The Other Domestic Spying
Numerous domestic surveillance
programs are underway besides the NSA
by Andy Dunn
www.zmag.org, March 2006
The Other Domestic Spying
Numerous domestic surveillance programs
are underway besides the NSA
by Andy Dunn
www.zmag.org, March 2006
Revelations surrounding domestic spying by the NSA have been in
the news since December. However, other reports of domestic spying
operations by the U.S. government have flown under the corporate
Investigations this past winter by groups
such as the ACLU and some media outlets have revealed numerous
occasions of FBI, Defense Department, and local police infiltration
and monitoring of domestic peace groups. Further, some of the
details surrounding the NSA program and other surveillance operations
point to a new paradigm in intelligence operations, which involve
massive "datamining" reminiscent of the government's
supposedly shelved Total Information Awareness program.
Scandals have erupted regularly almost
every month of Bush's five-plus years in office, yet the corporate
media have treated each revelation as a standalone item, offered
without historical context, worthy of a few weeks at most in the
spinning heads news cycle before being drowned out by the latest
trivia. The spying revelations, what little is discussed publicly,
have particularly suffered from corporate media's structural and
ideological barriers to offering context and history.
History of Civil Liberties Abuses
There's no shortage of precedent in U.S.
history for today's revelations of domestic spying. However, the
lessons learned and cautionary institutional reforms resulting
from previous government civil liberties intrusion are not much
discussed in the corporate media, nor is even the fact that this
From the Alien and Sedition Acts of the
1790s to government spying on peace and environmental activists
during the 1980s, an ugly picture emerges of a government that
manages to simultaneously blunder and bludgeon. Inevitably, the
tendency to overreach is revealed, briefly excoriated, and then
dismissed as an aberration.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 declared
that anyone "opposing or resisting any law of the United
States, or any act of the President" could be imprisoned
for up to two years. It was also illegal to "write, print,
utter, or publish" anything critical of the president or
Congress. Though partially intended to protect a Federalist administration
from its political opponents, this plan backfired amid much outcry,
and a few prosecutions, while the most egregious portions of the
laws expired two years later with little result except to have
the Federalists ousted from power.
Throughout the 1800s civil rights were
denied Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and African Americans
by federal and local government decree. Ongoing "Indian Wars"
denied Native Americans basic civil rights and saw the U.S. government
consistently break its own laws and treaties. Chinese immigrants,
encouraged to come work as near slaves on the railroad and in
other industries, were forcibly expelled from entire regions afterwards.
Even after slavery ended, African Americans suffered from sundown
laws, denial of voting and property rights, and lynching.
The rise of the workers unions in the
late-1800s elicited a violent response from the government: spying,
illegal detentions, executions, and a notable early case of outsourcing
repression-through Pinkerton and other goon squad violence. Massive
government and industry campaigns were launched against them through
a series of federal injunctions, court rulings, and local and
state police repression.
By 1900 the U.S. had acquired a foreign
empire stretching from Guam to Cuba, and continued to proclaim
all of Central and South America as under its sphere of influence.
Constant low-intensity military expeditions ensued and continue
to this day in maintenance of this empire. Besides radical worker
groups, popular pacifist and anti-imperialist groups now also
arose to denounce elite priorities.
During WWI, unprecedented propaganda by
the U.S. government and "public relations" firms, large-scale
domestic surveillance operations by the U.S. Army, and the criminalization
of pacifist dissent by the justice system were followed by massive
operations against political "radicals" after the war.
More than 10,000 people were arrested, most without warrants,
during the Palmer Raids (1918-1921), which was named after the
attorney general at the time. Hundreds of targeted activist leaders
(legal residents) were deported and a young J. Edgar Hoover of
the Justice Department amassed a database of more than 100,000
names of political "reds." Palmer's grasp for power
was partially intended to buoy his continued political career,
but a backlash against civil rights violations later cost him
a presidential nomination.
During the 1920s, Hoover was put in charge
of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI) and continued
amassing a database of often wildly inaccurate but derogatory
information on U.S. citizens-especially dissidents, but also politicians-which
could be used for blackmail and ensured his lifetime tenure as
director until his death in 1972.
Ideological battles between worker/anti-imperialist
groups and government/business interests intensified during the
Great Depression, before the political repression was softened
somewhat by paternalistic reforms under FDR. Post-WWII, the next
multi-generational war (the Cold War) was launched and an even
more sweeping domestic red scare was implemented with several
government agencies conducting purges and amassing blacklists
against political dissidents.
During the previous history of political
surveillance and repression, multiple law enforcement and intelligence
agencies were often employed. Cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago,
New York, and many medium-sized towns, had their own "red
squads," as did state police and militias, special "railroad
police," and the U.S. military. Like the federal government
under Hoover, these groups amassed large databases and conducted
warrantless "black bag jobs" to break into private homes
and gather more info for their files. By the 1950s, this information
was then used in secret "blacklists" to discriminate
against leftists or get them fired.
In 1956 the FBI went a step beyond this
with its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which was
originally designed to "increase factionalism, cause disruption
and win defections" inside the Communist Party USA. The program
quickly came to target many more groups than domestic communists
and socialists, and by the 1960s was going after:
civil rights groups generally, and Martin
Luther King, Jr. specifically; antiwar groups, including many
student, church-based, and veterans groups; national liberation
organizations, such as the Black Panthers and American Indian
The intention was to discredit and disrupt
these groups and many illegal dirty tricks were used. Methods
included infiltration and provocation, misinformation and forgery,
planting false stories in the media, intimidation through government
investigations such as tax audits and spurious criminal charges,
violence through proxy goon squads and local police, as well as
continuing black bag break-ins and electronic surveillance.
Additionally, the now huge "national
security state" of dozens of federal and military intelligence
agencies conducted similar acts, sometimes coordinated with and
sometimes competing against COINTELPRO. The names of these operations
sound like something from a 1960s spy show, like "The Man
From Uncle": Operation CHAOS, Projects RESISTANCE, MERRIMAC,
MINARET, and SHAMROCK.
Through such programs, the government
electronically eavesdropped, operated a dozen mail opening programs,
monitored and collected all telegram traffic coming into or leaving
the U.S., and created "watch lists" of hundreds of thousands
of "subversives." It also acted proactively to "disrupt,"
often violently, the legal political activity of U.S. citizens
via its arsenal of dirty tricks and blackmail files.
Local police agencies, such as New York
City and Los Angeles, compiled their own blackmail files, with
LA's lists ending up in the hands of a private right-wing group
in the 1980s. Chicago's police arguably participated in a planned
assassination of a political leader, Black Panther Fred Hampton
in 1969, while other police framed leaders on trumped up charges
(such as California Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, finally exonerated
in 1997 after more than 20 years in prison).
The final straw that brought this system
down was President Nixon's own program of White House-centered
dirty tricks program and his "enemies list." The break-in
by Nixon's "plumbers" into the Democratic National Committee
headquarters at Watergate was almost ignored at the time and a
comparatively minor infraction. However, since Nixon was revealed
to be spying on more than the usual suspects-in this case other
power elites such as Democrats, and (as revealed later) business
and media leaders-Nixon's minor league spy operation spiraled
into the greatest scandal in U.S. history.
Domestic Spying Reforms & Reaction
After Nixon's resignation, congressional
investigations by Senator Frank Church and others revealed the
depths of domestic political surveillance and repression from
the 1950s to 1970s. Also revealed were programs of foreign assassination,
large scale foreign propaganda (Operation MOCKINGBIRD), and drug
experimentation on U.S. citizens (Project MKULTRA).
Details of these operations, which continued
to leak throughout the later 1970s and afterwards, initially shocked
the U.S. public and led to a number of laws limiting the power
of the government to spy on U.S. citizens and disrupt their legal
political activity. One such law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Act (FISA) of 1978, governed the electronic eavesdropping (and
later physical searches) of U.S. citizens in national security
investigations. Another was the Intelligence Oversight Act of
1980, codifying congressional monitoring of spying activities.
Also revealed during the 1970s and later,
through investigations and such insider accounts as Philip Agee's
Inside the Company and Leslie Swearingen's FBI Secrets:
An Agent's Expose, was how gross incompetence fit quite neatly
with covert propaganda and intervention abroad and illegal repression
and surveillance at home. Swearingen, for instance, revealed FBI
field offices filled with lazy agents who neglected their primary
duties towards investigating violent crime, but brought great
energy to bear on harassment of dissidents.
Other than a few years of Hollywood filmmaking
just after Watergate, such true stories of bumbling agents never
found much purchase in the imagination of the U.S. public or its
media. Instead, the corporate media was soon again offering the
standard diet of "action stories" featuring super-competent
secret agents and cops, heroically ignoring civil liberty protections
like warrants and bans against torture. The news media simultaneously
suffered massive budget cuts and ownership consolidation that
practically eliminated the kind of investigative journalism that
The revelations of the 1970s faded from
discussion and public consciousness in the 1980s and thereafter,
amid nationalistic rhetoric, continued low intensity conflict
in maintenance of empire, and a series of foreign wars against
weak nations designed to end the dread "Vietnam Syndrome."
Nevertheless, a large, informed activist
community continued protests and demonstrations (anti-nuclear,
environmental, solidarity with Latin America, etc.) in the 1980s
and succeeded in limiting the swing of reaction, despite a revived
but less severe surveillance and infiltration program under the
Though not put into effect, one frightening
rebirth of a massive planned civil liberties violation under Reagan
was Rex 84 (Readiness Exercise 1984), a test by the United States
federal government (including FEMA) to detain large numbers of
U.S. citizens in case of massive civil unrest or national emergency.
This was a revival of the similar 1960s-era Operation Garden Plot,
adjusted from a context then of inner-city unrest to a likely
mass opposition to wider war in Central America in the 1980s.
A similar plan is on the books post-9/11, with hundreds of millions
of dollars earmarked for Halliburton to build the processing facilities
in the event of a "national ermergency."
Revelations about Rex 84 came out in the
Iran-Contra hearings (1987), a congressional investigation into
Reagan's illegal use of power to fund a war in Central America
that Congress had specifically removed from the budget so as to
eliminate U.S. involvement in the war. The central constitutional
question was lost in the media spin, as were ancillary revelations
of CIA collusion in drug smuggling, arms deals with Iran that
pre-dated the supposed justification (hostages in Lebanon), CIA
banking and money laundering schemes, and active support for mass
death squads and torture.
Under Clinton, the law enforcement pendulum
swung back and forth following much criticized heavy handed police
response at Ruby Ridge and Waco and then the bombing in Oklahoma
City by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh. The Oklahoma City
bombing resulted in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty
Act of 1996, making it easier to execute prisoners by limiting
their appeals and also instituting a number of PATRIOT Act-type
provisions on surveillance and expanded criminal provisions related
to a broader definition of "terrorism."
Despite this revision of the post-Watergate
intelligence reform laws, the basic system of congressional and
judicial oversight remained in place until September 11, 2001.
Domestic Spying Today
Due to recent revelations surrounding
the National Security Agency program to spy on U.S. citizens,
we now know that the Bush administration has justified such surveillance
on a contested theory of the president's inherent "wartime"
powers-which presumably will also last for "generations"
along with the "war on terror." Not even the increased
powers given him under the PATRIOT Act, hastily passed just after
9/11, were enough for Bush. Thus, the president simply bypassed
the FISA court and congressional oversight requirements for domestic
spying put in place after Watergate as "unnecessary."
Perhaps related to this, but more likely
the lumbering response of a massive surveillance system long in
place, a number of investigations in the past two years have revealed
that the government is once again spying on, and amassing databases
of, U.S. citizens due to their political beliefs and legal political
actions. The surveillance is being conducted by the Department
of Defense (DOD), the FBI, the multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task
Force (JTTF), local and state police, and, of course, the NSA.
In December 2005, NBC News revealed details
from a 400-page DOD database document on domestic "threats"
to its installations, detailing 1,500 "suspicious incidents"
from a 10-month period. Dozens of peace groups were on the list,
with a special focus on counter-recruitment activities. According
to NBC News, the database "includes nearly four dozen antiwar
meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far
from any military installation, post or recruitment center."
Though hundreds of incidents were discounted as not a threat,
they remained in the database, along with names and details, which
indicate possible infiltration or aggressive surveillance.
The document was produced by a little-known
group called the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), created
two years ago to "maintain a domestic law enforcement database
that includes information related to potential terrorist threats
directed against the Department of Defense." A now widely
used reporting system was put in place called Threat and Local
Observation Notices (or TALONs) for "non-validated domestic
threat information" from military units throughout the United
States, which is collected and retained in a CIFA database.
According to the NBC report, "Since
March 2004, CIFA has awarded at least $33 million in contracts
to corporate giants Lockheed Martin, Unisys Corporation, Computer
Sciences Corporation and Northrop Grumman to develop databases
that comb through classified and unclassified government data,
commercial information and Internet chatter."
In the past two years, the American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched dozens of investigations into
domestic spying activities in more than 20 states on behalf of
more than 100 organizations, the latest inquiries based on the
DOD document. Numerous earlier Freedom of Information Requests
by the ACLU have also revealed surveillance by local police, the
FBI, and JTTF of thousands of domestic activists from groups such
as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Greenpeace,
United for Peace and Justice, Food Not Bombs, the American Friends
Service Committee (AFSC), and dozens of local peace groups around
In just one example from the many cited
on the ACLU website: "The FBI responded to a June records
request from the MCLU with revelations that it has intercepted
and collected past communications from members of the Maine Coalition
for Peace and Justice." The investigations and (heavily redacted)
government documents forcibly made public by the ACLU are mostly
initiated and maintained under the guise of "counterterrorism,"
even information about pacifist groups like the Quakers' AFSC.
The documents reveal both active surveillance and databasing of
groups, and point strongly to undercover infiltration of the groups.
Local law enforcement is still in on the
action. A 2003 memorandum from the FBI sent to 17,000 local police
agencies urged surveillance of a wide range of demonstrations,
telling them to be alert for "possible indicators of protest
activity and report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest
FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force." (There are now more than
100 JTTFs around the country operated jointly by the FBI, Homeland
Security, and other agencies; according to a 2004 report in USA
Today, the CIA has also assigned dozens of agents to work
with the FBI, mostly through the JTTFs.)
In March 2005 the Colorado chapter of
the ACLU revealed the existence of thousands of files on peace
and environmental activists maintained by the city of Denver,
many files from well-before 9/11, including license plate numbers
taken down at protests and demonstrations, and the designation
of peaceful protesters with no criminal records as "criminal
extremists." During anti-war protests in Colorado in 2003,
police infiltrators were observed trying to provoke violence.
According to local organizer Nancy Peters in an interview on "NOW,"
one undercover officer urged the demonstrators to "storm"
heavily fortified police positions.
A December 22 article in the New York
Times revealed, "Undercover New York City police officers
have conducted covert surveillance in the last 16 months of people
protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies
and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an
accident, a series of videotapes show." The Times
reported that in one incident an undercover officer even initiated
an event that led to a violent arrest, though that may not have
been the intent.
According to the Chicago Sun Times,
Chicago police infiltrated five peace groups in 2002 and launched
four other domestic spying operations against activists the next
year. Local police in Fresno and Washington, DC have also infiltrated
peace groups, according to media accounts.
Besides surveillance, infiltration, and
occasional provocations, several incidents of apparent intimidation
have been noted with FBI agents coming to the homes of activists
to interview them about their plans and associates. Two students
in Missouri planning to attend the 2004 Democratic Convention
were questioned, subpoenaed, and put under 24 hour surveillance
for a week, though they were never charged, according to the ACLU.
FBI agents also went to the homes and interrogated members of
Food Not Bombs in Colorado and North Carolina.
In Georgia in 2003 a DeKalb County Homeland
Security detective jailed a vegan activist at a meat processing
plant protest for refusing to hand over a piece of paper on which
she had written the license number of an unmarked government car.
A new paradigm for managing protests, the so-called "Miami
Model," now sees activists' offices raided during the planning
stages of protests, relegated to small "free speech zones"
during demonstrations, and then swept up and incarcerated en masse
in makeshift holding pens, as happened in NYC during the Republican
Convention and at earlier FTAA protests in Miami. Arrested protesters
then often face months of legal battles and possible long-term
incarceration, as with protesters at the School of Americas who
were recently sentenced to six month prison terms.
Databases and Datamining
The final element of current domestic
surveillance operations involves networked databases of information
on U.S. citizens, government and commercial, being created and
"mined" for information supposedly related to terrorism,
but much broader in scope.
In 2002, the Defense Department's Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency revealed it had an Office of
Information Awareness with a mission to "imagine, develop,
apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies,
components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that
will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information
awareness." The office had plans to integrate massive amounts
of public and private electronic information and mine the data
for "patterns of suspicious activity." The revelation
created tremendous opposition and, even though it renamed its
mission "Terrorist Information Awareness," the program
was officially cancelled in 2003.
Similarly, the government's air passenger
screening programs have suffered from negative scrutiny because
of overly broad and inconsistently maintained "no fly"
lists since 9/11. These lists have netted anti-war activists and
other non-terrorists and today is estimated to number at least
in the tens of thousands. In November 2005 the TSA indicated that
30,000 people had contacted the agency in the last year alone
to contest their inclusion on the lists.
Additionally, in 2002 and 2003 numerous
airlines and reservation agencies provided full customer information
and histories to the TSA for datamining. The TSA planned to contract
out much of the data integration and searching, and paid numerous
contractors such as Lockheed Martin hundreds of thousands of dollars
to develop the prototypes of such a surveillance system.
An even more far-reaching replacement
program, Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS
II), was withdrawn from consideration in 2004 after a Government
Accounting Office (GAO) report criticized its privacy intrusions
and even wider potential for errors than the current system. Nevertheless,
two programs with some features similar to CAPPS II have been
implemented, which rely on unverified commercial databanks, such
as credit histories, to evaluate passengers' "threat level."
The programs, Secure Flight and Registered traveler, are under
legal challenge by the ACLU.
Just as CAPPS II morphed into other programs
following public revelation and criticism, Total Information Awareness
programs have continued, albeit under different names.
A 2004 GAO report noted more than 200
federal datamining efforts. A February 2006 investigation by the
Christian Science Monitor entitled "U.S. Plans Massive
Data Sweep" offers a glimpse of a Homeland Security Department
system called ADVISE (Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization,
Insight, and Semantic Enhancement), which received $50 million
in funding last year. The article says ADVISE "would collect
a vast array of corporate and public online information-from financial
records to CNN news stories-and cross-reference it against U.S.
intelligence and law-enforcement records. The system would then
store it as 'entities'-linked data about people, places, things,
organizations, and events."
Like the passenger screening system, ADVISE
would rely on commercial databases for information on individuals,
information which has proven both notoriously inaccurate and easily
prone to hacking and theft. Nevertheless, a convergence of huge
defense and information contractors are rushing to create and
integrate massive databases for the plethora of government contracts.
As one example, like ADVISE, the MATRIX
(Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) program analyzed
many government and commercial databases to find associations
between suspects and suspicious activity. However, MATRIX is run
by a private contractor with federal funding and special law enforcement
access. Of note, the creator of MATRIX was also founder of the
database company that incorrectly stripped tens of thousands of
African Americans from the Florida voting roles before the 2000
Other indications of data intrusion, such
as the availability and sale of private cell phone records by
database companies, NSA collusion with domestic telephone conglomerates,
FBI access to Internet service provider information, and more,
keep popping up on the back pages of newspapers or as minor items
on the network news.
For those who want more than the scattershot
reports of the superficial corporate media, the websites of the
ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Electronic
Frontier Foundation offer a good starting point for much needed
self-education about ongoing threats to civil liberty.
Andy Dunn has worked for Z Magazine
since 2003. In the 1980s he worked
as an interpreter and intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy and
National Security Agency.