WHAT, ME, WORRY? If you’re not wetting your pants, you’re not paying attention. According to recent polls, many of us are too quick to minimize revelations that federal spy agencies have been strip-mining the phone records and email accounts of millions of Americans citizens for years now. I, too, would prefer not be bothered right now, but unfortunately, the usual rationalizations are no longer yielding the psychic numbness needed. And it’s not like we’re still on the first step of the proverbial slippery slope. It’s more like we’re careening down the mountain at a high rate of acceleration. The technical infrastructure of an authoritarian state has long existed. But the War on Terror declared with such strategic imprecision by George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 has created psychological and legal infrastructure, as well. These have evolved to the point where a majority of us have become willing accomplices in the wholesale violation of our own constitutional rights. Neat trick.
Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane. Dick Flacks, former left-wing UCSB sociology professor and one of Santa Barbara’s all-time über-activists, first came under FBI surveillance at age 10. That’s when his parents — both pinko school teachers in New York City who got fired during the Red Scare of the late 1940s — sent him off to a Red Diaper Commie Kinder-Kamp. Flacks, a major player with the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society during the 1960s, discovered this after he went to court to get access to his FBI files some years later. During the height of the antiwar movement, Flacks would discover, he was so politically radioactive that the FBI placed him on the “Internal Security Index.” Should a “national emergency” be declared, that meant he could be detained and incarcerated even if no charges existed. FBI agents would show up from time to time, Flacks said, to interview his neighbors and landlords, more an act of intrusion and intimidation than information gathering. In 1968 — when Flacks was a professor at the University of Chicago — FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally authorized an anonymous letter-writing campaign to university officials in hopes of getting Flacks fired. Flacks found only one such letter in his files, signed by “Concerned alumus.” That the letter failed in its mission might stem from the fact that the alleged alums misspelled “alumnus.” One week later, Flacks would be savagely beaten in his own office by a man posing as a newspaper reporter. Flacks, it should be stated, has no evidence linking his assailant to the FBI. To date, Flacks has been arrested only once in his life, during a sit-in. And during the Vietnam War, yes, he did advocate resistance to the draft. The point isn’t to make Flacks out to be the second coming of Mother Teresa; the point is that all the activities Flacks engaged in to warrant this extensive surveillance and sabotage campaign by the FBI were perfectly legal and constitutionally protected. And in the years since, Flacks — no matter what you think of his political inclinations — has been nothing less than a model citizen.
The moral of the story is not that all government surveillance programs are inherently stupid, incompetent, unconstitutional, and politically abusive. But without meaningful oversight and accountability, it’s all but inevitable they will quickly become so. We have been allegedly reassured that warrants were obtained before any of the phone-record searches of U.S. citizens ever were executed. It’s worth noting that of the 1,800 warrant applications, not one was rejected, and only 40 were in some way modified. The judges that rule on such warrants operate behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. As has been reported, this court has refused to disclose its own legal analysis of the federal laws that guide its conduct. This court, according to the New York Times, has broadened its interpretation of the Patriot Act even beyond what many of the act’s most ardent supporters ever envisioned. But on what basis remains a mystery. To date, the secret court and the Obama Administration have vigorously resisted all legal actions undertaken to pry out this info. To dismiss these so-called tribunals as “kangaroo” courts would defame only kangaroos.
In March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared before a Senate panel and was asked point-blank whether the U.S. was collecting data on large numbers of its own citizens. Clapper famously responded, “Not wittingly.” When later called upon to explain so blatant a lie, he even more famously answered that he sought to respond in the “least untruthful manner.” He is, of course, a trained professional, which means he gets to say, I suppose, whatever he wants. And all this spying, naturally, goes well beyond private citizens. In recent months, it’s come out the feds subpoenaed the phone records of the AP news agency and has also threatened a FOX News reporter with criminal sanctions for being in possession of leaked secret documents. Say what you want about such leaks — or the psychological motivations of leakers like Edward Snowden — they remain the best and only way any light has been shed about the government’s spying on its own people.
While we’re working hard not worrying about things, perhaps we should not worry that Congress just rejected — by a vote of 200-to-226 — an amendment that would have prohibited the federal government from indefinitely detaining American citizens on its own soil and holding them captive without charges. This truly exceptional authority was inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act several years ago, and civil libertarians have been trying without success to pry it out since. We have President Obama’s sincerest assurances that he would never abuse the provisions of this measure, designed as they all are to combat terrorism, but where such fundamental protections are concerned, I put my faith in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the man.
In the meantime, I’ll be carrying around my own personalized rubber blanket. Adult diapers, I find, make my butt look big.