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Surveillance State: Government Snooping, Prying, and Informing Worse Than You Think

Tainted character, ruined trust and the disruption of democratic politics are the great achievements of state surveillance.

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Fusion centers are largely products of the war on terror, a result of the massive waves of federal “security” counterterrorism funding that flowed nationwide in the wake of 9/11. More than 70 such centers now exist around the country, serving to gather “intelligence” from private and law-enforcement sources and state and federal agencies. This information is stored for future use as well as distributed to local police, state police, private corporations, and various public agencies.

In the case of the Pittsburgh G-20 summit surveillance, Pennsylvania’s fusion center passed its information on protests and protest groups along to other local and federal law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and the U.S. military. (An instance of this probably resulted in the arrest of Elliott Madison, a self-described anarchist who was supposedly distributing information to demonstrators via Twitter, an activity applauded by U.S. authorities when utilized by Iranian dissidents, but apparently frowned upon when employed stateside.)

The specter of bombs, vandalism, disruption, violence, and anarchy infused these reports and hundreds of arrests were made during largely peaceful protests. Civil rights suits have, not surprisingly, followed in the aftermath of the summit.

Names, Names, and More Names

Here is the continuum at work. A group is singled out by an intelligence report -- a Quaker “cell” opposed to the wars in the Middle East, for instance, or opponents of Marcellus Shale drilling, or those who disagree with G-20 policies. Once the group is identified, federal agencies and state and local police move to insert informers in it and/or aggressively investigate it. Such surveillance, whether done by informers or by agents picking through trash bags, generates names. Names go into databases and are networked nationwide.  Databases grow.

Michael Perelman, one of the principals in the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research, defended his group’s work by arguing that even peaceful protests have security implications and that the institute did not track individuals. This is disingenuous. The institute and the state fusion center, officially known as the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, may work in parallel worlds, but their methods mirror each other. The state fusion center, run by the state police, provides access to law enforcement nationwide. Names of groups and members of groups are its stock in trade, the meat of all surveillance.  In the same way, the state Homeland Security Office distributed the institute's reports to hundreds of agencies and private companies.  

The tracking of legitimate political groups and people engaged in lawful political activity is, of course, a fundamental corruption of American democracy. Consider what happened in Oakland at the onset of the Iraq war. A peaceful protest at the Oakland port was met by police who opened fire on fleeing demonstrators and bystanders alike, shooting wooden bullets and tear gas canisters. In my book, Mohamed’s Ghosts, I report that police had been alerted to potential violence by the California Anti-Terrorism Training Center, a state fusion center tracking political groups -- exactly the same thing done by the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research. About 60 people were injured, including 11 longshoremen, and 25 protestors were arrested. This event was justified by the fusion center’s spokesman who claimed that a protest of a war waged against “international terrorism” is itself “a terrorist act.”

But the story didn’t end there. A month after the initial 2003 protest, demonstrators, led by Direct Action to Stop the War among other groups, held another Oakland protest to denounce the earlier police violence. Leaders of that protest, it turned out, were undercover Oakland police operatives who directed the protest’s planning. Deputy Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan shrugged it all off, saying it was important for his department “to gather the information and maybe even direct [protestors] to do something that we wanted them to do.”

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