Originally published by In These Times.
Freedom of conscience is one of the most fundamental human freedoms. This freedom is not merely about one's ability to choose to believe or not believe in religion or a particular philosophy. In a democracy, freedom of conscience is about the ability to be critical of government and corporations, and to be free from the chilling fear that being critical will subject you to government surveillance.
Freedom of conscience is not fully realized in isolation. Without the ability to share one's thoughts, to speak out about injustice, or to join with others in peaceably assembling to petition for redress of grievances, this core freedom is not truly free. Americans should be able to exercise these most sacred rights in free society without worry of being monitored by the government.
In our new report, "Dissent or Terror: How the Nation's Counter Terrorism Apparatus, in Partnership with Corporate America, Turned on Occupy Wall Street," written by Center for Media and Democracy contributor and DBA Press publisher Beau Hodai, we detail several ways in which our tax dollars are being squandered on law enforcement -- or so-called "homeland security" personnel monitoring Americans who dare to voice dissent against the extraordinary influence that some of the world's most powerful corporations have on our elected officials.
Through this investigation we have documented:
- How U.S. Department of Homeland Security-funded "fusion center" personnel have spent endless hours gleefully monitoring their fellow Americans though Facebook and other social media, and how fusion centers nationwide have expended countless hours and tax dollars in the monitoring of Occupy Wall Street, bank activists, and civil libertarians concerned about national security powers.
- How some of these "counter terrorism" government employees applied facial recognition technology, drawing from a state database of driver's license photos, to photographs found on Facebook in the effort to profile citizens believed to be associated with activist groups.
- How corporations have become part of the "information sharing environment" with law enforcement/intelligence agencies through various public-private intelligence sharing partnerships -- and how, through these partnerships, the homeland security apparatus has been focused on citizens protesting these corporations.
- How private groups and individuals, such as Charles Koch, Chase Koch (Charles' son and a Koch Industries executive), Koch Industries, and the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have hired off-duty cops -- sometimes still armed and in police uniforms -- to perform the private security functions of keeping undesirable people (reporters and activists) away from them. As was the case in an incident involving protests of ALEC, off-duty officers working on behalf of ALEC and the resort in which an ALEC conference was being held led riot-gear-clad officers in the pepper spraying and arrests of several peaceful, law abiding protestors.
- How law enforcement agencies in Phoenix, Arizona, dispatched an undercover officer to infiltrate activist groups organizing both ALEC demonstrations and the launch of Occupy Phoenix -- and how the work of this undercover infiltrator officer benefited ALEC and the private corporations that were the subjects of these activist demonstrations.
- How "counter terrorism" personnel monitored the protest activities of citizens opposed to the "indefinite detention" language contained in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (which CMD has filed an amicus brief against).
- How the FBI applied "Operation Tripwire," an initiative originally intended to apprehend domestic terrorists through the use of private sector informants, in their monitoring of Occupy Wall Street groups.
Even if the amount of money being wasted were small -- and it's not, we're talking millions of dollars heaped into the coffers of local law enforcement agencies annually -- the notion that we the people should tolerate the deployment of police, ostensibly hired to protect us, to spy on us without any criminal predicate is an outrage. The money spent spying on Americans could be spent strengthening our public schools, providing access to life-saving medicine for our neighbors, or helping to achieve the Constitution's promise of forming "a more perfect union."
Little evidence has emerged, in the years since the horrific violence of 9/11, of any widespread threat from al-Qaeda within the United States. Nevertheless, politicians have used that potent memory to fund an enormous domestic surveillance infrastructure. The result of this trough of money and excess capacity -- the turning of "counterterrorism" resources against law-abiding American citizens -- was utterly predictable.
It has been more than 30 years since Congress acted with deep skepticism regarding government agents deployed to spy on Americans. The last thorough and truly independent investigation was after Watergate, when the Church and Pike Committees spent months intensively investigating the ways in which prior administrations had violated Americans' privacy and trampled civil liberties under the guise of national security.
In 1976, then-Attorney General Edward Levi promulgated the "Levi Guidelines," investigative guidelines developed in response to domestic surveillance abuses, such as COINTELPRO, perpetrated by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Since the Carter administration, however, there has been an accelerating erosion of protections from domestic surveillance. The "Levi Guidelines" were later largely countermanded through changes by John Ashcroft and his successors at the Justice Department.
With the post-9/11 shift from enforcing the law to "intelligence gathering," numerous public rules as well as secret guidelines were altered to maximize the gathering of information about Americans without requiring any criminal predicate. The new rule appears to be that almost everything is fair game without probable cause, except for home searches and phone taps (but even the rules for electronic surveillance and the acquisition of intelligence information are now subject to enormous loopholes due to changes pushed into law in 2008 by Director of National Intelligence-turned-Booz Allen Hamilton Vice Chairman Mike McConnell, with help from AT&T, Verizon, and others).
It was a stroke of misfortune that, on 9/11, then-Vice President Dick Cheney served as the de facto head of the national security hierarchy. Cheney's "dark side" approach created a climate in which longstanding rules intended to protect basic rights were replaced with an array of questionable, if not absurd, interpretations of domestic and international law.
As President Ford's chief of staff, Cheney, with the aid of then-Deputy Attorney General Laurence H. Silberman, tried to thwart essential reforms of surveillance agencies. Silberman was later appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and, at the urging of his former law clerk, then-Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, helped facilitate legal opinions instrumental to the George W. Bush administration's expansion of domestic surveillance activities by redefining Americans' Fourth Amendment rights.
Unfortunately, much of this backsliding has been embraced and further entrenched by the Obama administration.
The federal government, in general, claims to abide by a long-standing rule that a person will not be investigated based "solely" on protected First Amendment activity. But what does that amount to in reality? In Arizona, it appears fusion center personnel used the prospect of anarchist involvement in protests of banks, other corporations, and/or ALEC as a hook for dispatching at least one undercover officer to infiltrate groups of Americans organizing peaceful protests. Fusion center personnel even cited past instances of "violent tactics" perpetrated against ALEC in other states, when, in reality, there had only been one prior incident of graffiti (spray paint) at an ALEC event.
Quite frankly, there is no way to know if groups of American anarchists have been infiltrated by law enforcement or intelligence agents acting as agent provocateurs, urging more aggressive action. It is worth noting that, in the case of the Phoenix infiltration, the undercover officer apparently claimed to be affiliated with an alleged Mexican anarchist group that claimed to have committed acts of arson.
The idea that the prospect of graffiti can trigger months of infiltration and surreptitious surveillance of citizens exercising their freedom of conscience exposes that the idea that our government will not monitor citizens based solely on their exercise of First Amendment rights is little more than a joke. And that joke is on us.
Lisa Graves is the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, publisher of PRWatch.org. Previously, she worked as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy/Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senior Legislative Strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union on national security and surveillance policies.
Read the full report on SourceWatch.
Read the full report and view the document archive on DBA Press.