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In 1759, Ben Franklin may or may not have written "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." There's some dispute over whether he penned those lines or borrowed them for a publication. But there's no disputing that this concept of individual liberty balanced with collective security was at the very foundation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It's a balancing act that's been more than put to the test in post-9/11 America, and the balance has most definitely shifted away from personal liberty.

Life in a Surveillance Society

In 1759, Ben Franklin may or may not have written “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” There’s some dispute over whether he penned those lines or borrowed them for a publication. But there’s no disputing that this concept of individual liberty balanced with collective security was at the very foundation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

It’s a balancing act that’s been more than put to the test in post-9/11 America, and the balance has most definitely shifted away from personal liberty. Consider this story told by a border agent at a meeting of 200 residents in Washington’s San Juan Islands.

He was there to explain why the federal government is doing citizenship checks on domestic ferry runs. But near the end, while trying to convince the skeptical audience that the point is to root out terrorists, not fish for wrongdoing among the citizenry, deputy chief Joe Giuliano let loose with a tale straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.”

It turns out the feds have been monitoring Interstate 5 for nuclear “dirty bombs.” They do it with radiation detectors so sensitive it led to the following incident.

“Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour,” Giuliano told the crowd. “Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car].”

The agent raced after the car, pulling it over not far from the monitoring spot (near the Bow-Edison exit, 18 miles south of Bellingham). The agent questioned the driver, then did a cursory search of the car, Giuliano said.

Did he find a nuke?

“Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier,” Giuliano said.

He added: “That’s the type of technology we have that’s going on in the background. You don’t see it. If I hadn’t told you about it, you’d never know it was there.”

The border agent went on to point out that they’ve caught two would-be terrorists at the Blaine border region, one in 1997 and one in 1999. What wasn’t highlighted in that exchange was that this was during the Clinton administration. That the pre-9/11, pre-PATRIOT Act security measures and protocols that were in effect then were perfectly adequate to detect and to apprehend these men. So why is it necessary to find a radioactive cat at 70 mph and from 80 feet away?

And what exactly else is “going on in the background” that we don’t see and don’t know about? Last week, I wrote about the government’s implementation of the Total Information Awareness program, a program that had been banned by Congress, but that the Pentagon implemented anyway.

Huge amounts of data – e-mail information (sender, recipient, subject line, time stamp), Internet searches (both conducted searches and sites visited), both wired and wireless phone calls (incoming and outgoing, as well as location and duration), financial records (credit card activity, wire transfers, bank account information), and tracking information from the TSA- are being swept up by the NSA and monitored for suspicious patterns.

What else? We know about their desires on our library records, what about our medical prescriptions? And it all comes back to why? This massive amount of data about the private lives of Americans is likely doing nothing more than muddying the waters for the feds as they try to find the few nuggets of actionable intelligence on the bad guys.

The good news since last week is that on one facet in this Total Information Awareness Surveillance Society is that Gov. Brian Schweitzer made the feds blink. Key to their plans to keep track of us was Real ID, the state government-issued ID card that would replace our driver’s license with a national ID card that would have a chip including, at a minimum, name, birth date, sex, ID number, a digital photograph, address, and a “common machine-readable technology” that would allow the data to be shared in federal databases – the ones that already store all that other data being picked up by the TIA programs.

Montana, along with a few other state, cried foul. Montana’s attorney general sent a letter to DHS director Michael Chertoff explaining that the State of Montana was perfectly happy with its driver’s license system and the security features built in to it. The DHS chose to interpret that letter as a request for an extension in implementing the program, and granted it.

“I sent them a horse and if they want to call it a zebra, that’s up to them,” Schweitzer said. “They can call it whatever they want, and it wasn’t a love letter.”….

“They tell us our data is safe,” Schweitzer said. “You tell that to the passport people,” he said, referring to news that State Department employees snooped in all three major presidential candidates’ passport files.

“Do you want your government to have the ability to track where you went, how you got there and when you got home?” Schweitzer asked. “It would be naïve for someone to think this information will not be abused in the future. Virtually every decade these kinds of files have been used to violate people’s privacy.”

Expect Montana’s victory on Real ID to encourage the other hold-out states, including Maine, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma to flat-out reject the program, and other states to join the movement. Idaho has already made steps in that direction with the state House unanimously rejecting the program. Now states like Alaska and the powerhouse state of California to join in.

Maybe the states can do what our Congress has failed at in the past seven years – say “no” to an administration that would happily sacrifice our Essential Liberty’s for the illusion of safety.

Editor’s note: Joan McCarter’s weekly blogs are part of NewWest.Net/Politics’ “Diary of a Mad Voter” feature, a group blog, published in partnership with the Denver Post’s Politics West intended give a glimpse into the hearts and minds of several independent-minded voters and thinkers in the Rocky Mountain West in the ’08 election cycle. For more columns check in with www.newwest.net/madvoter. And for more information on each of the bloggers, click here.

About Joan McCarter

Joan McCarter is a contributing editor at Daily Kos, writing as "mcjoan." She has focused on Iraq, the traditional media, and electoral politics at the blog. During the 2006 election, McCarter focused her writing on Democratic prospects in the west. She traveled throughout the Rocky Mountain states through the last weeks of the campaign, researching and writing about Democratic candidates and campaign strategies. She is currently researching a book on western politics scheduled to be published in spring, 2008. McCarter worked on Capitol Hill for then Congressman and now Senator Ron Wyden. She has broad campaign experience and has been deeply involved in Democratic politics since childhood. She has a master's degree in international studies from the University of Washington and worked as a writer, editor, and instructional designer at the UW from 1995-2006. She is currently a fellow at Daily Kos.

Comments

  1. I heard Schweitzer’s comments about real-ID on my satellite radio. He sounded like…a Westerner. Where have the other Westerners gone? Be careful, Joan, I’m sure they’re watching you.