Creating a nation of spies and informants

In most countries that have endemic terrorism, leaders know that they cannot protect their people from random attacks and their usual appeal is for people to remain calm and go about their normal business. In the US, though, the leaders seek to ratchet up the fear all the time. When did you last hear a leading US politician or high government official say that we should simply go about our business and not be obsessed with terrorist attacks? Where is the modern day equivalent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to say that the only thing we need to fear is fear itself?

Instead we now have the US government joining up with Walmart (yes, Walmart!) and other places in a “See something, say something” program to encourage people to keep a sharp eye on the people around them and report any ‘suspicious’ behavior to store managers. Isn’t there something creepy about the cabinet secretary in charge of the equally creepily named ‘Department of Homeland Security’ appearing on video screens all over the place urging people to become essentially spies and informants for the government?

Besides, what are people supposed to be looking for? Are they supposed to be like Mr. Whipple, constantly on the lookout for people squeezing the Charmin?

It seems like the next logical step will be to pass laws to create some kind of counter-terrorism investigative unit that reports only to high government officials (say the head of the Department of Homeland Security) and is exempt from all the quaint old legal restraints that used to preserve our civil liberties, such as obtaining warrants to intercept our private communications or to take people in for questioning or to read them their rights and allow them to have lawyers. The people who work for this agency will be granted immunity from any legal oversight in order to allow them to pursue ‘terrorists’ freely, all to keep us safe of course. People will be asked to cooperate with this agency and report to them anyone who is acting suspiciously, whether it be neighbors, co-workers, passers by, shoppers (see Walmart, above) or even friends and family members. Such an organization will bear a strong resemblance to the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police, but our media will not be so impolite as to point this out.

Does this sound paranoid? Paul Craig Roberts says that initial steps in this direction are already being taken and that all the half-baked terrorist plots that required government coaxing and even bribes to get people to agree to participate in are part of the process of softening us up to accept these moves as being necessary to ‘protect’ us.

What is it really all about? Could it be that the US government needs terrorist events in order to completely destroy the US Constitution? On November 24, National Public Radio broadcast a report by Dina Temple-Raston: “Administration officials are looking at the possibility of codifying detention without trial and are awaiting legislation that is supposed to come out of Congress early next year.” Of course, the legislation will not come out of Congress. It will be written by Homeland Security and the Justice (sic) Department. The impotent Congress will merely rubber-stamp it.

The obliteration of habeas corpus, the most necessary and important protection of liberty ever institutionalized in law and governing constitution, has become necessary for the US government, because a jury might acquit an alleged or mock “terrorist” or framed person whom the US government has declared prior to the trial will be held forever in indefinite detention even if acquitted in a US court of law. The attorney general of the United States has declared that any “terrorist” that he puts on trial who is acquitted by a jury will remain in detention regardless of the verdict. Such an event would reveal the total lawlessness of American “justice.”

Scott Horton at Harpers describes how all this is done by abusing the term “terrorist” so that it becomes a catch-all term that can be applied to anyone the government dislikes, like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Burma and Zimbabwe are the leaders in this kind of abuse but the US is quickly catching up, and the proposed SHIELD legislation is another step towards that goal.

Naomi Wolf, author of The End of America (2007), has also been warning about this for some time and says that the invocation of the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is a dangerous sign of things to come.

The Espionage Act was crafted in 1917 — because President Woodrow Wilson wanted a war and, faced with the troublesome First Amendment, wished to criminalize speech critical of his war. In the run-up to World War One, there were many ordinary citizens — educators, journalists, publishers, civil rights leaders, union activists — who were speaking out against US involvement in the war. The Espionage Act was used to round these citizens by the thousands for the newly minted ‘crime’ of their exercising their First Amendment Rights.

That is why prosecution via the Espionage Act is so dangerous — not for Assange alone, but for every one of us, regardless of our political views.

This is far from a feverish projection: if you study the history of closing societies, as I have, you see that every closing society creates a kind of ‘third rail’ of material, with legislation that proliferates around it. The goal of the legislation is to call those who criticize the government ‘spies’, ‘traitors’, enemies of the state’ and so on. Always the issue of national security is invoked as the reason for this proliferating legislation. The outcome? A hydra that breeds fear. Under similar laws in Germany in the early thirties, it became a form of ‘espionage’ and ‘treason’ to criticize the Nazi party, to listen to British radio programs, to joke about the fuhrer, or to read cartoons that mocked the government. Communist Russia in the 30’s, East Germany in the 50’s, and China today all use parallel legislation to call criticism of the government — or whistleblowing — ‘espionage’ and ‘treason’, and ‘legally’ imprison or even execute journalists, editors, and human rights activists accordingly.

Do we really want to create a society where measures carefully developed over centuries to preserve civil liberties and encoded in laws and constitutional protections are tossed away, and where people see as their duty to act as spies for the government on their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and random people around them?

What such initiatives invariably do is result in a lot of ‘false positive’ information, where people who were doing perfectly legal things are reported because their actions lie outside the narrow range of activities that the observer is familiar with. This will result in law enforcement agencies being swamped chasing false leads and the falsely accused people spending enormous amounts of time and money trying to clear their names.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    And to think that I was once naive enough to hope that the national security state would begin to wither away after the demise of the Soviet Union. I vastly underestimated the motivation and ability of our rulers to keep finding new enemies to use in scaring the sheep into submission. Bin Laden, of course, understood this dynamic all too well and fully realized (and relished) the destructiveness of the autoimmune response he plotted to provoke.

  2. Scott says

    If the gov’t really wanted us to report suspicious behavior to thwart terrorism, they would give us guidlines on what to look for, like someone in the suburbs buying 2000 pounds of fertilizer and a barrel of fuel oil. But instead, they just create paranoia. Example: I had the police called on me by a neighborhood watch person because I was driving slowly up the street and shining a flashlight on house addresses. I guess the lighted “Domino’s” sign wasn’t enough of a tipoff. The police were required to respond and pulled me over. The aplogized, and ended up placing an order!

  3. Tim says

    Great blog, Mano! Thanks for bringing up this issue. Another example: While driving to visit my sister in Maryland for Thanksgiving, my family saw multiple signs on the PA and Maryland turnpike, signs that flashed a message to the effect of: “See suspicious terrorist activity? Call 1-800-[some #]”

    Even my 12- and 15- year old kids wondered aloud what terrorist “activity” one could possible see traveling 65 (or faster) MPH along a turnpike in the foothills of PA or MD?

    I found those signs to be very disturbing.

  4. Steve LaBonne says

    Tim, no doubt soon those signs will end with “By reading this sign you have denied its existence and implied consent.” 😉 (Readers of Super Sad True Love Story will get the reference.)