Human Rights

Exposed: How a Lot of the Libertarian Outrage Over Govt. Spying Is Just Shilling for the Private Surveillance Biz

Shedding light on what's really behind conservative criticism of government surveillance.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL) has recently been a critic of government spying and what he views as a state that is violating Americans’ liberties. He voted for the Rep. Justin Amash (D-MI) amendment to rein in NSA powers; he has also made hay of reports that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)  targeted some tea party groups for audits, saying that “we need to look” at restructuring the entire agency and “getting rid of those bureaucrats (the agency actually audited a variety of organizations across the political spectrum).

But while Mica has been posing as a champion of civil liberties, he has been sneaking through his own agenda: the expansion of private contractors. The congressman has long been calling for privatizing the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), claiming that it is inefficient and violates American rights. “I think we could use half the personnel and streamline the system,” said Mica, expressing similar sentiments to his campaign against the IRS (which he actually wants to eliminate altogether by implementing a national sales tax instead).

Mica is less upfront about the fact that Covenant, a private security contractor, is based in his home district. The company has airport screening contracts in a number of airports around America, supplanting the TSA at small airports in locations like Tulepo, Mississippi. One of its executives, Gerald Berry, is also a large donor to Mica. The company has upped it lobbying, hiring from a firm that actually employs an ex-employee of the Department of Homeland Security as its advocate. Mica recently gained an ally in the TSA privatization fight by the Koch-funded Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). And Robert Poole of the Koch-funded Reason Foundation argued to 'get the government out of airport screening.' 

Sticking to the topic of the TSA, journalists Mark Ames and Yasha Levine pointed out in 2010 how, while hysteria about the agency’s pat downs of travelers rose, so did campaigns by Washington lobbyists funded by the Koch brothers. Individuals tied to the Koch-funded Students for Liberty, Cato Institute, and Institute for Humane Studies were all involved in the pushback, which naturally led to calls for privatization like those made by Mica.

Mica is one example of a supposedly liberty-minded right-winger who attacks government intrusions on citizens’ rights but then advocates for empowering private corporations to do similar. Another example is PayPal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel proudly calls himself a “libertarian,” writing on the Cato Institute’s website that he has focused his “efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom.” Indeed, Thiel dedicated millions of dollars to backing Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, which served to personify ideas of right-wing libertarianism for a generation of Americans.

But as Ames has also pointed out, Thiel also founded defense contractor Palantir Technologies, which has done work for the Central Intelligency Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and other government agencies that are anything but libertarian. Palantir also pitched a plan to the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobby to conduct sabotage against progressive organizations.

By allowing his company to profit off of government contracts while also purporting to be a libertarian, Thiel shares a lot with Jeff Bezos – Amazon.com founder and incoming owner of the Washington Post.

Bezos has funded libertarian-style campaigns for marriage equality and against tax increases, but he has also allowed Amazon to become a major contractor for the CIA. Like Thiel, the power of government overreach is only a threat to liberty until he finds a way to profit from it by utilizing his company as a contractor.

In August, conservative activist Seton Motley authored a column in USA Today blasting National Security Agency (NSA) abuses. Motley not unreasonably noted that the NSA programs revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden could’ve amounted to an “incredible violation” of the Fourth Amendment, and that they involve “thousands of government officials…searching the content of our phone calls, Web histories, emails, text messages, instant messages and video chats – without Warrants.”

These are all fair points, but Motley’s solution is not to simply restrict the government’s ability to spy on Americans. Instead, he calls for us to “outsource the first line of defense.” He says that instead of “forcing communications companies to turn over [personal] data [of Americans] – why not pay them to store and search it?” He says that there “is no Fourth Amendment violation until the government seizes it – this preempts that. These companies already have it, so the government wouldn’t have to do something to get it like tap directly into servers.”

Essentially, his argument boils down to: don’t trust the federal government from directly searching your personal data – let AT&T and Verizon do it instead!

Motley isn’t just a grassroots conservative activist. He is the president of an advocacy organization called Less Government, based in Alexandria, Virginia and is also a Policy Expert with the Heartland Institute. In leaked documents, it was revealed that The Heartland Institute took $285,000 from the telecommunications industry in the short span between 2010 and 2011, while at the same time advocating against net neutrality. Net neutrality, guarantees a level playing field with a free and open internet where providers can’t discriminate between different kinds of content. Groups as diverse as MoveOn.org and the Christian Coalition of America have fought for net neutrality.

Motley himself has been all over the media blasting net neutrality, sticking up for the rights of telecom companies to discriminate on the web and block certain forms of information. By writing the NSA column, Motley apparently wants to empower these same companies even more. Although his organization Less Government does not disclose its donors, it is not a stretch to say that these same telecommunications companies may very well be donors to it.

From Congress to activists to billionaire political donors, these supposedly liberty-minded thinkers seem to draw the line at government overreach, but are ready to endorse similar abuses if done by the private sector – and it helps when these abuses are making them money or keep their positions of power.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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