On August 5, 2002, President George Bush declared, “We're fighting … to secure freedom in the homeland.” Strikingly, he did not use the word “nation,” or “republic,” but instead adopted a term, with its Germanic overtones of blood, roots and loyalty going back generations, for a country that is not the ancestral home of most of its citizens.
Soon after, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the massive Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an amalgam of 22 agencies and nearly 200,000 employees. The FBI and CIA remained outside the DHS, while the military, in October 2002, established its own Northern Command (NORTHCOM) to defend the “homeland.”
In the years since then, the full weight of government has been bent on ensuring “homeland security” – a term rarely heard before the 2001 attacks. Over the decade, the government's powers of surveillance have expanded dramatically. They are directed not just at people suspected of wrongdoing, but at all of us. Our phone calls, our emails and web site visits, our financial records, our travel itineraries, and our digital images captured on powerful surveillance cameras are swelling the mountain of data that is being mined for suspicious patterns and associations.
It doesn't take much to come to the attention of the watchers, as 13-year-old Vito LaPinta discovered earlier this year. Members of the Secret Service came to his Tacoma, Washington, middle school to question him about his Facebook posting urging President Obama to be aware of the danger from suicide bombers in the wake of Osama bin Laden's assassination.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee was no less surprised to find itself listed by the Tennessee Fusion Center on an Internet map of “Terrorism Events and other Suspicious Activity.” Why? The organization had carried out a “suspicious activity” by sending a letter to the state's school superintendents encouraging them to be supportive of all religions during the holiday season.
While the government has gained more and more power to watch us, we are being kept in the dark about what it is doing. Over the past decade, a new architecture of mass surveillance has been erected, and we know very little about it.
Surveillance in what we term the “age of Total Information Awareness” will be the subject of our Truthout postings throughout September. After providing an overview of 20th century surveillance, we will examine both the intelligence failures that opened the door to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the government's response. Rather than fix the obvious problems and hold specific individuals and institutions accountable, the government embarked on a radical shift in how intelligence and law enforcement agencies interact and do their work and rapidly expanded their powers.
Over the decade, we have seen the emergence of a national security surveillance state, in which some 800,000 local and state operatives file reports on the most common everyday behaviors and members of the public contribute hotline tips about “suspicious” people and activities. We will trace the contours of the new domestic intelligence architecture in terms of its nationwide and regional structures and its evolving technologies, drawing upon public sources and information obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and leaks. We will also describe the impact of the surveillance system on specific targets – Muslims, political activists, immigrants – as well as on the general public, and on what have long been assumed to be core American values.
It is our hope that this series will help stimulate a broader debate about whether we are on the right track in the “war against terrorism.” In the decade since 9/11, there has been no sustained national attempt to probe root causes behind the September 11 attacks and subsequent plots. The federal government has yet to come up with a single definition of “terrorism,” and there is not even a public agreement about what constitutes a '”terrorist” attack. So cowed was the DHS by the shrill denunciation of its April 2009 report on the danger of “right-wing extremism” that it has reportedly decided to focus its attention solely on “homegrown extremism” involving Muslims – despite the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled a long list of homegrown plots in its report, “Terror from the Right,” and that the DHS itself recognizes that Muslims have had nothing to do with the majority of terrorist plots and attacks within the United States in the 21st century.
Amid all these ambiguities, a new surveillance network has been steadily constructed in the shadows with the help of DHS grants. Among the questions that should be asked is this: What happens to actual public safety when “homeland security” commands the lion's share of federal funds to fight the “terrorist” threat?
The statistics suggest skewed priorities. According to the FBI, terrorist incidents in the United States accounted for 3,178 deaths in the period between 1980 and 2005. Apart from those killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11, 2001 attacks, 48 people lost their lives to terrorism in that 25-year period. Within the same time frame, 500,000 people were murdered in the United States. Being listed on a terrorist watch list might keep someone from getting on an airplane – and could conceivably land an American citizen on a government assassination list – but it will not prevent that person from legally buying a weapon – or several! – at a local gun store.
What kind of “homeland” will we become if we do not demand that secretive domestic surveillance operations are brought in line with longstanding principles of liberty and the Constitution?