Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Hey Mr. Thought Policeman!

by Tom Bozzo

Something, like the desire not to have to apply tinfoil to the underside of my swell hat with the ear flaps, makes me wish that this widely-blogged story from the New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times — about a courtesy call paid by federal agents to a student who requested Mao's "Little Red Book" through inter-library loan for a political science class assignment — were an urban legend (*). [Update 12/24/05: The student admitted to fabricating the story.] Sadly, there isn't any question that the feds are poking through some academics' reading material, as Juan Cole notes in his take on the story.

Also scary are the activities of the DoD's Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) unit, some of whose broadening internal security remit, carried out nearly without oversight, are described in a sobering piece by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post (printed on page A10 of the dead-tree edition). Those, notoriously, have included collecting information on peaceful domestic protests — including a small rally in Madison — and retaining the information when Pentagon regulations would have required it to be destroyed.

I've seen a couple visits on the Site Meter reported as originating in the cifa.mil domain, and have been curious to know whether the visitor(s) have looking for subversion in the left blogosphere or just blowing some of the 'black' budget surfing the web like normal folks. Again, much as I might like to think the latter, I can't help but suppose that there's a database entry somewhere describing this site as "citizen exercising Constitutional rights" — or, at least, they're my rights for now.


But wait, there's more! The FBI is in on the action, too. Eric Lichtblau reports in the Times:
Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show.

F.B.I. officials said Monday that their investigators had no interest in monitoring political or social activities and that any investigations that touched on advocacy groups were driven by evidence of criminal or violent activity at public protests and in other settings.
Sure. Since the architect of the plan was John Ashcroft, noted defender of Justice (or at least coverer-up of her boobs), you'll forgive me if I don't give this much more credence than if it had come from J. Edgar Hoover.

There is some pure comedy gold in the files, reportedly:
Another [FBI] document talks of the Catholic Workers group's "semi-communistic ideology."
Maybe the agents involved forgot that Christianity's founding ideology is, well, quasi-communistic.

One problem, for people who care more about security than liberties, is a variation on Scrivener's critique of the NSA spying: Fishing expeditions with possible (or probable) political motivations waste resources that could be used to find the real terrorists. If anything, FBI agents' investigative skills are a scarcer resource than the NSA's capacity to intercept, if not to interpret in a timely manner, electronic communications. With 9/11 being invoked so often in Bush's defense of his illegal exercise of powers as to make a very dangerous drinking game, it's necessary to set the way-back machine to the summer of 2001 and mention a couple of politically incorrect truths. (**)

Without any expanded powers of the new era, various investigators managed to stumble upon some of the 9/11 plotters. They were stymied by feckless managers in the federal law-enforcement bureaucracy as much as some obvious failures of information-sharing among agencies. But that fecklessness could have been overcome had the people who since have been promoted to higher positions in the diplomacy and national security apparatus — not to mention re-hired as president — actually given a crap about the terrorist threat when it mattered, like this Richard Clarke guy. In which case, those managers might have decided that the correct CYA decision was more, not less, investigation.

Why Russ Feingold's original vote on the USA PATRIOT Act was the right one is that it was never shown that unconventional methods that assail basic civil liberties are necessary or even helpful in the effort against terrorism. (See Vladimir Bukovsky at the link provided yesterday.) Criticizing the law enforcement approach to combating terrorism may be a fashionable theme for the right, but it's nothing more.

*) Among the story's weaknesses, the reporter did not actually speak to the student in question, nor was there a report of a perfunctory "no comment" brush-off from the Department of Homeland Security.

(**) Which, I'm surprised and disappointed to see that the usually perceptive Jim Kunstler has forgotten in his admiration for Bush's "hard-boiled" remarks versus the public's "short memory." (Or, he's using irony on such an unsubtle level that I can't detect it.) The shady companion to the mantra that 9/11 changed everything is a direct campaign to see that pre-9/11 efforts weren't reviewed too critically, or more precisely in a manner calculated to yield a "mild pox on all their houses" conclusion.
I've gotten a couple of those .mil visits, too. Maybe I'll just cover my hair in tin foil now.

I keep meaning to blog about the experience of going to a peacenik rally in my town before the invasion of Iraq. It was nothing scary -- greying hippies trying to get us all to sing "We Shall Overcome" with guitar accompaniement. But two men in suits photographed us all and left without speaking. Not reporters. Chilling. So I suppose there is already a file on Mr. Blue, baby LG, and me.

Better cover us all in tin foil...
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