspected terrorist reportedly had crop-dusting manuals.

"I was actually going to call somebody and ask what's going on," Sheriff Victor Jones Jr., of Natchitoches Parish, La., where crop-dusting is widely used, told the WSJ.

"We haven't heard anything about the delays on crop-dusting or about explosives or about the people they are looking for."

Privacy advocates point to such problems as the delay in the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh this year because FBI agents hadn't passed on relevant files to his defense attorneys.

"We want civil liberties protected and electronic monitoring controlled, not only to protect civil rights but to help ensure government surveillance activities are focused," says Dempsey.

"My biggest fear is that the government collects more information than is irrelevant and it distracts agents from the security issues."

A host of other proposals for greater state monitoring � Ratner calls them "ornaments on the Christmas tree" � is being dusted off by legislators in the wake of Sept. 11.

One example is the push for "biometrics" technology � which civil-liberty groups describe as truly Orwellian.

Biometric devices measure a person's physical characteristics � such as eye or facial contours � for identification. It already has limited use at London's Heathrow Airport to allow some passengers faster security clearance.

In Tampa last year, there was an uproar after police, looking for felons, used biometric technology to track people at the Super Bowl.

It's not the use of such technology that concerns law professor Krent. It's what happens to all of this information after it's gathered.

Monitoring agencies aren't included in any recent legislation to legalize biometrics or greater video surveillance.

"Imagine some local clerk somewhere looking through your records," Krent says.

"I fear the Orwellian notion of a central data base tracking our every movement, from federal buildings to the Empire State Building to the Sears Tower. ... It is so open to abuse.

"We have to keep reminding ourselves of the dangers. We need checks and balances in our system because we need protection against human weakness."

That weakness, he says, can be benign, as when damaging information about somebody is inadvertently released, or malevolent, as when former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover compiled nasty dossiers on civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

Krent says Americans must keep asking: Who's watching the watchers?

Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

<-- Return To Right-to-Know or Left-to-Wonder?

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