The good news is that the New York Times broke the story about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps of people in the United States, part of the National Security Agency’s “War on Civil Liberties”—er, I mean “War on Terror.”
The bad news is they waited more than a year to do it, whether out of deference to the administration’s assertion that revealing its conduct would threaten national security, out of cowardice, or out of wishful thinking.
The good news is that as of yesterday, the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation.
The bad news is that its target is whomever leaked information to the Times, not the malefactors in high places who blithely violated eavesdropping laws.
The good news is that by all accounts, only a small group of people knew for certain that the warrantless wiretaps were common practice, and rumor has it that more than one of them blew the whistle.
The bad news is that Bush and company still know only one tune and never tire of singing it. The President said that revealing his violation of our civil liberties is “helping the enemy.” The Vice President it “damages national security.”
I’ve been trying to think of a way to tie this in with the theme of the new year, but the only thing I can come up with is, as the French say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.” The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.
When I was a young activist in the sixties, we were all certain the government was spying on us. My half-dozen colleagues and I, who provided draft-counseling services in a rundown storefront in San Francisco, had reason to think so. For one thing, every time we picked up the phone, we heard an assortment of pops and clicks that sounded so much like someone lifting an extension that we took to raising the receiver from time to time without making a call, just to greet our secret watchers. For another, we discovered that even when we didn’t pay the bill for months at a time, phone service was never disconnected.
Our office was half a block from a high school. It was typical in those days to feature military recruiters at Career Day events (I think it has become typical once again). Some of the kids whose acquaintance we’d made requested an equal opportunity appearance by a draft counselor who could provide information on alternative service for conscientious objectors. The principal then contacted the FBI to inquire whether our group was too subversive to be permitted access to a public high school. A friendly mole in the principal’s office shared the FBI report with us. The report affirmed that we had been watched: there was an account of our services, mention of our names. But we were disappointed to learn we were in no way perceived as a threat to national security; in fact, our FBI minder reluctantly certified that we had broken no laws.
Historically, the government doesn’t just like to watch citizens’ political activity, it likes to get involved. All through the civil rights and antiwar movements of the mid-twentieth century, the FBI operated COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), a program to investigate and disrupt activist groups by planting disinformation and provocateurs. COINTELPRO began in 1956, but it wasn’t exposed until a group of activists burgled and released relevant FBI files in 1971. A Senate Select Committee finally denounced the program in 1976, saying:
Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that…the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.
I remember one late-night conversation in 1968, after a marathon meeting of antiwar activists, all of us sitting cross-legged at the feet of an older activist who’d struggled through the Red Scare of the fifties. He told us about the detention camps that had been used to intern Japanese Americans during World War II, that all it had taken was 1942’s Executive Order 9066 to open the camps at Tule Lake in California and many other locations, and that the infrastructure was still there, ready to be reactivated by a further executive order. At the time, this seemed both frightening and implausible, like something out of a sci-fi novel: was our very own government really going to round up citizens and isolate us as dangerous subversives? Even though it had happened to our own neighbors 25 years earlier, we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe it—and of course, none of us was rounded up.
Yet it was unsurprising to learn twenty years later that the Reagan administration had launched the “Rex-84 Alpha Explan” (Readiness Exercise 1984, Exercise Plan), a massive coordinated exercise to prepare for detention in facilities like Tule Lake of huge numbers in the event of wide-scale civil unrest.
So here I am sitting in my cozy home while the wind and rain crash outside, typing comments about the U.S. government that are sure to have me labeled “paranoid.” In truth, none of these horror stories has come to roost in my own life. But for a growing number of law-abiding individuals of Arab descent, the opposite is true (read a few pages of this Human Rights Watch/ACLU report released in June). For those whose phones have been tapped in disregard of their legal rights, the opposite is also true. When I consider the arrogant disregard Bush and company have displayed in insisting on their entitlement to flout the law, and when I consider their escalating denunciations of civil libertarians as traitors, I am worried.
The U.S. has mostly managed to project a freedom-loving, just-folks image while operating a secret police apparatus second to none. The bad news is that having been caught in the act, Bush’s attempt to normalize activities that have been concealed by previous administrations sets a new low point for even maintaining appearances. This suggests a belief that Americans will say, “Right on, Mr. President, keep up the illegal wiretaps! I feel safer with my civil liberties in your pocket.” The good news is that even though it took fifteen years for COINTELPRO to be revealed by radical activists, it took only about a year for the present government’s illegal surveillance to come out, and it appears the whistle-blowers were themselves public officials. This suggests that having seen the excesses of our secret police, Americans will say, “Enough!”
Will Bush fold, or will our longstanding tradition of disbelief save him from the consequences of his own actions? It promises to be an interesting year. May it bring us all exactly what we need: clarity, compassion, justice, healing and harmony.