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From 2 February 2003 Issue

Neo-McCarthyism, the Patriot Act, and the New Surveillance Culture
Part 1
By Dr. Steve Best - sbest1@elp.rr.com 

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Ben Franklin (inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty)

Welcome to post-Constitutional America. While lip service is paid to freedom, basic liberties such as the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and association, the Fourth Amendment right prohibiting illegal search and seizures, and the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and public trial are increasingly jeopardized. George Bush, John Ashcroft, the Justice Department, and the FBI have tossed the Constitution into the shredder as they perversely redefine concepts such as democracy, patriotism, terrorism, and security. While Americans continue to be entertained by the weapons of mass distraction, the country moves ever more quickly toward tyranny. With the dystopias of both Orwell’s 1984 (overt state domination) and Huxley’s Brave New World (insidious thought control and intense normalization) on the horizon, the gravest threats to freedom today stem not from the Al Quaeda, but rather from our own government.

The State of the Nation

“The State … is the most flagrant negation, the most cynical and complete negation of humanity.” Michael Bakunin

As defined within anarchist political theory, the state is inherently a system of domination. Historically, the state evolved as a bureaucratic apparatus and power system in its own right, and its goal was to thwart all self-organization among members of society. The state is the usurpation, alienation, and concentration of the power of the community. Surveillance has always been a key function of the state, beginning with the invention of writing. In modern times, Marxists argued that the state is nothing but the ruling political arm of the hegemony of the dominant economic class, the bourgeoisie. Critics point out that the state has a relative autonomy and that the state and capitalist class sometimes are at odds with one another.

That said, it nevertheless is true that the modern democratic state largely is a vehicle to sanctify the profits and property rights of capitalists, and that laws often are but legal expressions of economic power, protecting particular not universal interests. The flip side of state protection of corporate hegemony is the suppression of peoples’ interests and their civil liberties. Thus, the realm of law and the domain of justice rarely overlap, and the state uses both legal and paralegal (e.g., force and repression) means of suppression.

Just as the CIA has been nothing but a tool to destroy democracies outside our borders, the mission of the FBI has been to squelch dissent from within. The worse excesses of the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) -- whereby from 1956 to 1971 it monitored, infiltrated, and disrupted sundry religious and political organizations -- are resurfacing as the intelligence agencies are collecting and sharing data on American citizens. Despite the Church Committee reports of the mid-1970s that documented abuse of power by U.S. intelligence agencies, nothing has changed except that we are losing more liberties.

On few occasions was state power and anti-democratic agendas so evident than during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy led a Cold War crusade against First Amendment rights. It is no exaggeration to say that we are entering a neo-McCarthyist period. The terms and players have changed, but the situation is much the same, with the Communist threat being replaced by the Terrorist threat, and John Ashcroft taking the place of Joseph McCarthy. Both then and now, the country demonized a foreign “Other” who threatened the American way of life. Government and media employed simplistic scripts of good and evil, with the U.S. defined as being unambiguously good and the foreign enemy being unqualifiedly evil. Like before, the government identified dangerous enemies everywhere, not only outside our country but also, more menacingly they want us to believe, ensconced within our borders. The attack on the foreign Other allows targeting the Other within, and the domestic Other is any and every citizen expressing dissent.

Origins of the Patriot Act

“I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and to revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.” Henry David Thoreau

According to the U.S. government, the main domestic enemies are not sleeper Al Quaeda cells, but rather animal and earth liberation groups, namely the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). Because of their many arson attacks, including the spectacular hit on a Vail ski lodge in 1998 (which the government called “the largest act of eco-terrorism in US history”), the FBI has identified the ELF as “the largest and most active U.S.-based terrorist group.” According to FBI testimony to Congress in February 2002, the ALF and ELF together committed over 600 “criminal acts” that inflicted over $43 million in damage to animal industries.

But all three animal and earth liberation organizations are major targets of state suppression as they are officially identified as “domestic terrorist groups.” Indeed, not only the state has stigmatized these groups as domestic terrorists, but in the creeping rightward political direction, so too have otherwise progressive groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, some mainstream animal and environmental groups, and much of the mass media. Indeed, even the Humane Society of the United States has come under fire by animal exploitation industries as a “terrorist organization.”

After the 9-11 attack, the Bush administration declared a permanent state of emergency against terrorism. With America in a panic, members of the Bush administration quickly went to work to draft new anti-terrorist legislations and on October 26th, less than one month after the attacks, President Bush signed into law the USA Patriot Act.

One of the most important pieces of legislation in American history, this 342-page tome was pushed through Congress before few could even read it, and only a handful of politicians dared to challenge it. Certainly the cleverest of all government acronyms, the USA Patriot Act is short for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.” The designator “Patriot” is painfully ironic, of course, for in the Orwellian doublespeak of the Bush administration patriotism means tyranny and the act aims to dismantle the very freedoms for which true patriots profess to die. Framed as legislation to combat terrorists, the Patriot Act proposes bold new measures to undermine the Constitution. It is a mishmash of provisions to augment state power, with some changes eliminating existing legal loopholes that mitigate government authority, some updating laws for the age of the Internet, and some granting the Justice Department powers previously proscribed by Congress but passed because of the urgency of 9–11. The Patriot Act dissolves the system of checks and balances that support the Constitution, as the Executive Branch of government seizes control of legislation and the courts. Power is becoming increasingly centralized in the Leviathan of the contemporary state as other branches of the state become rubber stamp mechanisms and alibis for totalitarianism.

The Patriot Act radicalized powers available to the government already on the books from Title 18 of the United States Code, which defines criminal policy including actions against property, people, and the state. In addition, the first institutional threats to animal liberation can be found in the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992. This involved a joint study between the attorney general and the secretary of agriculture on “the extent and effects of domestic and international terrorism on enterprises using animals for food or fiber production, agriculture, research, or testing.” This is perhaps the first time the word “terrorist” was applied to the U.S. animal liberation movement, which began in the late 1970s.

Perhaps most importantly, the Patriot Act builds on laws created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a secret court created in 1978. The purpose of FISA was to review requests for surveillance on suspected spies, terrorists, and other foreign enemies of the U.S. in order to collect intelligence information. Unlike other courts, the FISA court did not require probable cause that a crime is being committed to obtain a warrant. Ashcroft tried to argue that the Patriot Act grants the authority to use FISA to conduct a criminal investigation and expand the powers of the executive branch accordingly. This would in effect override the Fourth Amendment that “no warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause.” The seven members of the FISA court -- which denied only one out of 12,000 surveillance requests over two decades of its existence -- unanimously rejected the Patriot Act aas an abuse of government authority and denied Ashcroft its approval in August 2002, as it chastised the FBI for misleading them on over 75 occasions. But Ashcroft argued the FISA court exceeded its authority, and an appeals court overturned its decision.

Thus, the Patriot Act shifts the focus of FISA from foreign to domestic intelligence; it thereby targets not only spies and terrorists but also American citizens. By weakening the already permissive nature of FISA and by applying these diminished standards to domestic criminal investigations, the Patriot Act reendows the government with COINTELPRO-like powers to spy, invade, disrupt, and violate constitutionally protected rights. To use FISA secret courts and procedures for domestic investigations, the FBI need only claim that foreign intelligence gathering is a “significant” but not necessarily the “primary” purpose of investigation, that any request it makes is related somehow to its investigation.

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Part 2 of this article, explores some of the repressive implications of the Patriot Act, and I will discuss its implications for animal rights and direct action in the current era.

Go on to SpayDay USA - Feb. 25th
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