Thursday, September 22, 2011

Truthout: Targeting Dissent

The following article provides validation and analysis for those of us feeling that suppression of dissent is on the rise in some subtle and not too subtle ways.  I thought of reporting on it and pulling out sentences to quote, but I was quoting too much and finally thought, “why not just reprint it?” The following was posted on the Surveillance in the Homeland blog.  For full article links, please visit their website.

Targeting Dissent
Thursday 15 September 2011
by: Nancy Murray and Kade Crockford, Truthout and ACLU Massachusetts | Special Feature

Ten Years Later: Surveillance in the "Homeland" is a collaborative project with Truthout and ACLU Massachusetts.

How little - yet how much - has changed in the last 40 years. The COINTELPRO papers sound distinctly 21st century as they detail the monitoring of perceived threats to "national security" by the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), Secret Service, and the military, as well as the intelligence bureaucracy's war on First Amendment protest activity. 

The Church Committee investigation concluded in 1976 that the "unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order." In addition to massive surveillance, assassinations and dirty tricks "by any means necessary" included the creation of NSA "watch lists" of Americans ranging "from members of radical political groups, to celebrities, to ordinary citizens involved in protests against their government," with names submitted by the FBI, Secret Service, military, CIA, and Defense Intelligence Agency. The secret lists, which included people whose activities "may result in civil disturbances or otherwise subvert the national security of the US," were used by the NSA to extract information of "intelligence value" from its stream of intercepted communications.

We learned that there was, apparently, no easy way to get off the FBI's "security index."  Even after the criteria for fitting the profile of a "subversive" were revised in the mid-1950's, the names of people who no longer fit the definition remained on IBM punchcards, and were retained in field offices as "potential threats." A card would only be destroyed "if the subject agreed to become an FBI source or informant" or in another way indicated a "complete defection from subversive groups."

By 1960, the FBI had compiled 432,000 files on "subversive" individuals and groups, and they were getting hard to handle. The following decade brought the promise of a technological fix. Under the guidance of the attorney general at the time, Ramsey Clark, the FBI explored the potential for "computerizing the master index." The goal of Clark's Interdivision Information Unit was to harness "automatic data processing" to put information about people collected from external and internal sources in a "quickly retrievable form."

Forty years later, the same "by any means necessary" mindset is harnessed to a national surveillance industrial complex that pumps out some 50,000 intelligence reports every day into the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database (which contains over a million names, including aliases). This error-ridden "master list" is not to be confused with the National Counterterrorism Center's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)system, which held 640,000 identities in March 2011. There are reported to be about a dozen terrorism watch lists or databases, and a single tip from a credible source is all it takes to get into one or more of them, while there is no reliable way to get out.

Given the legion of local, state and federal agents seeking out harbingers of "terrorist activity," the fact that espousing "radical" beliefs is grist for a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) and the virtually unchecked ability of FBI operatives to spy on groups without suspicion of wrongdoing, it is not surprising that the same kind of groups that were infiltrated and spied on by the FBI, NSA, CIA, and Department of Defense (DoD) under COINTELPRO are featuring in Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) investigations and fusion center data banks. The secrecy shrouding "national security" matters and the blurred jurisdictions that turn FOIA requests into pieces in a "pass the buck" shell game have made it impossible to get a clear picture of the extent of spying on protected First Amendment activity. But leaks and oversight reports indicate that a 21st century Church Committee would find a mention of any group that challenges the status quo somewhere in the vast domestic surveillance labyrinth.

In his 2010 report, "A Review of the FBI's Investigation of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups," Glenn Fine, the (now retired - and not replaced) inspector general of the Justice Department, concludes that the FBI had "little or no basis" for investigating many advocacy groups and individuals, and that it made false and misleading statements to the public and Congress to justify its surveillance of an antiwar rally organized by a peace and social justice organization, the Thomas Merton Center of Pennsylvania. Not only did it routinely classify actions involving nonviolent civil disobedience as "Acts of Terrorism matters," it also, "relied upon potential crimes that may not commonly be considered 'terrorism' (such as trespassing or vandalism)" to get people placed on watch lists and their travels and interactions tracked.

Around the country, databases have swelled with information about antiwar and other protests that are classified as "potential terrorist activity." Intelligence oversight reports indicate that the Pentagon, which defined protest in training materials as "low-level terrorism activity," monitored and shared intelligence on groups ranging from Alaskans for Peace and Justice to Planned Parenthood, and used Army signals intelligence in Louisiana to intercept civilian cell phone conversations. It was revealed late in 2005 that the DoD had a secret database called Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) maintained by its Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) unit. Among its 13,000 reports were dozens detailing antiwar activity, along with photos of protesters. Meetings were sometimes infiltrated and information widely shared among partner agencies. Events classified as "threats" included the gathering of activists at a Quaker meeting house in Lakewood, Florida, to plan a protest of military recruiting at the local high school, a Boston protest outside a military recruiting center and a peace march through the streets of Akron, Ohio, tailed by local police who had been tipped off by the Pentagon.

Although CIFA was disbanded after the extent of its spying was revealed, the TALON database has been preserved and is expected to be part of a new repository of information housed at the Pentagon's Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center. A notice in the Federal Register for June 15, 2010, states that the new repository will have a broad domestic and homeland security mandate and will amass personal data, citizenship documentation, biometric data and "reports of investigation, collection, statements of individuals, affidavits, correspondence, and other documentation pertaining to investigative or analytical efforts by the DoD and other US agencies to identify or counter foreign intelligence and terrorist threats."

The Posse Comitatus Act's substantial limitations on the use of the military in domestic law enforcement appear to have all but vanished. Indeed, in Washington State, John Towery  - a member of Force Protection Service at Fort Lewis who infiltrated and spied on peace groups in Olympia and shared information with the Army, JTTF, the FBI, local police departments and the state fusion center - is being sued by groups claiming his undercover surveillance violated the Act. A document leaked by WikiLeaks outlines how a "fusion cell" in a military police garrison integrated with local, county, regional, state and federal law enforcement can avoid the usual constraints on military intelligence by operating "under the auspice and oversight of the police discipline and standards." In the words of former Olympia City Council member T.J. Johnson, who was one of the people spied on by Towery, "The militarization of domestic law enforcement is one of the more disturbing trends in recent years."

Leaks from fusion centers reveal that peace groups share a place on surveillance databases with environmental groups, animal rights groups, student groups, anti-death penalty organizations, Muslim organizations, conspiracy theorists, Ron Paul supporters, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Nation of Islam and "Black Extremists." The Virginia Fusion Center cited various historically black colleges and universities as potential "radicalization nodes" for terrorists. The Maryland State Police, which works with the FBI as part of a JTTF and shares information with the state's fusion center, infiltrated protest activity, kept error-ridden "terrorist" files on activists and was notified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about what groups should be monitored. Bette Hoover, a retired nurse who is a grandmother and Quaker antiwar activist, was surprised when documents came to light listing her as a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and direct action group The Ruckus Society - organizations she never belonged to - and placing her at demonstrations she had never attended. She now understands why she receives special scrutiny at airports.

Given the enormous dimensions of the secretive echo chamber in which flawed information is disseminated, it is difficult to see how the record can ever be set straight. Once a person is in a database, there seems to be no more inclination to delete all traces of that individual (assuming this is even possible) than to remove an IBM punch card from J. Edgar Hoover's security index. The FBI today wants to keep all Suspicious Activity Reports in its eGuardian database, on the grounds that even if there is no connection to terrorism or crime today, one may become clear tomorrow as it continues to add information to a person's profile and mine information about their associations.

In the age of the Total Information Awareness program, there appears to be no end to the appetite for data to be stored and mined, and all sorts of agencies want a share of the action. There was little attempt to rein in the NSA after whistleblowers Russell Tice and Thomas Tamm revealed an "overcollection" of data of staggering proportions through the Agency's access to the phone calls, text messages, faxes and emails affecting the communications of "all Americans" - including Bill Clinton.  Data captured through the NSA's warrantless surveillance program has reportedly been systematically archived for data mining purposes.

The US Joint Special Operations Command is meanwhile establishing a mega fusion center at a secret address near the Pentagon which will serve as "the offense end of counterterrorism, tracking and targeting terrorist threats that have surfaced in recent years" and advising domestic law enforcement "in dealing with suspected terrorists inside the US." It will feature a cloud-computing network combining "all elements of US national security, from the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency to Homeland Security's border-monitoring databases."

Not to be outdone, the FBI has erected a giant Investigative Data Warehouse (IDW) containing 1.5 billion records and counting - much of it classified - including information collected through nearly 300,000 National Security Letters, criminal records, financial records, intelligence reports, gang information, terrorist information, open source data and more. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation has brought the data trove to light - the "future of the IDW is data mining" as the FBI uses "link analysis" and "pattern analysis" in the hunt for "pre-crime."

The neverending hunger for data may be one reason why the FBI, in late 2010, raided the homes and seized computers, cell phones and files belonging to peace and justice activists in Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. Twenty-three of them have been issued with grand jury subpoenas, some for allegedly giving "material support" to a foreign terrorist organization by meeting with groups in Colombia and Palestine. 

"We're conflating proper dissent and terrorism," warned former FBI agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley:
A secretive, unaccountable, post 9/11 homeland security apparatus has increasingly turned inward on American citizens. The evidence includes everything from controversial airport body scanners to the FBI's raids last September on antiwar activists' homes ... Agents are now given a green light, for instance, to check off "statistical achievements" by sending well-paid manipulative informants into mosques and peace groups. Forgotten are worries about targeting and entrapping people not predisposed to violence.... The massive and largely irrelevant data collection now occurring only adds hay to the haystack, making it even harder to see patterns and anticipate events. "Top Secret America" needs to ask itself who is more guilty of furnishing "material aid to terrorism: - its own operatives, or the activists and protesters it so wrongheadedly targets.
Also See: September 11: A Day of Death and a Decade of Constitutional Crisis

Friday, September 16, 2011

Income and Poverty in the US

Where do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know. In our countries, numbers live better than people. How many people prosper in times of prosperity? How many people find their lives developed by development?
Eduardo Galleano, “Those Little Numbers and People.”

The census has just released a report called “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010” (PDF) and all the media has picked up various aspects of the data and its meanings. It is pretty much all bad news as far as I can see. Basically more people became poor and the poor got poorer. Here are just some of the statistics from that report:
  • There are 46 million Americans -- about one in six -- living below the poverty line. That's the largest number on record. More Americans are impoverished than at any point in nearly five decades of record-keeping.
  • Since the recession began in 2007, median household income has fallen 6.4%, to $49,445.
  • Some 5.9 million people between ages 25 and 34 live with their parents, an increase of about 25% from 2007. About 45.3% of those young adults would be in poverty if they lived alone.
  • About 49.9 million Americans lacked health insurance, the report also said. That number has soared by 13.3 million since 2000.
This poverty is racialized. African Americans experienced the highest poverty rate at 27%, up from 25% in 2009, and Latinos rose to 26% from 25%. Just fewer than 10% of white people lived in poverty, up from 9.4% in 2009. Asians were unchanged at 12.1 percent. 40% of black children and 33% of Latino children now live in poverty, compared to 21.6% of children overall. The infant mortality rate for black infants is twice that of white infants. In most measures of income, of unemployment, of assets, people of color have fared far worse than white people, expanding an already disgraceful gap.

Further, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has both the highest overall poverty rate and the highest childhood poverty rate of any major industrialized country on earth. This comes at a time when the U.S. also has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth with the top 1 percent earning more than the bottom 50 percent.

According to the latest figures from the OECD (PDF), 21.6 percent of American children live in poverty. This compares to 3.7 percent in Denmark, 5 percent in Finland, 5.5 percent in Norway 6.9 percent in Slovenia, 7 percent in Sweden, 7.2 percent Hungary, 8.3 percent in Germany, 8.8 percent in the Czech Republic, 9.3 percent in France, 9.4 percent in Switzerland.

Given that the poverty line in 2010 for a family of four was $22,314, this numbers become even more stark. Try living with three other people on $22,000 a year anywhere in this country. It is next to impossible.

Of course, older people actually did not take nearly the hit of everyone else, in part because of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security—government programs that actually do their job of keeping people out of poverty.

What do you do with numbers like these? Read them and weep? I find myself wanting to eat salty fatty foods, like French fries, and tool around on the internet to learn how one emigrates to Norway. I sign petitions on-line, post articles on Facebook and tweet and retweet items of interest or excellent analysis.
My frustration is that two key solutions to our vast problems are not difficult to understand:
  1. Immediately create and implement a fair and just tax structure. Stop offshore tax havens, bring back higher top marginal tax rates, make corporations pay their fair share; and
  2. Create a federal jobs program and put people to work. Spend all the money you can on that.
Nothing new and unheard of is called for: simply a commitment to the common good. Langston Hughes wrote years ago, “American never was America to me. But I make this solemn vow: America will be.” I have to join him in believing that “America will be.” There aren’t many other choices that don’t require plunging into despair.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Where were you?

The “where were you when…?” questions often serve as a ways of getting to know someone, as a cultural reference point, and, as there are more of them, a way to mark how old you are. The ‘where were you when’ questions that mark my life are the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Nov 23, 1963) and Sept 11, 2001. Certainly there are other major events in my life: the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Nixon’s resignation, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the stock market crash of 1987. But they don’t stand out with the clarity of these two events, which I and many others could retell in minute detail.

I was in Montreal on Sept 11, 2011, in a meeting with two colleagues who are also dear friends. I was to leave for Washington DC later that day. One of my friends left the room to take a phone call from his daughter and came back to say “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center—it has punched through it.” He has a quirky sense of humor and at first I thought ‘Is this a joke?” But his face told me it wasn’t. At first it was hard to imagine and then with the replaying of videos captured on cell phones, it was impossible to forget.

September 11 and the two or three weeks that followed were the only (and probably the last) time in my life that the United States had a chance to unite the world in a true effort for peace. The Congress under the “leadership” of George Bush, squandered that opportunity, voting at every turn for war, with only the voice of Barbara Lee begging ”Let us not to become the evil we deplore.” Taliban leaders offered to find and surrender Osama bin Laden to the World Court in The Hague, where he could have been tried. We could have taken the high road, and not met violence with violence. We could have treated this horrible tragedy as a crime and the perpetrators as criminals.

But there was no intention on the part of the war machine to have peace. Instead we invaded two countries that had done nothing to us, and now ten years, 6200 dead American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Afghani and Iraqi soldiers and civilians, and almost a trillion dollars later, we have become one of the most hated and despised nations in the world. And in one of my ironies of this “war on terror” – when Osama bin Laden was assassinated, one of my students at the University of California asked, “Who was he again?” Of course, this young man was nine in 2001.

And so in the frenzy of memorials for 9/11, I will mourn the loss of life again, and relive again where I was and how I felt, and hear from others where they were and how they felt. Some of us will recall people we know who escaped or were killed in New York or DC, or marvel how we might have been on those planes or at the World Trade Center but weren’t.

But what we won’t talk about because it is too painful, is the fact that the vast majority of people in power then, and now, are not interested in peace. The PATRIOT Act is still in place, Obama makes tepid comments opposing Islamaphobia but continues the war, the economic downturn caused in part by a bloated military has driven the death and destruction half a world away to smaller and smaller articles every day and the “peace movement” is barely to be found.

From our grief must come a renewed determination to do all we can for world peace. The only fitting memorial to 9/11 is peace. The work required is overwhelming but as Che Guevara said, “Be realistic. Do the impossible.”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Labor Day was no picnic for many

Labor Day came and went the same as most holidays that have lost their meaning. Some people may have gone to a picnic, parade or barbeque over the three-day weekend, but the “reason for the season” was mostly overshadowed by consumerism (taking advantage of back-to-school sales or going to see The Help … again). And since consumption is now the reason for holidays, lots of today’s laborers don’t get Labor Day off at all!

Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, but the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1882 when the Central Labor Union organized a march of more than 20,000 union members and their families. Over the next few years, the nation’s unions spread the tradition to other cities and built a movement to get states and the federal government to honor the social and economic contributions made by the regular workers who kept the economy running.

Monday’s day off is part of the enduring legacy of the courageous and aggressive union organizing of the previous century that created the basics of modern life, like: the weekend, the middle-class, and the principle that kids should be in schools not factories. Today those things are taken for granted, but in 1882 – less than 20 years after slavery was abolished – society was organized around a few business owners and robber-barons squeezing everything they could out of millions of laborers working 12-hour shifts in inhumane conditions, but still left struggling to put food on the table.

Labor Day was initially about the struggle for economic and worker justice. But a century later, Labor Day has been so trivialized as to just dictate fashion choices. But today’s economy needs a Labor Day much more like the original march of “workingmen of all trades united in one organization.”

Today, there’s plenty for working people to unite around. Even though workers don’t routinely lose life and limb on the job anymore (though immigrants still face the worst working conditions), our society has sadly returned to many of the worst features of a century ago. Inequality is back at Great Depression levels, and the richest 400 people control more wealth than half of the country. The latest statistics are that 14 million people are officially unemployed (almost half have been unemployed for longer than 6 months). And many millions more are out of work or stringing together part-time jobs that don’t pay enough.

So for today’s laborers – especially people working in the service industry – Labor Day wasn’t a day off. And for the millions unemployed it was just another day spent worrying about how to get bills paid. Let’s all hope that next Labor Day’s headlines focus more on the movement for jobs and economic justice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From CAP: Lowering taxes doesn’t lead to job growth

As we await the President’s job speech this week – and in light of the spending cuts the Super Committee is beginning to devise – I’d like to share an article written this past June by Michael Linden at the Center for American Progress. “Rich People’s Taxes Have Little to Do with Job Creation” reminds us that cutting taxes for the wealthy doesn’t have the economic impact we’re often promised it will.

To quote the article: “When the marginal tax rate was 50 percent or above, annual employment growth averaged 2.3 percent, and when the rate was under 50, growth was half that. In fact, if you ranked each year since 1950 by overall job growth, the top five years would all boast marginal tax rates at 70 percent or higher. The top 10 years would share marginal tax rates at 50 percent or higher.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Our State, Our Budget

I want to share with readers a wonderful video made by Joshua Busch (staffer for the Community Coalition of LA) which gently pokes fun at the way some nonprofit staff have reacted to news of tax cuts. We are using this video to promote our project, Nonprofits Talking Taxes:

Even if you are not from California, your state is probably cutting services and not raising taxes on corporations or wealthy people, even those, like Warren Buffett, who have offered to pay more and advocated for higher taxes for wealthy people. Please feel free to share this video and the resources on our website with friends and colleagues. Our goal is to make the common good a common topic of common conversation.