“Whatever happened to Michael Brown in the moments before he died has become secondary to what the response to his death has revealed,” Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker. Since a police officer shot and killed the unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, the shooting—and the vigils, looting, volunteer cleanup, peaceful protests, and overwhelmingly disproportionate police response—has become a national microcosm of urban racial injustice and what is being called the “militarization” of police forces.
Deadspin’s Greg Howard summarized the tensions at play:
If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they’re working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men. Throughout the country, police officers are capturing, imprisoning, and killing black males at a ridiculous clip, waging a very literal war on people like Michael Brown.
That war is enabled by military-grade weaponry available to police since the 1990s under the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency and the “section 1033” program over which it presides. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, John Payne explained earlier this year, journalist Radley Balko makes the case that the Founders would have seen that kind of militarized police as an unconstitutional standing army. Balko wrote, “Just before the American Revolution, it wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia; it was the England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement.”
Indeed, to many, the scenes of tear gas seemed more like images from Iraq and Afghanistan than suburban St. Louis (even though tear gas is illegal in warfare, if legal domestically). Jamelle Bouie, writing for Slate, was among them:
This would be one thing if Ferguson were in a war zone, or if protesters were violent—although, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which American police would need a mine-resistant vehicle. But an episode of looting aside, Ferguson police aren’t dealing with any particular danger. Nonetheless, they’re treating demonstrators—and Ferguson residents writ large—as a population to occupy, not citizens to protect.
Veterans spoke out against “militarized” police action in Ferguson on Twitter. Jason Fritz observed, “As someone who studies policing in conflict, what’s going on Ferguson isn’t just immoral and probably unconstitutional, it’s ineffective.”
Adam Weinstein put it more bluntly at Gawker. “The U.S. armed forces exercise more discipline and compassion than these cops.” He cites the first page of the Army’s field manual on civil disturbances, which emphasizes proportional, nuanced responses. “Inciting a crowd to violence or a greater intensity of violence by using severe enforcement tactics must be avoided.” The manual also notes that “highly emotional social and economic issues” inform such disturbances, and that “it takes a small (seemingly minor) incident” to set off violence “if community relations with authorities are strained.”
Unlike the military, who are trained in nonviolent options for conflict resolution, the police often lack such knowledge. Bonnie Kristian expounded this failure and reasons behind systematic police brutality earlier this summer, noting also that cops are rarely held accountable for abuse. “Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that.”
The entrenched racial injustice behind Michael Brown’s death will be difficult to root out, as it has been over centuries of American history. But the decades of policy that allowed for police abuse of Brown, and his town’s peaceful protesters, could be reversed—and if the public outcry over Ferguson is anything to judge by, Americans will be keeping a closer eye on the police in the coming years.
If you use social media or have a smartphone, chances are you’ve encountered facial recognition technology. FRT allows computers to recognize pixel patterns that suggest human faces, allowing selfie-taking cameras to mugshot-filled databases alike to distinguish when they are looking at human faces. Even though it is fairly commonplace, some would rather avoid it, leading to one journalist’s experiment with clownish black-and-white makeup on the streets of D.C.
Robinson Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, tried a camouflage technique called computer-vision dazzle, or “CV dazzle,” which uses face paint and hairstyling to stymie FRT. The makeup deceives FRT by obscuring the eyes, symmetry, and the nose bridge, among other features that characterize the face. “Here was a technology that confounded computers with light and color,” Meyer reflected. But as he learned, CV dazzle is far from a guarantor of privacy. “The very thing that makes you invisible to computers makes you glaringly obvious to other humans.”
Nancy Szokan alarmingly theorized that Meyer’s camouflage experiment is “something a terrorist might want to do”: escaping government surveillance. But in reality, Meyer’s experiment mainly resulted in evading Facebook auto-tagging, a seemingly tame privacy threat. FRT is routinely employed in the private sector beyond social media, from catching cheating gamblers to providing security at large sporting events like the Super Bowl. Now, its capacity to foretell age has stirred interest in insurance companies, while its real-time entrepreneurial applications are being explored by advertisers.
But when it comes to FRT falling into the wrong hands, concerns are generally directed at the authorities rather than vice versa. Though FRT has existed in its most basic form since the 1960s, it has blossomed under the biometrics industry fueled by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the need to identify local populations induced the military development of portable biometrics systems. The government has enthusiastically inserted FRT into more routine use with increasing success: it shows up alongside other biometrics at airports and is now being introduced into police detective use. As Sameer Padania noted at Witness.org, “Law enforcement and security services particularly like FRT, as it does not require consent or knowledge of the subject being processed – unlike finger-printing, iris-scanning or similar biometric technologies, this can be done at a distance.”
It’s not the technology that is a major concern, Padania went on.
What’s new is this: this technology, which used to be accessible only to a few agencies, is now being used voluntarily, and unwittingly by millions of us through our use of social media. Our willingness to tag people in photos, and rapid advances in computer vision and object recognition have accelerated the use of FRT. We share so many images now that Facebook has, as this chart shows, the largest photo collection in history.
This voluntary engagement with FRT, which facilitates its intersection of cloud computing, is where change is beginning to occur. Jared Keller explained that the public’s increasing tech savviness opens the doors to “criminal, fraudulent, or extralegal ends” that are “as alarming as the potential for government abuse.” When private citizens organized a Google group to combine FRT with public records in search of identifying London rioters, they illustrated a new model of digital vigilantism.
The question, Keller says, is not how to escape FRT, whether donning masks or makeup. The question is how to live with it. “No matter what you choose to do or not to do, your life exists in the cloud. …Your digital life is becoming inseparable from your analog one. You may be able to change your name or scrub your social networking profiles to throw off the trail of digital footprints you’ve inadvertently scattered across the Internet, but you can’t change your face. And the cloud never forgets a face.”
CV dazzle may not become haute couture overnight. But surrendering selfies to Uncle Sam might, without anyone noticing.
The Guantanamo Bay detention center briefly reasserted its presence in the public consciousness this month with the news that a single Navy nurse refused to participate in the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike. Quietly feted by civil liberties advocates, the story quickly slipped off the radar. The Pentagon confirmed that the nurse “has been temporarily assigned to alternate duties with no impact to medical support operations”—in other words, the torturous force feedings, instituted in 2006, will continue unabated.
Gitmo currently houses 149 inmates. Fewer than 20 detainees have been charged, and 78 are cleared for release—a status some have held for more than half a decade. About 45 prisoners are scheduled for indefinite detention, never to see a day in court.
The tepid response to the nurse’s moral stand is not surprising. Despite the fervor of outspoken antiwar protesters during the Bush years, the broader public has never cared much about the welfare of those imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, innocent or no. Support for closing the facility peaked at 51 percent in early 2009. That high corresponded with the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, who took office trumpeting his intentions to put an end to Bush-era abuses like Guantanamo, which he labeled a betrayal of American ideals.
A year after the inauguration, the Obama administration’s now-extensive history of Gitmo excuse-making was well underway. “Political opposition” caused the President to break his promise. Temper your expectations, an anonymous White House official suggested, “The president can’t just wave a magic wand and say that Gitmo will be closed.” But of course—of course!—it’s still going to happen.
Come 2011, we found the President admitting that the facility won’t be closed in the near future. “[W]ithout Congress’s cooperation, we can’t do it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I stop making the case.” And that narrative—the “I really want to close Guantanamo, but Congress just won’t let me!” line—has persisted ever since, typically with a heavy dose of partisan undertones. As Obama moved an issue he once called vital to the restoration of the United States’ moral authority to the backburner, public opinion followed his cue. By 2010, only 39 percent supported closing the prison. Today, just 27 percent are on board.
What’s fascinating about this unwillingness to close Guantanamo Bay as observed in government and citizens alike is the way it encapsulates the charade of modern American politics: a GOP that abandons its support for limited government out of fear, and a Democratic Party whose civil libertarianism is built more on partisan rancor than ethics.
Let’s look at the Republican opposition first—for those partisan undertones in Obama’s narrative are two-faced but not unfounded. Led by hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), congressional Republicans have indeed worked to keep Gitmo open. Polling suggests they have the full support of their GOP constituents—no less than 81 percent want the detention center to stick around—and even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), perhaps Graham’s staunchest foreign policy opponent in the Senate, agrees with his South Carolinian colleague on this point.
But what about Gitmo meshes with the small government philosophy Republicans espouse? Each prisoner costs taxpayers $2.7 million annually, a massive failure on the fiscal responsibility front (federal prison, for comparison, spends $26,000 a year per inmate).
Even worse for conservatives should be the prison’s blatant trampling of constitutional rights. Read More…
When Edward Snowden broke open the secretive vaults of the National Security Agency’s worldwide spying apparatus, a long overdue national discussion was launched over the issue of privacy in the high-tech age. We have since seen Congressional hearings, presidential commissions, and academic panels convene to wrangle over what rights we should have to act without surveillance, to conduct business without oversight. What that debate has mostly been missing, however, is the most pressing everyday threat to the privacy of Americans: the private sector.
The wholly justifiable focus on the surveillance powers of the state (which does, after all, possess quite a few more coercive powers to be worried about) has nudged out of the spotlight the constant invasions of privacy that have been taking place at ever-increasing rates over the past decades as consumer information becomes ever more collectible, and ever more desirable. Yet as one of the proposed NSA reforms gaining the most traction involves not abolishing the NSA’s mass collected information databases, but turning it over to private administration, consumer-level privacy now more than ever needs to be at the forefront of our minds and public discussions.
Because the Internet runs, by and large, on advertising, the ability to use consumer information to target ads is a prized commodity, and is enabled by a hordes of tracking cookies placed on people’s computers and vast seas of private consumer databases. Privacy concerns have been voiced consistently, if somewhat sotto vocce, as the web has grown, so the private companies comprising Silicon Valley’s core have been gradually pushed into adopting a “Do Not Track” standard by which consumers can select a web browser setting that tells websites not to collect information on them, similar to a do not call list. Even Google, the giant of web advertising, was dragged into implementing the feature in its Chrome browser in 2012. Yet as a purely voluntary effort, the Do Not Track system is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the website to cooperate, and the inability to agree on a common set of standards has led one of the biggest web companies, Yahoo, to pull the plug on Do Not Track altogether. So while browsers may still send Yahoo the requests, Yahoo won’t be listening.
There is so much money to be made in tracking consumers, that companies have been deploying what’s known as Big Data to sort through vast troves of information and identify desirable characteristics in potential customers. One of the most controversial implementations of Big Data has come from big box retailer Target, who, due to the gold mine to be made off of pregnant women, started to identify newly expecting mothers by their purchasing habits, and bombard them with special offers: often before friends and family knew; sometimes before the women themselves.
A Princeton sociologist and expecting mother recently presented the lengths to which she had to go in order to hide her very personal childbearing status from the commercial panopticon sweeping its eyes over consumers on the web and in stores. In short, she had to avoid any mention of the pregnancy on social media like Facebook and Twitter (first place the advertisers look), only prepare for her pregnancy with cash purchases and giftcards purchased with cash (which itself triggers heightened scrutiny), and even use super-secure and anonymous web browser Tor when she wanted to shop at BabyCenter.com.
With the seeming collapse of DoNotTrack, private-sector privacy may need legislative reforms in its own right. The breach of millions of customers’ credit card information at Target over this past holiday season should also give pause to those who think that the NSA privatizing its data stores will solve any major privacy issues. The existence of mass collection databases is the privacy concern; sending them to private hands with weaker protections could only compound our problems.
Like the very evenhanded Jamelle Bouie here, I think Sen. Rand Paul’s heart was in the right place when he remarked on the irony of a black president presiding over a domestic security apparatus that, decades ago, had targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. “You don’t have to support Rand Paul or his policy agenda to see that he was right to call out the president on the tension between his position and his actions,” Bouie writes.
Yet Paul’s invocation of race and civil liberties still gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Perhaps uncharitably, I see in it the same kind of ideological switcheroo that conservatives have, in the past, employed to distance themselves from other abuses involving race. Like segregation: over the years, the right has sought to evade guilt for this legacy by sowing confusion over party ID: Segregationists were Democrats! True, but only trivially so. (It was possible, back then, to be rightwing and belong to the party of Jefferson and Jackson.) The more sophisticated version of this defense says that segregation was economically wasteful and inefficient; it violated free-market principles. Also true, and also trivial.
A similar rhetorical trick was brought to bear on South Africa in the 1980s. The Jack Abramoff-fronted International Freedom Foundation held up the apartheid government as a bulwark against expansionist communism. After apartheid ended—presto!—it was apartheid itself that was socialist: a “pervasive system of government regulation, regimentation and control.”
This kind of sleight of hand ignores the lived reality of libertarian ideas in America. As historian David Hackett Fischer has written, the ordered liberty of 18th-century New England was altogether different than that of Virginia in the same period, with its conflation of liberty and the “hegemonic condition of dominion over others.”
The unfortunate fact is that, when it came to segregation, apartheid, or domestic spying before Obama, the oppositionist energy issued from the left.
Too often, my conservative friends sound like post-WWII Frenchmen: we all joined the resistance! During the years between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the inauguration of Barack Obama, for example, the line was that Sen. Frank Church and the left had eviscerated our intelligence-gathering capabilities. Now you can find a positive gloss on Church at Breitbart.com!
Rand Paul’s criticism of Obama from this flank amounts, in my opinion, to an inadvisable sort of concern-trolling.
By all means, slam the brakes on the NSA.
But save the convenient harrumphing about MLK.
Just as our army has, in President Obama’s famous debating words, moved beyond horses and bayonets, so too has our surveillance moved past using hot air balloons to count campfires. After demonstrating once again his wide-ranging knowledge of obsolete military technologies, Obama used his long-awaited speech today to frame broad new surveillance programs as a similar modernization for cyberwarfare.
He acknowledged that such modernization of spycraft had led to overreach, though he described surveillance and interrogations conducted under his predecessor’s term as “contradict[ing] our values” while the excesses under his own watch were ascribed to intelligence officers’ passion for defending their country. However, in order to rein in the expansion of spying, especially on American citizens, President Obama announced four major structural changes:
First, the president has approved a new directive meant to provide guidance to intelligence agencies, so they have clearer instructions on how to balance goals of protecting national security, obeying treaties we have signed, respect for civil liberties, and other concerns. The preferred way to make trade-offs was not detailed in the president’s speech, though he did disclose that the priorities set by the directive will be reviewed annually. Various new staff positions will be created in the executive branch to monitor compliance and recommend further revisions.
Second, President Obama listed several changes intended to increase transparency and set limits on any future overreach. He encouraged the declassification of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions, when appropriate, so that citizens have some idea what the current interpretation of privacy law is. Additionally, he called on Congress to establish a panel of advocates from outside government to act as devil’s advocates in some cases before the FISA court. At present, the FISA court, which approves wiretaps and other surveillance requests, is not an adversarial system. Only representatives of the government present their case, the surveilled cannot hear or dispute their arguments.
Third, the president addressed concerns specific to Section 702 of the FISA Amendment Act, which allows intelligence agents to intercept massive volumes of communication for later data mining and review. Currently, when the federal government uses a national security letter to force a private company to turn over troves of user data, the company can’t reveal to their users that their security has been compromised. President Obama would tweak national security letters so the companies are not silenced indefinitely, and the secrecy would have an expiration date. Unless, he added, it was prudent to renew the gag order. Read More…
Six months after Edward Snowden’s first powerpoint slides went public, it’s official: all three branches of government have weighed in against the NSA’s surveillance overreach.
Yesterday, President Obama’s own hand-picked panel issued a 308-page report recommending a series of reforms to the National Security Agency and overall national surveillance structure. The five-member panel had previously been criticized for not being independent enough of the presidency, and included such members as Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s former “nudge” and regulatory czar who is also married to current UN Ambassador Samantha Power; Michael Morrell, the recently resigned deputy director of the CIA; and Peter Swire, a former Obama economic aide.
Nevertheless, the panel released 46 sweeping recommendations, highlighted by the recommendation to end the bulk phone record collection program that made up Snowden’s very first revelation. It urged congress to pass legislation ending the NSA’s ability to collect and maintain records of Americans’ phone metadata for years on the presumption that it may at some point be pertinent and subject to a legitimate search. Instead, the panel recommended that the NSA be barred from such pre-emptive collection, and instead need to obtain a specific Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order for each set of records. Instead of being preserved in government archives in perpetuity, the records would be subject to the company’s own data retention policies, so a court order served for two-year-old records at Cricket, which only retains records for six months, would come up blank. Verizon, the first company whose cooperation with the NSA was exposed, keeps records for one year, and AT&T, five years.
Earlier this week, a George W. Bush-appointed judge ruled the program likely unconstitutional and issued a (stayed pending appeal) injunction against it, writing “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval.” The same program was the target of Justin Amash and John Conyers’ joint effort to defund NSA bulk collection this spring, and is banned under a proposed law by Patriot Act author Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). President Obama is not bound by the recommendations of his panel, and the White House has said that it will announce which suggestions it will itself adopt in January.
What is particularly important, and special, about this case is the unison with parts of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are speaking in rebuking the NSA’s activities as unconstitutional. Often in our nation’s history, particularly post-Warren Court, we have acted as if the only legitimate judges of the Constitution sit on the Supreme Court. After last summer’s Obamacare ruling, for instance, Democrats and many in the media reported that the law was authoritatively stamped “constitutional” forever. That is an impoverished formalism, however, unworthy of our democratic system.
Instead, thanks to the wisdom of the Founders, we have three branches of government through which to pursue the political determination of constitutionality. The Constitution does not defend itself, nor does it belong to a single branch to define. Instead, our checking and balancing institutions of government compete in the political arena to give heightened voice to the public debate and uphold their sworn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So they are now engaged in a great civil discussion to determine what invasions of privacy the Constitution permits, and what invasions prudence counsels to be forbidden, even within its limits.
Perhaps Edward Snowden’s greatest achievement, beyond the pushback of the surveillance state, beyond the awakening of the public to any particular debate, is the awakening of our Constitutional order to demonstrate its continued potency in the face of new and unexpected challenges.
Raise your hand if you’re a conservative who has cited Edmund Burke without actually having read him closely.
Really—you’re all scholars of the Irish-born MP and oft-celebrated “father of modern conservatism”?
Okay, what did Burke mean by the phrase “the little platoon”?
Yuval Levin explains in his wonderful new book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left:
The division of citizens into distinct groups and classes, Burke writes, “composes a strong barrier against the excesses of despotism,” by establishing habits and obligations of restraint in ruler and ruled alike grounded in the relations of groups or classes in society. To remove these traditional restraints, which hold in check both the individual and the state, would mean empowering only the state to restrain the individual, and in turn restraining the state with only principles and rules, or parchment barriers. Neither, Burke thought, could be stronger or more effective than the restraints of habit and custom that grow out of group identity and loyalty. Burke’s famous reference to the little platoon—“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections”—is often cited as an example of a case for local government or allegiance to place, but in its context in the Reflections, the passage is very clearly a reference to social class.
Still feeling Burkean? Ready to go the pipe-and-slippers, Brideshead cultist route and declare yourself a loyal subject of the queen?
Levin reminds us that the context in which Burke wrote those words was a long-running intellectual dispute with a European-born radical, a man who was cheering on the secular revolution in France—and, oh, by the way, also one of the forefathers of our own revolution, favored by none other than Ronald Reagan himself—the Common Sense and The Crisis pamphleteer Thomas Paine.
That the rivalry between Burke and Paine cuts both ways through our hearts—this is precisely the kind of dialectic, if you will, that Levin hopes to provoke in the reader.
Make no mistake, though; Levin is a Burkean. In fact, the most eloquent exponent of Burkean conservatism, properly understood, since George Will circa 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft.
While scholarly and measured in tone, The Great Debate is a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance.
Indeed, The Great Debate is the must-read book of the year for conservatives—especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party. How can America, these conservatives ask, the land of the rugged individual, the conquerors of the frontier, choose statism and collectivism over freedom and liberty?!
Levin’s book provides the answer: You’re looking at the Democratic Party all wrong. It’s just as individualist as you are—maybe more so.
And that is the problem!
Eric Garris, co-founder and editor of Antiwar.com, says he filed a request this week demanding the FBI fix a fraudulent story in his file that says he once threatened to hack the FBI’s website.
That there is an FBI file on Garris dating back to the 1970’s should be cause enough for alarm. He has been charged with no crime, and is suspected of no criminal nor domestic terrorist activity. But thanks to recently released documents (the result of a lawsuit launched last spring by Antiwar.com and its attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California), we know that the FBI has been monitoring Garris, his co-founder Justin Raimondo, and other staffers of the website (full disclosure: I am a columnist for Antiwar.com) for several years.
And here’s the punch line: it turns out that the agency has been spying on Antiwar.com as a potential “threat to national security,” because, in part, Garris once asked the FBI for help.
Internal, un-redacted documents obtained in October by Antiwar.com show that in 2001, Garris passed along a threat he received on Sept. 12, 2001 from a Antiwar.com reader obviously disgruntled with the website’s coverage of 9/11. The subject line read, “YOUR SITE IS GOING DOWN,” and proceeded with this missive: “Be warned assholes, ill be posting your site address to all the hack boards tonight … your site is history.”
Concerned, Garris forwarded the email to the FBI field office in San Francisco, where he is based. Garris heard nothing, but by January 2002, it turned up again, completely twisted around, in a secret FBI memo entitled, “A THREAT BY GARRIS TO HACK FBI WEBSITE.”
It turns out this “threat” went on to justify, at least in part, the FBI’s ongoing interest in monitoring the website, as a potential “threat to national security on behalf of a foreign power,” beginning in 2004. TAC reported on the secret surveillance in July after Antiwar.com, along with the ACLU, launched their suit for full disclosure of all FBI records pertaining to Garris and co-founder Justin Raimondo.
Up until that point, all the two men had to go on was a heavily redacted, 94-page FBI memo passed along by a intrepid reader in 2011. The file is illuminating, to say the least. It shows the FBI secretly taking stock of what Raimondo had published on the site, particularly on the issue of the arrest of five Israeli nationals who were ostensibly celebrating and taking photography of the burning World Trade towers in 9/11. Raimondo wrote about their arrests and release in 2002, and linked to versions of at least two government watch-lists already published on the Web by others.
His reporting of this alleged Israeli spy angle to the 9/11 story was handed out by peace activists in UK, and an alleged neo-Nazi group here in the U.S., according to the FBI. These examples, and the fact that an unnamed FBI suspect had supposedly browsed Antiwar.com, “among many other websites,” and that “many individuals worldwide” view the site, “including individuals who are currently under investigation,” were all noted in the 2004 memo.
The agents authoring the memo also questioned Antiwar.com’s funding, and pointed to the website’s criticism of U.S. war policy. All of this apparently led them to conclude that further surveillance of Antiwar.com was warranted, “to determine if [redaction] are engaging in, or have engaged in, activities which constitute a threat to national security on behalf of a foreign power.”
The newly acquired documents flesh out much of the missing or redacted material from the 2004 memo. Now Garris and his ACLU attorney, Julia Mass, have a better idea about the FBI’s interest in the website. Not only was Garris’ “threat” revealed in the un-redacted portions of the file they received in October, but so was an accounting of Garris’ participation in a 1972 war protest.
Garris insists the FBI’s depiction of him as “threat” does not bother him as much as the fact that it’s quite clear Antiwar.com has been targeted solely for its First Amendment protected activities. There was never a suggestion that Raimondo or Garris committed any crime. But it was hinted that their (free) speech was a threat nonetheless.
Mass tells TAC that when the story broke in The Guardian last week, reporters honed in on the “sloppiness” angle regarding the agent who wrote the first mangled account of Garris’s “threat” and the agents who decided to run with the “mistake” years later.
“It seems a little more purposeful than that,” she said, noting that there was never any attempt to investigate the so-called threat. Yet it was used by other agents in 2004 as a justification to monitor Garris and Raimondo (the San Francisco office eventually declined requests by the Newark, N.J. office for an official investigation into the website, according to the memos).
“The obviousness of the original mistake really causes you to question whether the 2004 memo’s reliance on it was also an honest mistake,” she told TAC. “And if it is not an honest mistake, then it really makes it look like an intentional targeting of Justin and Antiwar because of their speech and their critique of the government’s actions.”
When contacted by The Guardian, the FBI said it would not comment due to the ongoing litigation. Mass said that if the FBI does not move to fix the file, they will be bringing their demands back to the court.
Commentators short on descriptive idioms often deploy the phrase “strange bedfellows” whenever cross-ideological coalitions arise out of mutual concern for civil liberties. Saturday’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington, D.C., endorsed as it was by organizations both left and right, represented the latest such occasion.
Fresh off a leading role in forcing the partial government shutdown, “Tea Party” group FreedomWorks shared billing with (among many others) the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective. One MSNBC reporter deemed rally-goers a “strange political hodgepodge,” portraying their heterogeneity as a bizarre phenomenon that never would have materialized but for the uniquely broad-based outrage spurred by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass unchecked surveillance on American citizens.
The rally’s marquee speaker was Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and though a tad tentative in presentation, he detailed with vigor the quickening movement in Congress to restore Americans’ civil liberties. This summer, an amendment Amash co-authored with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund the massive NSA phone record collection program nearly passed the House, much to the shock of the intelligence community and conventional wisdom. “When the vote came down, it was close. It scared people,” he said. “It scared the establishment in both parties.” The crowd exulted. Amash later told me he regarded anti-surveillance activism as an “important” step toward lasting transpartisan cooperation, and reported that the USA FREEDOM Act—legislation to curtail the NSA’s powers—would pass today if brought to the House floor. These developments were buoyed by grassroots activism, Amash emphasized.
Perhaps the burgeoning coalition of technologists, traditional conservatives, stalwart liberals, and myriad others receives scorn precisely because it is starting to get results.
In the run-up to the rally, journalist Tom Watson wrote a widely-circulated essay at Salon positing that the operational involvement of the Libertarian Party and kindred organizations “infected” the event irreparably, and the left should therefore withdraw its support. Progressives and libertarians might occasionally find common cause on narrow issues, this argument went, but establishing anything like a formal alliance is indefensible given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights, social welfare programs, and so forth.
No office-holding Democrat addressed the crowd, but Dennis Kucinich, the former representative from Ohio and eager forger of counter-intuitive alliances, preceded Amash with a rousing speech. Afterwards, I confronted him with Watson’s challenge: ought the robust presence of libertarian groups, some expressly affiliated with the GOP, taint the rally and its message in the eyes of progressives? Kucinich was unmoved. “The Constitution belongs to everyone, whatever their political party, whatever their ideology,” he said. “Everyone deserves the protection of the first and fourth amendments. I said it today—we’re not here as partisans. We’re here as Americans.”
The modern Democratic Party itself is a diffuse coalition of interest groups and factions bound together by little beyond raw political expediency. Why is it defensible for “progressives” of Watson’s ilk to work within a party structure dominated by pro-military intervention corporatists—yet working with libertarians is considered a nonstarter?
Throughout U.S. history, nascent populist-oriented coalitions have always been cobbled together messily, and the left-libertarian anti-surveillance lobby is of course no exception. “Part of what we’re trying to do is set out a new model,” said rally organizer JJ Emru when asked to react to Waston’s line of thinking. “To say, if we overcome some of our differences, we can definitely achieve this.”
If nothing else, efforts like Stop Watching Us have the effect of scrambling party allegiances and creating room for unorthodox coalition-building that can challenge the status quo. In the world of Washington commentary, bipartisan cooperation is lauded as healthy and serious, if it involves “compromises” to expand the national security state or cut spending on entitlements. An alliance featuring the likes of Amash and Kucinich is little more than a fleeting convergence of “strange bedfellows.”
With today’s formal introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the convergence appears to be more than fleeting. Beyond just reining in the NSA, these “strange bedfellows” are redefining what it means to work across the aisle.