When the National Governor's Association convenes in Boston today, freedom-loving governors of all political stripes have one issue around which they all should agree, namely, the need to stop unchecked government spying on ordinary Americans.
The Governors can do this during a scheduled session on so-called "fusion centers." These are massive government data-hubs, funded by the federal government and housed in local police departments, which are designed to facilitate the gathering and sharing of information on people -- ostensibly to stop terrorism.
If only it were that simple. At last count, the 72 federally-funded fusion centers around the country (including two in Massachusetts) seem to focus less on catching terrorists and more on tracking people engaged in such "suspicious" activities as opposing abortion, supporting third-party candidates (such as Ron Paul, Bob Barr, and Cynthia McKinney), defending the environment, and calling for an end to war.
To make matters worse, these "fusion centers" are funded by federal Homeland Security tax dollars but operated by local cops -- a classic case of "Little Brother" doing the watching on behalf of Big Brother.
States also are left to decide what -- if any -- independent oversight is put in place to protect individuals against unwarranted government intrusion into our private lives. Like most states, Massachusetts has yet to adopt fusion center oversight legislation (a good bill died in the Public Safety committee this session).
Of course, government surveillance is not a new threat to democracy. What is new is thecombination of 21st Century technology and the post-9/11 zeal for anything that carries the label "homeland security."
Meanwhile, reports of domestic government surveillance of protected First Amendment Activity pile up from around the nation.
Here are just a few of the many examples of recent government surveillance of protected First Amendment Activity:
A May 7, 2008 report prepared for the Department of Homeland Security entitled "Universal Adversary Dynamic Threat Assessment" labeled environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Humane Society and the Audubon Society as "mainstream organizations with known or possible links to eco-terrorism." Yikes! Has anyone mentioned this to the nice people over at Drumlin Farms?
In Maryland, staffers at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, whose work focuses on "clean energy" technologies, were surprised to find themselves incorrectly included on a "suspected terrorist" list at their local fusion center. The Maryland State Police reportedly used undercover officers to infiltrate and spy on the Climate Action Network, as well as non-violent peace activists, anti-death penalty groups, and members of Amnesty International. Identifying information, as well as blatantly incorrect information, about these activists was entered into the local fusion center and other government databases,with labels such as "Terrorism - anti-government," according to documents obtained through an ACLU public records request.
In California, animal rights rallies, environmental demonstrations, anti-war protests, student protests against military recruiting on campus, labor union organizing, and demonstrations against police brutality have all found their way into government databasesat the California Anti-Terrorism Center, the California Office of Homeland Security and the LA County Terrorist Early Warning Center (LACTEW).
Domestic spying on Americans also targets conservatives and libertarians. In Missouri, a report on the "modern militia movement" was leaked from the Missouri Information Analysis Center, the state’s fusion center. It stated that militia members are "usually supporters" of presidential candidates Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin and Bob Barr, and instructed the Missouri police to be on the look out for people displaying bumper stickers and paraphernalia associated with the Constitutional, Campaign for Liberty, and Libertarian parties.
Supporters of third-party candidates also were the focus of the Texas fusion center, where a "Prevention Awareness Bulletin" leaked from a state fusion center flagged former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark for surveillance, as well as groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, ANSWER and the International Action Center.
In Virginia, meanwhile, a document leaked from the Virginia Fusion Center cited various historically Black colleges and universities that were seen as potential "radicalization nodes" for terrorists. The Nation of Islam, New Black Panther Party and Earth First! are among the33 groups listed as potential terrorist threats.
Sometimes, local surveillance seems downright silly. In New York, the Department of Defense (DOD) conducted surveillance on protests planned by the War Resisters League near New York City recruiting stations. Documents from the DOD Talon database warned that the League was advocating "Gandhian nonviolence" with protests that included a "church service for peace" and a "vigil with coffins."
In Georgia, vegetarian activists were targeted for surveillance, according to fusion center documents obtained by the ACLU. Caitlin Childs, a vegetarian activist, was arrested after a peaceful protest outside the Honey Baked Ham store in Dekalb County for writing down the license plate number of the car belonging to a federal agent who had been photographing the day-long demonstration.
Here in Massachusetts, a scathing audit released by the Massachusetts state Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci, found that police from communities across the state have repeatedly tapped into the state's criminal records system to improperly access information on celebrities and high-profile citizens, such as actor Matt Damon, singer James Taylor and football star Tom Brady. The year-long review depicted a system accessed by users "without any apparent work-related justification." You have to admit, those famous folks really are fun to watch -- even if they're not terrorists!
If government spying targets activists of all political stripes, then Americans of all political stripes have common ground to speak out against fusion centers and domestic surveillance. Both the ACLU and the Tea Party have come out in opposition to fusion centers after multiple instances of government surveillance of protected political activity.
So have a few idealists:
"I am one of thousands of young people in this country who have dedicated their lives to protecting our environment," said Josh Tolkin, former field director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who was wrongly labeled a "potential domestic terrorist" while he was organizing a coalition of doctors and nurses to focus on the impact of air pollution on pregnant women.
Let's hope our leaders are listening.