As the US Empire juggernaut jackboots across the globe –” from Afghanistan, through Iraq, shortly onto Iran, Syria, North Korea and eventually China –” the chilling realisation percolates into our consciousness that its military supremacy is of such a magnitude that it can do whatever it likes to any country in furtherance of its strategic interests, with absolute impunity.
A cursory perusal of the disturbing National Security Strategy document will convince the most passionate sceptic of this dire global threat. A litany of apocalyptic warnings are enunciated throughout the document: “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed"; will launch pre-emptive strikes against its enemies; in an aggressive eschewing of multi-lateralism, “will not hesitate to act alone," even in the face of international opposition; will abrogate non-proliferation treaties in favour of "counter-proliferation"; will ensure that its military dominance will never again be challenged by a superpower rival that could pursue “a military build-up in hope of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States."
The best that the international community can hope for is that there will be regime change in the US via the electoral system before this rapidly evolving totalitarian monster becomes irretrievably ensconced. And this is precisely why the ghost of McCarthy has been invoked at the neo-conservative sÃ©ance to stalk the Land of the Free yet again, but this time armed with 21st Century technology, draconian enabling legislation and a rallying cry of “anti-terrorism” to replace the “anti-communism” of yore. Too many vested interests and ideologies would be threatened at a sober and rational ballot box in 2004. Another term would do nicely for the consolidation and maturation of US totalitarianism and the Empire, thank you very much. All these democratic impediments are so inconvenient and tiresome!
The first serious thorn in the neo-conservative and New Right flesh was that dinosaur of a Constitution. The First and Fourth Amendments really freak them out –” definitely destined for the recycle bin. For them the perfect antidote for this legislative aberration was the Patriot Act, which had been lurking in Pandora’s box all these years, awaiting an event cataclysmic enough to raise the lid. 9/11 answered the fervent neo-con prayers. And while Congress and the media were momentarily distracted and intimidated by innuendoes of unpatriotic attitudes in the context of threats to national security, the Patriot Act was materialised with a miraculous sleight of hand. In that dangerous climate only the truly committed and courageous civil libertarians would risk being branded as traitors for criticising the Bushite agenda.
Today the vain wringing of hands and gasps of incredulity –” even in Republican circles –” underscores the magnitude of the national blunder that gave life to this heinous piece of legislation. It has for all practical purposes abolished the basic civil liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights: freedoms of speech, association, information and the rights to liberty, legal representation, due process and a speedy and public trial.
Benjamin Franklin’s words of warning resonate even more powerfully today: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The power and scope of the Patriot Act is determined by the overly broad and amorphous definition of its quintessential term, “terrorism”, viewed as "acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of criminal law" and that "appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." This vague and all-encompassing definition would draw practically every act of civil disobedience and other non-violent forms of resistance (by activist organisations like Green-peace, anti-globalisation and anti-war campaigns, etc.) into the net, rather than the ostensible target of international terrorism for which there is adequate provision in existing legislation. Any flicker of dissent will be dispatched forthwith.
The Act has bestowed on the government awesome surveillance powers, as asserted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to: “spy on its own citizens, while simultaneously reducing checks and balances on those powers like judicial oversight, public accountability, and the ability to challenge government searches in court.” Its power has been augmented by “a flurry of executive orders, regulations, policies and new practices.”
Section 215 is the most controversial part of the Patriot Act, which is responsible for the serious violations of the Constitution. The First Amendment is violated by authorising the FBI to force third parties –” libraries, bookstores, doctors, Internet service providers, educational institutions, political organisations, etc –” to submit records on their clients, and are prohibited from disclosing the surveillance to their clients by a gag order that is automatic, broad and indefinite. And this includes every possible type of record imaginable because the Act refers to “any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items.)”
The Fourth Amendment is violated by sanctioning the spying without a warrant (“knock and announce” principle), without showing “probable cause” of criminal activity or intent, and not providing notice of the search and seizure (“due process” principle). Secret “sneak-and-peek” searches can be conducted without notifying subjects until much later, at the discretion of the government, and evidence deemed to be incriminating can result in incarceration without trial. A secret panel of judges will issue the warrant on mere certification by the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) that the information is pertinent to the investigation of “terrorism” and the suspect can’t demand details of the order. The judge has no choice but to grant the warrant and the Act precludes judicial review of the legality and the resulting evidence and imprisonment. Elaine Cassel (Civil Liberties Watch) notes that “they have convinced most federal judges that we are "at war," and in a time of war, the judiciary cedes power to the executive branch.”
The DOJ can detain US citizens and foreigners for an arbitrary period as “material witnesses” in the prosecution of others and is “a ploy sometimes used as a punitive measure when the government does not have sufficient basis to charge the individual with a terror-related crime” (Cassel). Section 806 allows civil seizure and forfeiture of assets without a prior hearing or being convicted of a crime, based on the mere suspicion of domestic or foreign “terrorism” as vaguely defined. The FBI is even empowered to record attorney-client conversations. This has resulted in the scandalous indictment of court-appointed attorney Lynne Stewart for aiding and abetting terrorism while preparing the defence of her client Abdel Rahman.
The Orwellian Big Brother has become a realistic possibility with the introduction of the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) program which will ensnare American citizens’ private lives in a gargantuan surveillance web monitoring every significant parameter and gravely jeopardising their cherished liberty and privacy. Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU says that it “is representative of a larger trend that has been underway in the United States: the seemingly inexorable drift toward a surveillance society … Unfortunately, even as this monster grows in power, we are weakening the legal chains that keep it from trampling our privacy.”
National security and law enforcement agencies have been salivating grotesquely over the enormous potential of 21st Century surveillance. There has thus been an exponential increase in hi-tech spying by both the government and the private sector. Many powerful technologies are being exploited. Video cameras are proliferating in public places throughout the US, ostensibly to enhance personal security. But since the video footage can now be combined with facial recognition technologies and stored digitally in inexpensive centralised giant databases compiled by private data aggregators, the potential for abuse is alarming. The government already has thousands of databases, including the massive FBI database, motor vehicle information bank (including photographs), Treasury dept, Dept of Education, Dept of Health, etc, each of which contains millions of records.
A powerful new modality is “data mining”, which is the collection of information about an identifiable individual, often from multiple sources, that can be assembled into a portrait of that person’s activities. It tracks the “data trails” we leave behind us and hence can build up a comprehensive picture of all our activities. It is equivalent to being followed around all day by a detective with a video camera.
A bewildering plethora of new data-gathering technologies has exploded onto the scene or are in the pipeline, including RFID chips (which emit a unique code that identifies each chip), biometrics (iris pattern and face recognition), DNA chips and implantable GPS chips (which can record and broadcast their position). When these spying and monitoring infrastructures are systematically merged, the potential is staggering. The future of these technologies is determined by the enormous research effort expended –” from nanotechnology to quantum computing.
The ultimate in cyber-surveillance of electronic communications has rapidly closed most of the remaining loopholes: The FBI’s “Carnivore” program can access all the e-mail traffic of selected ISPs, while “Echelon” is an awesome international eavesdropping infrastructure which taps into all electronic communications from global listening posts operated by the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Steinhardt quips that: “The truth is that a surveillance society does loom over us, and privacy, while not yet dead, is on life support.”
But the uncanny similarity to the McCarthyism of the 1950s extends beyond the government to the arts, education and the broader community. The persecution of high-profile artists like Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and the Dixie Chicks, for their outspoken opposition to the war on Iraq and the assault on civil liberties, has been well documented. Rather more striking is Matthew Rothschild’s expose of the case of Ed Gernon, the producer of the CBS miniseries “Hitler: The Rise of Evil”, who was fired for equating the post-9/11 climate in the US with the German Third Reich. Gernon’s incisive analysis was that: "When an entire country becomes afraid for their sovereignty, for their safety, they will embrace ideas and strategies and positions that they might not embrace otherwise… It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear, who ultimately chose to give up their civil rights and plunged the whole world into war."
This pervasive intolerance and repression results in the blacklisting, harassment and firing of artists, anti-war journalists, dissident academics and activists. All of this is chillingly reminiscent of “McCarthy’s bullying demagoguery … backed by cowardly media barons, opportunistic preachers and pundits, right-wing zealots, and flag-waving leaders of both political parties” (Jim Hightower). Citizens being encouraged to spy on one another further compounds the atmosphere of paranoia and hysteria.
There is fortunately now a burgeoning movement to roll back the Patriot Act and in the vanguard is the ACLU that has been championing the cause with distinction. To date more than 160 cities and 2 states (Hawaii and Alaska) have adopted resolutions that block the enforcement of the Act at state and local levels. Of particular note is the powerfully worded resolution of the Republican-controlled State of Alaska that will “oppose any portion of the USA PATRIOT Act that would violate the rights and liberties guaranteed equally under the state and federal constitutions” and specifically prohibits state agencies or instrumentalities from engaging in such activities, in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity under state law.
There has been an exponential surge in resistance to the Act that includes even the conservative movement, with the American Conservative Union and the Eagle Forum teaming up with the ACLU to fight the Act’s assault on civil liberties. The American Library Association has been alerting its patrons to the surveillance and is destroying library records in an attempt to thwart the FBI’s agenda.
After months of ineffectual grumbling about the invidious nature of the Act, Congress has finally taken decisive action: The Otter Amendment was passed with an overwhelming majority in the House, along with massive Republican support. It effectively cuts off funding for the DOJ to conduct “sneak-and-peek” searches, but still has to overcome the Senate and Presidential hurdles. The other ground-breaking development where Congress took a courageous stand against the Administration, was the unanimous Senate vote that blocks funds for research and development of the TIA program.
And throughout this epic, the global community has been spellbound by the classic spectacle of the forces of reason frantically attempting to wrestle control from the fundamentalist clique at the reins of the imperial Administration chariot galloping dementedly into a fascist sunset.