A number of articles about the Boston terrorist attack that I have read recently reminded me that what is either kept out of the media or otherwise hidden is often more important than what actually appears. One was a feature article entitled “Ron Paul Slams Boston Police. Has he Gone too Far?” by Peter Grier of the normally sensible Christian Science Monitor. The remainder were also related to the Boston Marathon, a discussion in various places in the media of the possibility that the United States will take steps to make it easier for the intelligence services and law enforcement to read emails and social media entries in “real time” to be able to forestall home grown terrorists. Making such access easier means eliminating those few restrictions that currently exist to protect personal privacy and prevent unlawful searches.
I think it is fair to say that the mainstream media, frequently owned by large corporations, operates in its own bubble on a consensus basis when it reports the news. Further, each media outlet has a system of political monitors who control what is allowed to appear and who determine what is unacceptable, frequently on a highly subjective basis. If a journalist thinks a story is worth reporting he still has to run the gamut of the politics involved in getting something in print or on television. While such politicking exists even in the alternative media, it is much more in evidence for the newspapers and broadcasts that are dependent on sponsors to turn a profit as they are always conscious of the need not to offend anyone. Powerful sponsors mean that stories that might be viewed as objectionable rarely make the cut. That means that independent analysis of news stories is pretty much confined to internet outlets that tend to live and die based on meager diet of voluntary contributions, which also means that the only independent voices tend to be resource poor and unable to do the type of investigative reporting that would be required to have a story break through and receive national attention.
Since most Americans get their news – what there is of it – from the mainstream, it means that citizens are poorly informed on most issues unless they make an independent effort to discover the story behind the story. Which brings us to media reporting on Ron Paul. Paul accused the government of illegally engaging in a military style occupation of an American city in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. Searches were conducted without warrants, armored vehicles patrolled streets emptied in response to a lockdown mandated by the civil authorities, and drones patrolled the skies. And to top it all, the tactics did not catch the fugitive suspects, one of whom was killed in a shoot-out following a carjacking, while the younger brother, hiding in a boat located outside the lockdown zone, was discovered by an alert citizen. The article notes that “…Paul’s contrarian take perhaps should not be surprising,” before lambasting him for his libertarian leanings. Grier observes, somewhat irrelevantly, that the “Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity has an advisory board that contains a ‘bevy of conspiracy theorists, cranks, and apologists for some of the worst regimes on the planet,’ according to Daily Beast writer James Kirchik,” but does not note that Kirchik is a leading neocon who is associated with Bill Kristol’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
To his credit, Grier does also quote Glenn Greenwald, who told Bill Moyers on PBS that “The way in which Americans now relate to their government, the way in which they get nationalistic pride is through the assertion of this massive military or police force, and very few other things produce that kind of pride.” But he does not really accept that Paul is, of course, right. The lockdown of Boston, the searches, and the militarization of what was essentially a response to a criminal act were all completely illegal and extralegal plus unconstitutional. The average reader, however, would note the “Has he gone too far?” in the headline and would, without reading much further, begin to mutter about the “crazy uncle” being at it again. The article is designed to give the impression that anyone who questions a massive police and military response to a criminal act is somehow off center and can safely be ignored, whereas the contrary is true and every American should be questioning the outsized response to the bombing.
The bombing spawned new demands to curtail civil liberties to enable the police and intelligence agencies to do their job more effectively. No matter that the U.S. authorities already had warnings that they did not heed or properly disseminate, a repeat of the mistakes of 2001 and a clear indication that the trillions of dollars spent on security since 9/11 has been a waste of money. The FBI is instead suggesting that just a bit more intrusion into private communications is the real problem and are basing their argument at least in part on the Tsarnaev brothers’ use of Twitter and YouTube. One police source notes how Boston has shifted the ground on guilt and innocence, saying that comments on social media will be prima facie evidence of criminal intent, “If you’re not a terrorist, if you’re not a real threat, prove it,” adding unintentionally though somewhat ironically, “This is the price you pay to live in free society right now. It’s just the way it is.”
The head of the Bureau Robert Mueller is asking for still more resources and relaxed legal guidelines to enable the authorities to monitor social networks and other internet traffic in real time. He calls it the Next Generation Cyber Initiative. The FBI’s request for added powers is being supported by the usual suspects in congress and reportedly also by the “change we can believe in” Obama Administration. If you are thinking that there is a secondary agenda in all the posturing, which is to enable and empower the federal government to finally move to its plan for “total information awareness” on every citizen and legal resident, a program initially floated by the Pentagon back in 2002, you would certainly be correct. But no one in the government is admitting that.
Mueller’s complaint is that some social media providers actually have impediments built into their operating systems to prevent snooping. That is why they incorporate passwords and software that impedes hacking. Most users of the systems would refer to it as “privacy.” The federal government wants to have the power to compel the providers – which would include Google and Facebook – to incorporate new features referred to as backdoor technologies that will enable the FBI and NSA to snoop at will, which is already a power they have over phone systems based on the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994. If they companies do not comply, they can be subject to fines that will start at $25,000 per day. Foreign based communications providers will also be subject to the same rules, opening the door for countries like Iran, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia to exercise reciprocity against U.S. companies and turning internet access into a political football.
Now one might well think that in a constitutional republic like the United States there would be judicial hurdles in place to inhibit law enforcement and intelligence agencies from obtaining private information in what many might consider illegal searches. But consider for a moment what the government already can do. It was recently revealed that it can and does record and store all digital communications in the United States. That means all phone calls, emails, and online chats, totaling 1.7 billion items per day adding to a data base of more than 20 trillion items relating to U.S. citizens. A considerable portion of that haul is then screened by computer for words or expressions that might denote terrorist or criminal activity, but most of it just goes into a computer data bank for possible later use.
The sole judicial filter on FBI surveillance is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or FISC, which reviewed 1,856 requests from the government in 2012 and approved every one. The court is a board of judges which only hears the government side of the argument as the target of the surveillance has no idea that he is being scrutinized. The government case is inevitably framed around national security. And the FBI also has considerable latitude to investigate outside the purview of the FISC. It uses administratively issued National Security Letters (NSLs), a feature of the Patriot Act, to demand information from companies and public institutions. More than 15,000 NSLs were issued last year on more than 6,000 American citizens. An estimated 25,000 more NSLs were issued on non-U.S. persons. The NSLs require no judicial review and they do not allow the source of the information to reveal the FBI approach to the person or group being targeted. This latter feature of the NSL is currently being challenged in court, with one judge ruling the practice unconstitutional.
So the fallout from Boston has been more of the same lashing out that we saw post 9/11. People like Ron Paul who decry the breakdown in the constitution and rule of law are lambasted for being out of touch and “going too far” while the “liberal” Obama Administration prepares to give the FBI sweeping new powers. Unfortunately power is a zero sum game. If you take away rights and liberties they are not safe somewhere waiting to be restored, they are gone forever and have been transferred to someone else. If we establish the principle that any criminal act inflicting multiple casualties can be defined as terrorism and be treated by the imposition of martial law we will quickly lose constitutionally guaranteed access to some aspects of civilian rule of law. If we decide that no conversation or message, even if it originates in one’s home, is truly private then we will have lost a large measure of our personal liberty. And it can even get worse. There is speculation that the Obama Administration will use the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as a model for another secret federal court that can decide on the use of drones to assassinate American citizens. As FISC rules 100% in favor of the government, we can only expect rubberstamp kill lists as part of our future.