What Happens in a Police State…

By now, everyone is familiar with the advertising slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" (although the actual Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Slogan is "What happens here, stays here"). The phrase is also the inspiration for a movie starring Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. Apparently, it’s also how the Maryland State Police have decided to handle the files of 53 antiwar and anti-death-penalty activists who were part of a covert surveillance effort that inappropriately identified them as suspected terrorists. The 53 people have been notified that they can review their files before they are destroyed, but they cannot do so with legal counsel and they cannot make a copy for their records. According to Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley, "It was inappropriate that they are in there, and we are fixing that. It is a matter that is between the state police and that person. No one else is to see the information." That sounds more like something you’d expect to hear in a police state, not a democratic society.

To begin, were only antiwar and anti-death penalty activist groups targeted for surveillance? And why should those groups be singled out as posing possible terrorist threats? Free speech, dissent, and the ability to disagree with the policies of the government – guaranteed by the First Amendment –are a bedrock of what makes America a great country and separates us from authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. (Indeed, it is one of the reason Antiwar.com exists.) So there’s nothing inherent about these kinds of groups that would pose a risk. In fact, if terrorists wanted to blend in and not draw attention to themselves, they would be better off joining a group such as Freedom’s Watch, which was founded by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and, not surprisingly, supports the Iraq War and Bush administration policies. To quote Homer Simpson, "Doh!"

There is also the not so trivial issue of whether the government (federal, state, or local) should be spying on American citizens. The Fourth Amendment guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." But it should come as no surprise that the Maryland State Police would ignore the Fourth Amendment by infiltrating antiwar and anti-death penalty groups and reporting on their activities to U.S. intelligence and military agencies. After all, that is exactly what the Bush administration has done by engaging in warrantless wiretapping – deemed necessary to prosecute the so-called Global War on Terrorism. (In February 2008, the Supreme Court chose – without comment – not to hear a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping. And Congress affirmed the use of warrantless wiretaps by passing the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Amendments Act of 2008 in July. [And for the record, Sen. Barack Obama voted for the legislation, while Sen. John McCain simply did not vote.])

What is surprising is that so many Americans seem relatively unconcerned about undermining an important constitutional freedom. I was at a party (outside the Beltway, so in the "real" world) where this was a topic of conversation. One of the attendees was going on about how he didn’t understand why people would be upset about stuff like warrantless wiretapping. I asked him if he had any concerns about eroding our rights guaranteed by the Constitution. His position was that protecting against terrorists (despite any evidence that warrantless wiretapping is, in fact, an effective tool in catching terrorists) was more important – after all, they were trying to wipe us out (even though the terrorists – unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War – do not possess the means to wipe us out). So unfounded hysteria about the threat of terrorism trumps the Constitution. I then asked him if it would be OK to erode Second Amendment rights. Predictably, the answer was "no." Why not? Because, again, terrorists are trying to kill us and gun ownership is different. I pointed out that more people in the United States were murdered as a result of firearms than killed by terrorists and that if he was really concerned about people being killed shouldn’t he also be willing to give up some of his Second Amendment rights to save lives? The answer was "of course not," because to him gun rights were sacrosanct and inviolable while other rights weren’t. I wasn’t making an argument for more gun control, but he couldn’t see the logical inconsistency of his position and that either all of the Constitution was worth protecting or none of it was. I had a similar conversation with another person who rationalized the PATRIOT Act by arguing that "drastic times required drastic measures." When I then asked if he would be willing to apply that same logic by restricting (or even banning) guns if the next act of domestic terrorism was committed with firearms, I basically got no answer.

Also troubling is the government’s "just trust us" solution. While admitting to making a mistake, the Maryland State Police are unwilling to disclose any details about how the mistake was made. But if we want to ensure that the same mistake isn’t made again, what assurances do we have that the proper safeguards are put in place? We are simply to believe that the problem is fixed with no evidence whatsoever.

Although the files are supposed to be destroyed, the collection of information was part of a federally funded program to share information among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies on terrorism and drug-trafficking suspects. If the incorrect information was shared, how do we know that other law enforcement agencies won’t still have the wrong information? And what would happen if an individual had to confront a situation of wrong information without any evidence to prove it was wrong? Such is the concern of Ellen Barfield, an active member of Veterans for Peace, who is worried that a future background check could find she was considered a terrorist threat.

President Bush once declared that "we will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms." Yet that is exactly what we are doing to ourselves. And so we will pay the price that Benjamin Franklin once warned us about: "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security."


I‘d like to recommend to Antiwar.com readers a new book that will be released next month by the Center for Defense Information: America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for the New President and Congress. Here’s a link that previews the book. I’ve not yet read it, but I know most of the authors, including Chet Richards, who wrote the chapter on national security strategy. Chet also wrote the Straus Military Reform Project monograph If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration (full disclosure: I’m an adviser to the project). I know Chet and I share similar views about how U.S. national security strategy needs to be changed, so even if I wouldn’t agree with Chet (or the other authors) on everything, I think Antiwar.com readers will find America’s Defense Meltdown a good read.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.