America's Growing Surveillance State
The Obama administration isn't just watching rightwing extremists. It's watching us all – and we should all be concerned
The US department of homeland security has once again run afoul of cultural and political conservatives. Last month, a leaked report on rightwing extremism sparked an outcry for suggesting that returning veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could become domestic terrorists - the next Timothy McVeigh. Now, another document has come to light, and conservatives are having another aneurism.
The 11-page "Domestic Extremism Lexicon" defines potential domestic terrorism threats facing the United States. Produced by DHS's office of intelligence and analysis, it's purpose was to define key terms and extremist groups. Conservative websites were apoplectic about how "rightwing extremism" was described:
A movement of rightwing groups or individual who can be broadly divided into those who are primarily hate-oriented, and those who are mainly antigovernment and reject federal authority in favour of state or local authority. This term also may refer to rightwing extremist movements that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
Though retracted within hours of its release and recalled from state and local law enforcement partners, the lexicon has nevertheless drawn the ire of rightwing groups, who see it as yet another example of the Obama administration equating anti-immigration and anti-abortion groups with terrorism.
"The 'definitions' provided in the lexicon are politically slanted to poison the law enforcement community against millions of Americans who might be called (and who might identify themselves as) political, social and religious 'conservatives'," writes William Jasper at the New American. "Law-abiding citizens who oppose abortion, illegal immigration, gun control, homosexuality, expanded federal government powers, and increased government spending and taxes are repeatedly associated with neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other violent and racist 'hate groups'."
It's true that the DHS lexicon does include anti-abortion activists who use violence against abortion doctors and clinics in its list of extremists. But the lexicon also includes typically leftwing movements associated with animal rights, the environment and anarchism, among others. The truth is that both the left and the right have reason to be suspicious of the US government's surveillance programmes.
DHS has become an albatross of surveillance choking American necks. Internal documents such as the lexicon and the rightwing extremism report, combined with previous examples of DHS helping state fusion centres watch over antiwar protesters under the Bush administration, show that DHS is not only actively undermining American civil liberties but is also politicised by whichever party is running the country. This isn't a left-right issue, it's an American issue.
Liberals scoffed when news broke about the rightwing extremism report, noting that conservatives have no problem with a domestic intelligence system when it concentrates on antiwar activists and fringe fanatics associated with animal rights and the environment. But this ignores a larger point: the US is becoming a surveillance state, and it's important for all Americans to insist that DHS put strict regulations on how it watches over American citizens.
One proposition put forth by Gregory Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, is for DHS to adopt protocols that insists analysts cannot actively watch over American citizens until they break the law - what he calls the "criminal predicate" - in such a way as to fan the stench of terrorism into the air.
Testifying before a subcommittee of the House homeland security committee in March, Nojeim explained why focusing on actual criminal activity is critical to protecting citizens' civil liberties:
Intelligence activities not tethered to the criminal predicate are dangerous to liberty because they can cast a wide net, may encompass first amendment activities and tend to be more secretive, because the information collected is not likely to be subject to the after-the-fact scrutiny afforded by the criminal justice system.
By requiring evidence of criminal activity, domestic intelligence agents and analysts would no longer be able to track American citizens merely for their political ideologies, however odious or seemingly dangerous DHS finds them.
This is the virtue of living in a free society where the constitution gives us not only freedom of speech, but freedom of conscience as well. Intelligence analysts and agents should focus first on individuals and groups engaged in criminal activities or individuals or groups doing truly suspicious things that may be the precursors of a terrorist attack, like buying small mountains of fertilizer or stockpiling illegal arms. Only after a criminal predicate arises should the suspect's political ideology be taken into account.
Therefore, moderates should listen to the screams from the coal mines, whether of the left or the right, because if they should fall silent, then we know the US has taken a stride into darkness. Cacophonous chirping is the hallmark of a vibrant culture of free speech, and the nonviolent fringe is our modern-day canary.
Yes, there is a paranoid style in American politics, but sometimes that helps protect civil liberties rather than hinder them. Sometimes paranoia promotes the common good.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited