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Government Spies on Americans

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Most Americans seem detached from the U.S. governments military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. U.S. forces not only engage in wanton killing and harsh treatment of prisoners, but also surveillance and other intelligence activities that might appall the American people if they were used at home.

Well, guess what: Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America7 writes the Washington Post in its continuing series, Top Secret America.

The Post reports:

Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.

The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nations history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The governments goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States.

Sad to say, this article has gotten little attention. Is it a matter of so little importance? Governments at all levels are united in a campaign to spy on Americans, gathering, analyzing, and storing data without probable cause and hardly anyone seems to care.

Have Americans become so docile that they roll over for anything rationalized as necessary in the war on terror? If so, they have abandoned one of greatest virtues of early generations: suspicion of power. They might as well stop talking about liberty and individualism because it just a lot of empty words now.

The Post reports, The FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously. It is accessible to an increasing number of local law enforcement and military criminal investigators, increasing concerns that it could somehow end up in the public domain. (Emphasis added.)

That sounds too much like what goes on under totalitarian regimes, in which the government keeps tabs on the population, encouraging everyone to spy on everyone else and provide tips on suspicious activity. How many people will end up in the database because someone who dislikes them reported them to the authorities? The Homeland Security Departments See Something, Say Something campaign is truly frightening. Do we want to be a nation of informants?

Don’t think this has anything to do with terrorism. The high volume of information flowing into the governments computers will actually render law-enforcement agencies less able to detect real threats. Indiscriminate gathering of data makes us less, not more, safe.

We shouldnt be so naive as to think these new data-gathering powers wont be used even when the authorities know there is no threat. The Post says that state reports have sometimes inappropriately reported on lawful meetings. That should surprise no one. Give government the power to spy on bad guys, and it will spy on anyone it feels like. Betting against that is like betting the sun wont come up tomorrow.

Of course, government officials say only real threats are the target of surveillance. Notice that the war party was wrong when it said that fighting them over there would mean we wont have to fight them over here. In fact, fighting over there is what brought the threat here. But now were told that home-grown terrorism is the new big danger. There is much reason for skepticism: The alleged plots exposed by the FBI seem to have been hatched by the FBI’s own informants. If the FBI has to furnish a suspect with phony explosives before arresting him, what threat was really involved? Such cases should sicken every American. Government agents should not be giving security tests to individuals and arresting them if they fail.

But apparently in this age of the war on terror anything goes. Does anybody care?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.