Everyone is a spy now. The state has always spied on its citizens, but the lens is turning the other way. For that, we are indebted to Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and the sources passing along military and diplomatic documents. This turnabout redresses the balance between government and public to a small extent, but the state’s resources still outweigh ours. After all, the state uses our money to spy on us, and it has longer experience in keeping tabs on us. This vicious habit dates at least to the Espionage Act of 1917 that Woodrow Wilson used to watch and prosecute anyone who opposed his war in France’s trenches.
Did the Espionage Act, which some politicians and journalists want to use to prosecute Julian Assange, uncover the Kaiser’s spy network in the United States? Not exactly. The government used it to incarcerate socialists Eugene Debs and Kate Richards O’Hare and a film maker named Robert Goldstein, whose crime was to depict British atrocities against American colonists in his subversively titled 1917 epic The Spirit of ’76. Government spying on American citizens went berserk with the post-war Red Scare and Palmer Raids. It expanded during World War II and the Cold War, when J. Edgar Hoover dispatched second-story men to ransack the tiny Socialist Workers Party’s offices, follow journalists such as I. F. Stone, and plant microphones under Martin Luther King’s bed. This led, lest we forget, to 1966’s Freedom of Information Act and ostensible limits on what the Central Intelligence Agency could do within America’s borders. Thanks to a loss of trust in government following Watergate, the Church and Pike Committees allowed the public to learn how domestic-surveillance programs such as COINTELPRO had violated their constitutional rights. But such “transparency” wouldn’t last long.
Thanks to the investment of your taxes into modern electronic eavesdropping, the FBI’s gumshoes don’t have to get their hats wet to know what you are doing. Most of it is done from computer keyboards. The latest government program to keep an eye on you is “Hotwatch,” which tracks your credit-card purchases and frequent-flyer miles in the way Wikileaks revealed the State Department was asking American diplomats to do to their colleagues at the UN. Hotwatch does not require any judge to issue a court order—as the Constitution requires—to invade your financial privacy. It can even check, via supermarket loyalty cards, which vegetables and condoms you buy.
The Transport Security Agency collects nude photos of all air travelers for the masturbatory edification of its more eccentric employees. It hopes to extend this mandate to trains and ships. More ominously, the TSA targets those who criticize its behavior. A CNN journalist named Drew Griffin found himself on a TSA “watch list” of “domestic extremists” following his broadcasted criticisms of the agency. Journalists are attempting via the Freedom of Information Act to discover which other colleagues have earned the same accolade, so far without success. The FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Amendment Act of 2008 grants “the National Security Agency [NSA] virtually limitless power to spy on Americans’ international phone calls and emails…[and] new power to conduct dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international telephone calls and e-mails en masse, without a warrant, without suspicion of any kind, and with only very limited judicial oversight.”
Homeland Security is funding the installation of closed-circuit cameras in American city centers to monitor suspicious activity that might be “dry runs” for terrorist attacks. Houston is planning to install two to three hundred cameras, which should allow the police to keep an eye on demonstrators if no one else. The FBI, meanwhile, has put the Tea Party under surveillance. In the spirit of these times, Pennsylvania’s state Homeland Security Agency contracted out surveillance of its citizens. Interestingly, this lucrative contract’s lucky recipient was an Israeli company called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response. (The Israelis have been watching the Palestinians’ every movement in the occupied territories for so long that they are experts at observation.) Does no one think it strange that an American state hires a foreign company to spy on American citizens?
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