|2011: A Civil Liberties Year in Review|
|Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries|
|Written by John W. Whitehead|
|Thursday, 29 December 2011 14:25|
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It’s been a year of populist uprisings, economic downturns, political assassinations, and one scandal after another. Gold prices soared, while the dollar plummeted. The Arab Spring triggered worldwide protests, including the Occupy Wall Street protests here in America. Nature unleashed her forces with a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, flooding in Thailand and Pakistan, a severe drought in East Africa, and a famine in Somalia. With an unemployment rate hovering around 9.5 percent, more than 4 million Americans passed the one-year mark for being out of a job. After a death toll that included more than 4,500 American troops and at least 60,000 Iraqis, the U.S. military officially ended its war in Iraq. At the conclusion of their respective media-circus trials, Casey Anthony went free while Conrad Murray went to jail. And Will and Kate tied the knot, while Demi and Ashton broke ties. All in all, it’s been a mixed bag of a year, but on the civil-liberties front, things were particularly grim.
Welcome to the new total security state. The U.S. government now has at its disposal a technological arsenal so sophisticated and invasive as to render any constitutional protections null and void. And these technologies are being used by the government to invade the privacy of the American people. Several years ago, government officials acknowledged that the nefarious intelligence-gathering entity known as the National Security Agency had exceeded its legal authority by eavesdropping on Americans’ private e-mail messages and phone calls. However, these reports barely scratch the surface of what we are coming to recognize as a “security/industrial complex” – a marriage of government, military, and corporate interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance. The increasingly complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas of defense, surveillance, and data management, have been met within the corporate sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds the growth of governmental bureaucracy.
GPS tracking and secret spying on Americans. Technology, having outstripped our ability as humans to control it, has become our Frankenstein’s monster. Delighted with technology’s conveniences, its ability to make our lives easier by performing an endless array of tasks faster and more efficiently, we have given it free rein in our lives, with little thought to the legal or moral ramifications of allowing surveillance technology, especially, to uncover nearly every intimate detail of our lives. Consider how enthusiastically we welcomed Global Positioning System devices, which use orbiting satellites to produce accurate and continuous records of their position and of any person or object carrying the devices, into our lives. We’ve installed this satellite-based technology in everything from our phones to our cars to our pets. Yet by ensuring that we never get lost, never lose our loved ones, and never lose our wireless signals, we have also made it possible for the government to never lose sight of us, as well. Indeed, as a case before the U.S. Supreme Court makes clear, the government is taking full advantage of this technology to keep tabs on American citizens, and in the process is not only violating the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures but is putting an end, once and for all, to any expectation of privacy in public places. Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Jason Chaffetz have introduced a bill that would require police to obtain a warrant and prove probable cause before tracking someone via GPS. Senators Franken and Blumenthal have also sponsored legislation to “require companies to get a user’s consent before sharing cell-phone location information.”
Internet surveillance. In late July 2011, the House Judiciary Committee passed the cleverly titled Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, which laid the groundwork for all Internet traffic to be easily monitored by government officials. Most recently, the Stop Online Piracy Act, making its way through the House of Representatives, and its sister legislation in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, have shown the government’s intent to control all Internet traffic. The bills, which are supposedly intended to combat copyright violations on the Internet, are written so broadly so as to not only eliminate Internet piracy but replace the innovative and democratic aspects of the Internet with a tangled bureaucratic mess regulated by the government and corporations.
Intrusive pat-downs, virtual strip searches and screening stations. Under the direction of the Transportation Security Administration, American travelers have been subjected to all manner of searches ranging from whole-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs at airports to bag searches in train stations. Visible Intermodal Prevention & Response task forces, composed of federal air marshals, surface-transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior-detection officers, and explosive-detection canine teams, laid the groundwork for the government’s effort to secure so-called “soft” targets such as malls, stadiums, bridges, etc. Some security experts predict that checkpoints and screening stations will eventually be established at all soft targets, including department stores, restaurants, and schools. Given the virtually limitless number of potential soft targets vulnerable to terrorist attack, subjection to intrusive pat-downs and full-body imaging will become an integral component of everyday life in the United States.
More powers for the FBI. As detailed in the FBI’s operations manual, rules were relaxed to permit the agency’s 14,000 agents to search law-enforcement and private databases, go through household trash, and deploy surveillance teams, with even fewer checks against abuse. FBI agents were also given the go-ahead to investigate individuals using highly intrusive monitoring techniques, including infiltrating suspect organizations with confidential informants and photographing and tailing suspect individuals, without having any factual basis for suspecting them of wrongdoing. These new powers extend the agency’s reach into the lives of average Americans and effectively transform the citizenry into a nation of suspects, reversing the burden of proof so that we are now all guilty until proven innocent. Thus, no longer do agents need evidence of possible criminal or terrorist activity to launch an investigation. Now, they can “proactively” look into people and groups, searching databases without making a record about it, conducting lie detector tests, and searching people’s trash.