Jan 22, 2009
While the country's economic infrastructure
gyrates, the infrastructure to squelch political dissent quietly
thrives after years of post-9/11 behind-the-scenes buttressing.
The Bush administration will long be
remembered for placing the country on war footing abroad, but it
should also be remembered for liberating the forces of political
suppression at home.
President Obama has a historic opportunity to
right this lurching ship.
In October 2007 during a Democratic debate in
Philadelphia, Obama spoke of the "politics of fear" that was
"undermining basic civil liberties in this country" and "our
reputation around the world."
Now he must swerve sharply from this
"politics of fear" and repression, reinstalling respect for civil
liberties and the rule of law. This would undoubtedly improve "our
reputation around the world."
This is no small task, even for a
constitutional scholar like Obama. Not only did Bush and company
jump-start high-profile measures like the National Security
Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, but they also fashioned
an astonishing assortment of clandestine databases to collect and
store information about potential terrorists.
All too often, activists carrying out
above-board political activity were sucked into these databases'
wide-swirling vortex and labeled "terrorists."
This misguided mentality has led to a
trickle-down theory that actually works: trickle-down political
suppression that starts at the federal level and drops scale to
inform the practices of state and local law enforcement
Nowhere has this been more evident than in
Maryland, where the most recent revelation du jour is that state
police dubbed bicycle advocates seeking additional bike lanes
"terrorists" and branded the DC Anti-War Network a white
supremacist group. If the officials responsible for these
shenanigans ever get the pink slips they deserve, they could always
start penning scripts for Stephen Colbert.
The U.S. intelligence budget in fiscal year
2008 was a whopping $47.5 billion, and this doesn't include at
least $10 billion spent on the Military Intelligence Program.
Compare this to 1997 when the U.S. spent $26.6 billion on
A significant swathe of this spending has
gone toward surveillance: the gateway drug on the road to
full-blown addiction to political suppression.
By mid-2005, the FBI had collected reams of
surveillance-garnered data on anti-war groups like United for Peace
and Justice. It also compiled a 1,200-page file on the ACLU and one
twice that size on the environmental group Greenpeace.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon's electronic eye also
zeroed in on domestic activists. The Defense Department spied on
protesters in the U.S. and compiled files in its "TALON" (Threat
and Local Observation Notice) database, labeling protests like a
March 2005 "Stop the War Now" rally in Akron, Ohio, as "potential
terrorist activity." The database included at least 1,500
"suspicious incidents" and kept these dodgy episodes in their files
long after it was clear they weren't a threat.
In December 2005, we learned the National
Security Agency -- in a massive dataveillance operation that would
slacken George Orwell's jaw -- was not only monitoring phone calls
without a warrant but was also covertly compiling tens of millions
of domestic phone records into a national call database.
Last summer's national party conventions
continued the furtive zeitgeist, with Denver, the host city for the
DNC, receiving a hefty $50 million federal grant to install a
high-tech surveillance system and stockpile stashes of so-called
What's often overlooked is that this
infrastructure of suppression remains in place long after the
Databases are the breeding ground for the
conflation of terrorism and political activism. Early on, Obama and
his intelligence czar, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, need to reign
in the database-o-rama.
We're plagued by a dizzying array of
databases, from the Transportation Security Administration's "No
Fly List" list (which included Bolivian President Evo Morales and
the common name "Robert Johnson") to the Maryland State Police's
"terrorist" list (which included peaceful anti-war activists, death
penalty opponents, and pacifist Catholic nuns). There's little
cross-check-ability from list to list and it's virtually impossible
to get your name scrubbed, if you're even fortunate enough to learn
your name was included in the first place. Obama should set up a
task force to unsnarl the database tangle and set up a transparent
system whereby citizens can challenge their erroneous inclusion on
terrorist watch lists.
Doing this would set the tone for
civil-rights reform and gain momentum for the challenges ahead --
like recalibrating the NSA -- that will necessitate unswerving
determination and dexterous Beltway tight-roping.
Political dissent may have gotten a bad rap
under the Bush administration, but it's actually the mark of a
healthy society, a crucial cog in the complex machine of
Certainly Obama needs to keep tabs on the
ever-unfolding economic crisis. But a quieter -- yet equally
important -- crisis of democracy looms just beneath the
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