The other day I was talking on the phone to one of my ecoterrorist friends, discussing our elaborate plot to violently overthrow the United States's government—where the weapons caches are hidden, the locations of our secret training camps, the details of our impending attack on the Capitol under the guise of a peaceful immigration march.
You know, boring, logistical stuff like that.
Of course, we were only joking—or so we felt compelled to remind any folks from the National Security Agency (NSA) who might be listening in.
It was funny.
In a nervous-laughter kinda way.
Sure, it's a touch paranoid to imagine federal agents tapping one's telephone—and more than a little bit narcissistic. But with daily revelations exposing the true scope of the Bush/Cheney administration's massive domestic spying programs, I wager I'm not the first American to self-consciously quip about the occasional snap, crackle, or pop on the phone line.
Weeks ago we learned that under executive order, the NSA is wiretapping domestic phone calls without obtaining the necessary warrants, a violation of both the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The president and his men were totally unapologetic—they were only looking at calls made to foreign countries, not domestic calls... or so we were told. Then last week we learned that the NSA is collecting records on nearly every domestic phone call made inside the United States—they're recording whom you call, when you call, how often you call, and how long you stay on the phone—a mind-bogglingly massive database that would enable the feds to... say... analyze a reporter's phone records to track down and prosecute the sources who leak information about the NSA's illegal activities.
Guess what? This week we discovered that they're doing just that. ABC News reports its correspondents have been warned by a federal source that the government knows whom they're calling.
"It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration," a senior federal official told ABC.
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Apart from an anticipated economic boon to the DC-area pay-telephone industry, the Bush/Cheney administration's penchant for warrantless, domestic spying has dangerous implications for the personal security of all Americans—that is, assuming your definition of "security" extends beyond tightly controlled borders and unfettered access to Middle Eastern oil. At risk are some of our most basic rights and liberties: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures—and the freedom to privately joke about violently overthrowing the United States's government. (Not an enumerated right, but one I cherish nonetheless.)
The threat to a free press is most obvious, for the administration's willy-nilly access to private phone records is already being used to undermine journalists' ability to protect their confidential sources. Having snipped the investigative balls off the Republican-controlled Congress, the Bushies are intent on neutering the media. The Washington press corps, long lacking in the cajones department, is now a scalpel slice away from singing mezzo-soprano castrato.
Who else might the NSA and other shadowy spy agencies be targeting? Environmentalists, animal rights activists, liberal bloggers like me—anyone this administration deems to be a national security threat can now be spied on without accountability, without prior court approval, and without the subject's knowledge. No Freedom of Information Act request can shake loose the details gathered under a "National Security Letter," an administrative subpoena created under a new provision of the USA Patriot Act, that also forbids companies from divulging to customers when their private records are handed over to the government.
The president's willingness to evade our constitutional right to privacy is frightening and infuriating—and so is the complicity of the telephone companies in helping him do it. All of our nation's largest phone companies handed over their customers' private records without question, with the exception of our local provider, Qwest Communications, which has earned praise as the lone holdout.
A faceless, monopolistic monolith like Qwest transformed into a privacy-rights hero? How fucked up is that? That is the low bar set by this arrogant, overreaching administration and its collaborators in corporatist America. U.S. citizens can now be spied on without warrants, investigated without their knowledge, and held without charge, while so-called "enemy combatants" are shipped off to Gitmo or secret torture camps in Eastern Europe, far from the reach of habeas corpus and the Geneva Convention.
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Bush, we are told, is a wartime president, fighting "The Long War," a war with no end in sight, one that has conferred unprecedented wartime powers on the president. His administration's only tool of trade is fear.
After 9/11 they exploited fear of the terrorist enemy, but increasingly it is fear of the administration itself that Bush is using to keep his critics in line. For now we all know that every phone call—and every e-mail, every credit card purchase, every library transaction, every Google search—could end up in the hands of government officials to do with as they please.
One is tempted to describe this Bush/Cheney vision of post-9/11 America as Orwellian, or even Kafkaesque. But that confers an unearned literary dignity on the Bush/Cheney regime. No, there is a simpler word to describe this administration and the system of government it seeks to impose on the American people.
Yeah, I know: dropping the F-bomb is the quickest path toward being relegated to the political fringe, but this administration meets the definition in nearly all its elements, and it is time people started naming it for what it is.
Centralized authority, corporatism, belligerent nationalism, and the suppression of the opposition through propaganda, censorship—even terror—all of these are recognized traits of the Bush/Cheney White House, and all of these fit the classic definition of fascism. The national GOP's single-minded effort to create a one-party state, and the religious right's fanatical drive to impose moral purity on the nation—these too are fascistic. Self-anointed militias ("minutemen") patrol our borders while Ann Coulter preaches vigilante justice by asking "Where are the skinheads when you need them?" Yeah, where would any fascistic leader be without his Brown Shirts on the streets?
Let me state this clearly: I'm not calling them Nazis or comparing anybody to Hitler; that sort of comparative bullshit is just a red herring. But it cannot be denied that Bush and Cheney and the rest of the Republican leadership are marching this nation down a road that leads toward fascism, whether they themselves understand it or not.
So how do we respond to an administration that seems intent on delving into the most personal aspects of our private lives, without warrant and without probable cause? Well, I don't know about you, but I'm planning to violently overthrow the United States government.
Or at least I'm planning on joking about violently overthrowing the United States government—in my e-mails, on my blog, on my podcast, and especially, in my telephone conversations. Imagine, if only a couple hundred thousand of my fellow Americans joined me in occasionally planting provocative but intentionally misleading information in their electronic communications. How might that fuck up our government's efforts to broadly monitor its citizenry?
Who knows? But it might force the NSA to abandon its domestic spying, and focus on our real enemies. Or, hey, maybe not. But knowing that hundreds of thousands of other people are telling the same jokes will make me feel better—you know, just in case the feds are listening in.
David Goldstein writes daily at HorsesAss.org, a Seattle-based political blog.