This site respects your privacy. GAP will not record your IP address or browser information. A detailed privacy statement can be found here.
Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

McCarthyism on Steroids: Monitoring Americans

Jesselyn Radack, December 20, 2010

This post originally appeared in a Daily Kos column.

The Washington Post, to its credit, has a new blockbuster article, "Monitoring America," that is part of its larger "Top Secret America" series.

In frightening detail, it dissects the vast domestic localized intelligence apparatus being used to collect, store and analyze information about Americans, most of whom have not been accused of any crime.

In July, the Post described the secrecy state our nation has turned into, which is so large, unwieldly and secretive that no how knows its cost, how many people it employs, or how many programs it has.

Today's revelations are worse.  Every state and local law enforcement agency feeds information to a vast, top-secret repository at the FBI, which stores the identities and profiles of those who are not known criminals or terrorists, but appear to have been "acting suspiciously" to a traffic cop or even a neighbor.

The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR)--in government-speak, the "Guardian database"--will ideally help the search for terrorists within our country because, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano notes:

The old view that "if we fight the terrorists abroad, we won't have to fight then here" is just that--the old view.

My concern, after a stint on the "No-Fly List" during the Bush years for whistleblowing, is that information in the database could be improperly used or released.

Technically, "suspicious activity" is defined as

observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity [related to terrorism].

But in the hyperventilating terrah-hysteria that our government works so hard to sustain, this includes the neighbor buying fertilizer for his plants, the student studying for a metallurgy test, or (lest you think this is my own hyperbole) the real-life example of a tourist snapping a picture of a ferry in the Newport Beach harbor in Southern California.

Suspicious Activity Report NO3821 says a local law enforcement officer

observed a suspicious subject . . . taking photographs of the Orange County Sheriff Department Fire Boat and the Balboa Ferry with a cellular phone camera. . . [After being met by another person, they] observed the boat traffic in the harbor.

They were then joined by another adult with two small children and they all boarded the ferry and crossed the channel.

This information then was forwarded to the Los Angeles fusion center for further investigation afterthe local officer ran information about the passengers' car, vehicle, and owner through several crime databases and found NOTHING.

At fusion centers, SARS are then forwarded to the nearest FBI terrorism unit, which would immediately enter it into the "Guardian database."  Most often, the FBI makes no specific determination, which means that the SAR sits in the database where other pieces of information about the person--employment, financial and residential histories, phone numbers, and anything else in government or commercial databases "that adds value"--is added to it.

This is the new domestic terrorism prevention.  It used to be called McCarthyism. Or, more accurately, the Stasi--getting everyone to spy on everyone else. . .

Jesselyn Radack is Homeland Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.