Big Brother’s been watching
Reno activists say domestic spying isn’t merely about catching Al Qaeda
During a well-attended anti-war event two years ago in front of the Thompson Federal Building, Reno activists recall seeing police armed with cameras.
“Across the street, the parking garage … was packed with uniform and non-uniformed cops taking pictures of everyone,” said Bob Tregilus, acting chair of the Nevada Coalition to Defeat the Patriot Act. “What happened to all those photos?”
Another Nevada activist, who asked to be unnamed, reported being recruited by the FBI to infiltrate an anti-war group in Las Vegas.
“I was called up and [an agent] met me at a Starbucks,” the activist said. “He offered money as an incentive, if information led to an arrest. I flat out said, ‘No way, not going to happen.’ ”
While the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution may guarantee the right to freely assemble, activists are outraged over the federal and local government’s spying on U.S. citizens who exercise this right.
“It’s bullshit that we’re letting our constitutional rights being thrown out the door over this,” Tregilus said. “Three thousand people died [on September 11], and it was horrific. We need to put in place plans to prevent it from happening again—not destroy democracy and reduce the transparency of government. That’s more dangerous.”
The Bush administration has used the World Trade Center terrorist acts as a justification for its domestic spying programs.
“If somebody from Al Qaeda is calling you, we’d like to know why,” Bush said to an audience of wounded soldiers on New Year’s Day. “We’re at war with a bunch of cold-blooded killers.”
But as Nevada activists have realized, domestic spying extends beyond those connected to international terrorist groups—unless you include as “terrorist groups” Quakers, animal rights activists and members of Nevada peace groups.
“What does surprise me is that it’s taken this long for this to come to the front,” said Lisa Stiller of the Reno Anti-War Coalition.
The knowledge that communications aren’t private—and that their group might be infiltrated by undercover agents—hasn’t caused RAWC to alter any of its legal, constitutional activities, Stiller said.
“It’s in the back of our minds but doesn’t change how we do business,” Stiller said. “It’s something we can’t control, and if we let the facts of what might happen impact us, then we’re letting them win.”
Two years ago, the RN&R reported surveillance efforts related to a protest planned in Las Vegas (“Liberty,” RN&R News, Dec. 4, 2003). An anonymous individual who, when asked, claimed to be an employee of the Department of Homeland Security, called event organizer Peggy Maze Johnson of Citizen Alert. Johnson was drilled with questions about the event and its participants.
At roughly the same time, a newly born Defense Department’s Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) agency had begun collecting Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) reports.
Last month, NBC News obtained a secret 400-page Defense Department report detailing “suspicious” incidents like stolen vehicles, bomb threats and—anti-war protests. Protests planned in Sacramento, Berkeley and Santa Cruz were investigated in advance and deemed “threats” by the military, along with 1,500 other such events across the nation in a 10-month period. (No Nevada protests were listed on an eight-page document made public by NBC.)
Anti-war activists aren’t the only scary radicals worthy of spy action.
On Dec. 22, the New York Times reported that a Critical Mass bike ride in New York City had been infiltrated by undercover officers. And recently revealed Federal Bureau of Investigation documents show intelligence-gathering efforts directed toward environment groups, animal rights activists and religious organizations involved in poverty relief.
Tregilus likened the current surveillance climate to the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), in place from 1956 to 1971.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, the Communist was the boogey man under every rock,” Tregilus said. “Now terrorists are the boogey men under every rock.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against eavesdropping devices and private property intrusion in 1967. In 1970, federal files kept on more than 100,000 U.S. citizens—members of anti-Vietnam War groups and other political “dissidents”—were the subject of a congressional investigation.
Tighter limits on domestic spying were enacted. But in 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Security Act created a court that issued warrants for surveillance at the drop of a hat. A provision of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 opened the door for the FISA court to approve domestic surveillance of suspicious individuals not connected to a foreign power.
“It’s like a rubber stamp,” Tregilus said. “They say, ‘We think Bob Tregilus might be doing something subversive.’ They get the stamp and go out and wiretap me.”
A further irritant to privacy, the National Security Agency’s global surveillance tool Echelon, maintains listening stations where communications from around the world are intercepted and sent to NSA headquarters in Maryland. There, transmissions are electronically sorted, data-mined for key phrases and, possibly, for known voices.
Echelon’s power frightens those who fear its misuse. Europeans have accused the United States of using Echelon to engage in corporate espionage, helping large U.S. companies win lucrative contracts. Some U.S. politicians have feared that the system may be used to gain political advantages for opponents.
It’s not the interception of his communications that most troubles Tregilus.
“What bothers me is not so much that … people could be listening,” he said. “It’s that my taxpayer money is being used to surveil me and that this information could be being used, by cutting and pulling out parts, to fabricate [a case] against me.”
Privacy issues aside, efforts to catch baddies through electronic surveillance may prove futile.
“We know that things like that are happening,” said Bruce Robertson, president and CEO of Great Basin Internet Services in Reno. “And I think it’s a waste of time for the government to do it. It’s not going to solve anything. The people they’re trying to catch will use different kinds of encryption.”
Robertson said he’s never been asked by the government to do a wiretap on any of Great Basin’s customers. If he were asked, he’d have to comply, he said.
He said a GBIS customer once sent an allegedly threatening e-mail to President Bush.
“The Secret Service was here the next morning,” Robertson said. “They didn’t waste any time.”
Thomas Hoops, president and CEO of Sparks-based Technology Associates, has a mixed reaction to domestic spying.
“Do I like it? No. Do I think it’s necessary? I suppose if you’re going to stir the world’s shit as much as we do, then being proactive as opposed to reactive might be prudent.”
But as a Libertarian, Hoops expressed concern over giving this kind of power to the government.
“It gives me a sickening feeling, like my kids are in the face of mortal danger and I’ve trusted their lives to a war-time hero who also happens to be a child molester,” he said. “He may save their lives, but what else will he do?”