John Whitehead's Commentary
Farewell to Big Sister: Janet Napolitano’s Orwellian Legacy Lives On
News headlines to the contrary, there is actually more taking place right now than just the Obama administration’s conveniently distracting push for military action against Syria.
We’re still having our privacy rights ravaged by the surveillance state. The latest revelations confirm long-standing fears that there is nothing private from the government, which has used a variety of covert, unconstitutional tactics to gain access to Americans’ personal data, online purchases and banking, medical records, and online communications. The government’s methods include the use of supercomputers to hack through privacy settings, collaborations with corporations to create “back doors” for NSA access into encrypted files, and the use of strong-arm tactics against those technology and internet companies who refuse to cooperate.
We’re still being taken to the cleaners by a fiscally irresponsible and semi-corrupt government. Not only does Congress continue to spend money we don’t have on pork-barrel projects, but we’re writing welfare checks to regimes in the Middle East, sending billions of dollars in “foreign aid” to Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt, among others. That aid usually takes the form of military aid (money for weapons, aircraft, and other military hardware from U.S. companies, as well as training at U.S. military schools) and economic aid. Earlier this year, President Obama approved a foreign aid package that translates to more than $11 million per day in military aid for Israel. As if that didn’t burden taxpayers enough, you can add a $4 million and counting printing error to the tab as a result of problems with the new $100 bill (the first batch had blank spots, the second batch was stolen by thieves, and this latest batch had too much ink).
And we’re still being terrorized by an out-of-control police state. Daily, there are new headlines about SWAT teams breaking down doors and militarized police shooting unarmed citizens. A 107-year-old Arkansas man is dead after a “shootout” with a SWAT team. Then there was the 16-year-old teenager who skipped school only to be shot by police after they mistook him for a fleeing burglar. Or the July 26 shooting of an unarmed black man in Austin “who was pursued and shot in the back of the neck by Austin Police… after failing to properly identify himself and leaving the scene of an unrelated incident.” Or the 19-year-old Seattle woman who was accidentally shot in the leg by police after she refused to show her hands.
And then there’s the news about Friday, September 6, 2013, being Janet Napolitano’s last day as head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) before she starts her new job as head of the University of California school system. The student government of UC Berkley is actually considering a “no confidence” vote in Napolitano’s role as president. As one of the student representatives behind the “no confidence” vote effort noted, Napolitano “comes from a background of surveillance and apprehension and security.”
Indeed, under Napolitano’s leadership, the DHS managed to entrench the federal government’s power in an increasingly Orwellian America at great cost to Americans’ civil liberties. Her replacement has yet to be named, although it has been suggested that New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, an even more egregious offender of civil liberties, could be tapped to replace her.
Lest we forget, the following are some of Napolitano’s “greatest hits” when it comes to civil liberties violations. They are explored in greater depth in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State.
If You See Something, Say Something: In December 2010, Napolitano created a partnership between DHS and America’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, in order to encourage shoppers to report “suspicious” activity to store management. Likening the initiative to “the Cold War fight against communists,” Napolitano recorded a video message to be played at hundreds of Wal-Mart locations across the country, telling shoppers “if you see something, say something.” This blatantly Orwellian citizen spying program also spread to other outlets including “Mall of America, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Amtrak, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, [and] sports and general aviation industries.”
Constitution-Free Border Control: Arguments aside over the need to control illegal immigration, the American border has become a model for the emerging American police state due in large part to the DHS. Under Napolitano’s direction, the government’s efforts along the border have become little more than an exercise in police state power, ranging from aggressive checkpoints to the widespread use of drone technology, often used against American citizens traveling within the country. Border patrol operations occur within 100 miles of an international crossing, putting some 200 million Americans within the bounds of aggressive border patrol searches and seizures, as well as increasingly expansive drone surveillance.
With 71 checkpoints found along the southwest border of the United States alone, suspicionless search and seizures on the border are rampant. According to the ACLU: “Between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, over 6,500 people — nearly 3,000 of them U.S. citizens — were subjected to a search of their electronic devices as they crossed U.S. borders. DHS claims it has the right to conduct these invasive searches whenever it likes, to whomever it likes, and without having any individualized suspicion.”
Drones: Napolitano has already pushed for the expansion of drone surveillance from border zones to the interior of the United States. Drone surveillance has expanded on the American-Canadian border in recent years, including drones patrolling the 950 miles of Washington state’s north border. A 2010 document signed by Napolitano and obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation via a Freedom of Information Act request shows that DHS has begun developing plans to mount so-called “non-lethal weapons” on drones operated by Customs and Border Protection. According to the document, the weapons would be used against “targets of interest,” described as people or vehicles carrying smugglers or undocumented immigrants.
Fusion Centers: While fusion centers—data collecting agencies spread throughout the country, aided by the National Security Agency (NSA)—were in operation prior to Napolitano’s ascension to the head of DHS, she doubled down on the program early on in her tenure, insisting “that Fusion Centers will be the centerpiece of state, local, federal intelligence-sharing for the future and that the Department of Homeland Security will be working and aiming its programs to underlie Fusion Centers.” These fusion centers constantly monitor our communications, everything from our internet activity and web searches to text messages, phone calls and emails. This data is then fed to government agencies, which are now interconnected—the CIA to the FBI, the FBI to local police—a relationship which will make a transition to martial law that much easier. As of 2009, the government admitted to having at least 72 fusion centers. A map released by the ACLU indicates that every state except Idaho has a fusion center in operation or formation.
Spying on Activists, Dissidents and Veterans: In 2009, DHS released three infamous reports on Rightwing and Leftwing “Extremism,” and another entitled Operation Vigilant Eagle, outling a surveillance program targeting veterans. The reports collectively and broadly define extremists as individuals and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.” Napolitano curtly dismissed concerns by activists, journalists and veterans groups that the DHS was targeting people based upon their ideological beliefs. Fast forward to 2013, when it was revealed that DHS, the FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies, and the private sector were working together to conduct nationwide surveillance on protesters’ First Amendment activities.
Stockpiling Ammunition: To add fuel to the fire, DHS has been stockpiling an alarming amount of ammunition in recent years, which only adds to the discomfort of those already leery of the government. According to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, DHS currently has 260 million rounds of ammo in stock, which averages out to between 1,300 to 1,600 rounds per officer. The US Army, meanwhile, has roughly 350 rounds per soldier.
TSA: Under the direction of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which falls under DHS authority, American travelers have been subjected to all manner of searches ranging from whole-body scanners and enhanced patdowns at airports to bag searches in train stations. Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) task forces, comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosive detection canine teams laid the groundwork for the government’s effort to secure so-called “soft” targets such as malls, stadiums, bridges, etc. Some security experts predict that checkpoints and screening stations will eventually be established at all soft targets, such as department stores, restaurants, and schools. Given the virtually limitless number of potential soft targets vulnerable to terrorist attack, subjection to intrusive pat-downs and full-body imaging will become an integral component of everyday life in the United States.
Defending the NSA: In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the immensity of the NSA’s spying programs, Napolitano has defended the NSA’s actions. Insisting that there are “lots of protections built into the system,” Napolitano remarked, “I think people have gotten the idea that there’s an Orwellian state out there that somehow we’re operating in. That’s far from the case… No one should believe that we are simply going willy-nilly and using any kind of data that we can gather.”
The reality, of course, is that we are indeed living in an Orwellian state engineered in no small part by Big Sister herself.