June 23, 2016
To understand the roots of the oppression, erosion of liberties, and invasion of privacy that has become the new norm for Americans, we must go back to the days following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was promising Americans that he would exact revenge on those who dare attack the empire. Dubya’s program of “Shock and Awe” gave the American public an upfront look at what the U.S. military was prepared to do to the enemies of “freedom and democracy.” The bombing of Iraq was only the beginning of a larger conflict that the Bush Administration dubbed “The Global War on Terror.”
The War on Terror did not end in the physical battlefield, however. The U.S. government was determined to root out all possible terrorist activity and in the process roll back as many of America’s hard-earned liberties as possible. Only 45 days after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Congress passed the infamous USA PATRIOT Act, typically known as simply the Patriot Act. The full Orwellian title is the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.”
The Patriot Act dramatically expanded the U.S. government’s abilities to monitor emails and landline phone calls, as well as also allowed access to voicemail through a search warrant rather than through a title III wiretap order. There is also section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has been used to justify mass surveillance programs by the National Security Agency.
The Patriot Act also vastly increased the use of National Security Letters, a tool used by the government to force telecommunications companies to give customer information without the use of a warrant from a judge. The NSLs are typically issued by the FBI to gather information from companies when related to national-security investigations. This information can include customer names, addresses, phone and Internet records, and banking and credit statements. The NSL also requires employees who have been questioned to be silenced via a gag order which prevents them from notifying anyone that the government is invading customers’ privacy.
Interestingly, many Americans are unaware that the Patriot Act was in fact written before the attacks of 9/11 (see this and this). Not only was the bill written and ready to be released at the right moment, at least one of the bills which spawned the Patriot Act was written by Vice President Joe Biden while he was still a senator in Delaware. In 2008 CNET reported:
The Center for National Security Studies said (Biden’s) bill would erode “constitutional and statutory due process protections” and would “authorize the Justice Department to pick and choose crimes to investigate and prosecute based on political beliefs and associations.”Biden himself draws parallels between his 1995 bill and its 2001 cousin. “I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill,” he said when the Patriot Act was being debated, according to the New Republic, which described him as “the Democratic Party’s de facto spokesman on the war against terrorism.”
Biden’s chronology is not accurate: the bombing took place in April 1995 and his bill had been introduced in February 1995. But it’s true that Biden’s proposal probably helped to lay the groundwork for the Bush administration’s Patriot Act.
The advancing tyranny that has resulted from the Patriot Act, and the bills which preceded it, has led to what we see in America in 2016. The bulk of American communications are now scanned, monitored, stored in a database, and analyzed for signs of terrorism. The NSA has even built a giant database in Utah to handle all of this data. Big Brother and Big sister are listening through an array of devices. Cell site simulators aka stingrays, Automatic License Plate Readers, Audio recording devices aka gunshot detectors, hidden cameras and microphones in public, thermal imaging planes and drones.
While most Americans are familiar with the dangers and civil liberties violations of the Patriot Act, many may be ignorant to the other steps taken by the U.S. government in their misguided War on Terror. In January 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency responsible for all of the exciting and terrifying emerging military technologies, established the Information Awareness Office (IAO). The creation of the IAO was to bring together several DARPA projects that focused on using surveillance and data mining to track and monitor terrorists and other threats to U.S. National Security.
In November 2002, the New York Times reported that DARPA was developing a classified tracking program called “Total Information Awareness” (TIA), which was intended to detect terrorists by studying millions of pieces of data. The program was designed to create huge databases to gather and store personal data from emails, social media, credit card records, phone calls, medical history, and online history, without the need for a search warrant. The program also featured a biometric component that could be seen as a predecessor to the current FBI biometric database. The Electronic Privacy Information Center said the goal of TIA was “to track individuals through collecting as much information about them as possible and using computer algorithms and human analysis to detect potential activity.”
The man behind TIA was Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, the former national security adviser in the Reagan administration, who was convicted in 1990 for his role in the Iran-contra affair. Poindexter’s conviction would later be overturned by a federal appeals court because he was granted immunity in exchange for testifying about his wrongdoing. Poindexter argued that the U.S. government must be granted even more powers than were given in the Patriot Act.
In 2002, The NY Times reported that Poindexter believes “the government needs to ‘break down the stovepipes’ that separate commercial and government databases, allowing teams of intelligence agency analysts to hunt for hidden patterns of activity with powerful computers.” Poindexter’s actions were criticized by many computer and security experts, including Barbara Simon, a computer scientist and past president of Association of Computing Machinery, who foreshadowed the coming Surveillance State with a warning that,”Once you’ve got it in place you can’t control it.”
“In some ways, Poindexter is the perfect Orwellian figure for the perfect Orwellian project,” Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University wrote for the LA Times in November 2002. “As a man convicted of falsifying and destroying information, he will now be put in charge of gathering information on every citizen. To add insult to injury, the citizens will fund the very system that will reduce their lives to a transparent fishbowl.”
Public criticism of the TIA would grow so loud that Congress was forced to defund the entire IAO in 2003. However, many Americans correctly suspected that the programs were still being developed, only under different names, using different agencies. This fact would later be confirmed by Edward Snowden’s surveillance leaks of 2013; however, for those paying close attention, it was known for at least 7 years before the Snowden leaks.