Building the National Security Apparatus

Domestic, Political Cartoons

National Security Apparatus

President Obama seems committed to rolling back the barefaced global elements of the “War on Terror,” but my worry is this will only quicken the assembly of the shadowy and unaccountable domestic security apparatus.

The troubling revelation of what many Americans already suspected – that the U.S. government has been amassing records of our personal communications and information on an incomprehensibly large scale – was met with outrage by some and resigned indifference on the part of most. I noticed three common arguments used to justify apathy on the matter.

1. Many Americans immediately suggested that data collection is fine because most people willingly share some personal information on social networks. Even some respected cartoonists seemed to be swinging for the government by blaming the snooping on American’s social media habits (“They’re just asking for it!”) 2. Additionally, many citizens, particularly the older generation, have suggested that if you’re writing something online, even on a private email, you should consider it public. 3. Maybe the most common display of dispassion is the line “I’m not a terrorist and I don’t have anything to hide, and if it catches terrorists it makes us safer.”

These three retorts are self-centered and for the most part, irrelevant arguments. The issue at hand is not that Big Brother is personally reading and analyzing all of your boring day-to-day interactions. The looming trouble is hiding in the colossal, permanent infrastructure constructed to grant the government limitless power and leverage over any individual or group it considers a threatening. Regardless of whether Americans share too much, there is an important difference between voluntarily sharing what brands you like with Facebook, and the state having the authority to pull records of any private conversation or interaction that may be able to use against you. The related recommendation that when we talk or act online – now the primary venue for many of our interactions – we should behave as though we’re under government surveillance strikes me as unacceptable for a country that prides itself on its commitment to civil liberties.

On the third point: Very few, if any, people self-identify as a terrorist. It’s the kind of thing we think “we know when we see,” but the label itself eludes any agreed upon definition and is almost exclusively used to subjectively demonize and delegitimize. The vagueness of the term “terrorist” and phrase “threat to national security” allows the government a lot of wiggle-room when it wants to use the sprawling counter-terrorism apparatus to target self-and-dictionary-defined whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Similarly, it has been well documented by the Center for Media and Democracy that Homeland Security, often through the facilities of local and regional intelligence “fusion centers,” worked in concert with banks to spy on Occupy protesters calling for economic equality, greater representation, and the most threatening of all terrorist demands: transparency in our democratic process. (I recommend this summary of the government’s Occupy surveillance program.)

President Barack Obama seems committed to rolling back the barefaced global elements of the “War on Terror,” but my worry is this will only quicken the assembly of the shadowy and unaccountable domestic security apparatus. I only learned about the existence of the “fusion centers” when, as I was driving in a homeland-security-reinforced downtown Boston the week of the Marathon bombing, I was handed a piece of paper with grainy images of the Tsarnaev brothers under a banner header that read “Boston Regional Intelligence Center,” our local fusion center. When a Senate committee studied these intelligence centers, it found that:

“Fusion centers forwarded ‘intelligence’ of uneven quality —oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”

In addition to the glaring and unaccountable violation of rights -and I’m not even attempting to address the monetary cost associated- the committee also stated that in the 13 months that it studied the 70+ fusion centers nationwide, it “could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”  

The issue at hand is the sprawl of a security state with a declared mandate too narrow to justify its own colossal existence. Evidence suggests that the FBI is essentially encouraging would-be terrorists, simply to arrest them. This seems like a gross misuse of resources in a country that has no shortage of addressable problems to tackle. To me, there’s little difference between the threat posed by a lunatic who bombs a marathon finish line and the threat posed by a lunatic who shoots children in an elementary school, except that one justifies the establishment of an ubiquitous security apparatus unprecedented in size and scope. And in an effort to prevent the undetectable, Americans are accepting the erosion of rights inherent in such a security state, while being afforded none of the benefits.