Monday, June 02, 2008

Steps Four through Six

A continuation of the Ten Steps Naomi Wolf lists in The End of America:

Step 4, Surveil ordinary citizens. Wolf offers some interesting comparisons here. She talks about surveillance (electronic and by informants) in East Germany, China, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia and the FBI's COINTELPRO. This chapter more than any other gives some insight into what every day life feels like under a dictatorship. People assume they are being watched at all times. A German citizen recalled, "You never knew who it might be when the doorbell rang. [W]e children were not allowed to couth the curtains . . . There was always somebody with a leather trench coat standing there in the hallway. And, especially when there were two or three people at our place, there would be several people standing outside in front of our house." Understandably, people were intimidated under these conditions and feared to speak their minds. There is ultimately a practical limit to how many people even the most totalitarian government can watch and how much information it can process. Wolf reports, for instance, that in Nazi Germany only 3% to 25% of the population were actually spied on and in East Germany only "a minority." But when no one knows who is or is not being watched, the fear of surveillance can be as intimidating as the reality.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to make realistic comparisons witht the Bush Administration because we do not know what they have actually been doing. We do know that they have analyzed the patterns (though not contents) of domestic phone calls, looking for patterns. We know that they unsuccessfully attempted to recruit mailmen, meter readers, repair men and the like to serve as informants. (This would have amounted to one American out of 24, Wolf reports, a higher ratio of informants than in East Germany). We also have some evidence that the Administration has subjected a wide range of international phone calls to computer surveillance for suspicious words, leading to a great many meritless investigations.

But so far we have no direct evidence that they have been listening in on Americans for political views, as COINTELPRO did. Wolf believes this has happened, but she has no proof. She also speculates that the newspaper stories revealing the spy programs were secretly encouraged by the Administration to intimidate Americans from speaking freely. She may be right. But so far this is only speculation.

Step 5, Infiltrate citizen's groups. Really, this is a sub-category of surveillance. Unlike wiretaps, which remain speculative, there is good evidence the Bush Administration, and local police as well, are infiltrating citizen's groups that pose no danger of violence. Wolf documents instances of infiltration of peaceful anti-war groups by local police and the defense department. She also offers suspicious-sounding incidents of harrassment. (A church had its tax exampt status questioned for opposing Bush, although pro-Bush churches are allowed to operate freely; people are arrested for wearing anti-war T-shirts in the Capitol; people get calls from the FBI for offhand remarks). I think there can be little doubt that the Bush Administration has been using this technique. Unfortunately, unlike wiretaps or physical searches, infiltration and the use of informants does not require a warrant and is therefore much harder to regulate. Doubtless we need better regulation of the practice.

Step 6, Arbitrarily detain and release citizens. US citizens are not being threatened with GTMO or other secret prisons. Wolf argues, however, that these are only the tip of the iceberg, that political dissent does carry the threat of arbitrary short-term arrest and release. She further argues that this pattern holds for other dictatorships; in Nazi Germany, fully 36% of the population were arrested, questioned and released! (Alas, Wolf does not make any systematic comparisons, either of numbers of people detained and released in different dictatorships, or of numbers of people detained and released versus people "disappeared" into secret prisons).

The main example Wolf offers of such arbitrary detentions and releases is airplane no-fly lists and watch lists. The list is absurdly long beyond any reasonable needs -- 45,000 people on the no-fly list and 75,000 people on the watch list. Wolf believes that this is not mere bureaucratic ineptitude, but a systematic attempt to intimidate. As evidence, she gives many cases of people who actively opposed government policies being on this list and at least one instance of a passenger being told he was excluded for publicly speaking out against Bush. So it is possible the list is being used as a tool of intimidation. But there is alsoample evidence of bureaucratic ineptitude. Conservative columnist and Bush supporter Cal Thomas is also on the list. Wolf mentions the singer Cat Stevens being on this list, presumably because of his conversion to Islam and opposition to government policies. She does not mention that Republican Senator Ted Stevens' wife, Catherine Stevens had to explain that she was not the Cat Stevens on the list.

More serious are actual charges brought against lawyers defending GTMO detainees and the case of Brandon Mayfield, falsely suspected in the Madrid train bombing. And, as mentioned
before, the rules become a good deal less exacting where non-citizens are involved.

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