Jules Boykoff The Capital Times Madison, WI, 1/21/09

While the country’s economic infrastructure gyrates, the infrastructure to squelch political dissent quietly thrives after years of post-9/11 behind-the-scenes buttressing.

The Bush administration will long be remembered for placing the country on war footing abroad, but it should also be remembered for liberating the forces of political suppression at home.

President Obama has a historic opportunity to right this lurching ship.
In October 2007 during a Democratic debate in Philadelphia, Obama spoke of the “politics of fear” that was “undermining basic civil liberties in this country” and “our reputation around the world.”

Now he must swerve sharply from this “politics of fear” and repression, reinstalling respect for civil liberties and the rule of law. This would undoubtedly improve “our reputation around the world.”

This is no small task, even for a constitutional scholar like Obama. Not only did Bush and company jump-start high-profile measures like the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, but they also fashioned an astonishing assortment of clandestine databases to collect and store information about potential terrorists.

All too often, activists carrying out above-board political activity were sucked into these databases’ wide-swirling vortex and labeled “terrorists.”

This misguided mentality has led to a trickle-down theory that actually works: trickle-down political suppression that starts at the federal level and drops scale to inform the practices of state and local law enforcement officials.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Maryland, where the most recent revelation du jour is that state police dubbed bicycle advocates seeking additional bike lanes “terrorists” and branded the DC Anti-War Network a white supremacist group. If the officials responsible for these shenanigans ever get the pink slips they deserve, they could always start penning scripts for Stephen Colbert.

The U.S. intelligence budget in fiscal year 2008 was a whopping $47.5 billion, and this doesn’t include at least $10 billion spent on the Military Intelligence Program. Compare this to 1997 when the U.S. spent $26.6 billion on intelligence.

A significant swathe of this spending has gone toward surveillance: the gateway drug on the road to full-blown addiction to political suppression.

By mid-2005, the FBI had collected reams of surveillance-garnered data on anti-war groups like United for Peace and Justice. It also compiled a 1,200-page file on the ACLU and one twice that size on the environmental group Greenpeace.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s electronic eye also zeroed in on domestic activists. The Defense Department spied on protesters in the U.S. and compiled files in its “TALON” (Threat and Local Observation Notice) database, labeling protests like a March 2005 “Stop the War Now” rally in Akron, Ohio, as “potential terrorist activity.” The database included at least 1,500 “suspicious incidents” and kept these dodgy episodes in their files long after it was clear they weren’t a threat.

In December 2005, we learned the National Security Agency — in a massive dataveillance operation that would slacken George Orwell’s jaw — was not only monitoring phone calls without a warrant but was also covertly compiling tens of millions of domestic phone records into a national call database.

Last summer’s national party conventions continued the furtive zeitgeist, with Denver, the host city for the DNC, receiving a hefty $50 million federal grant to install a high-tech surveillance system and stockpile stashes of so-called non-lethal weapons.

What’s often overlooked is that this infrastructure of suppression remains in place long after the protesters vamoose.

Databases are the breeding ground for the conflation of terrorism and political activism. Early on, Obama and his intelligence czar, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, need to reign in the database-o-rama.

We’re plagued by a dizzying array of databases, from the Transportation Security Administration’s “No Fly List” list (which included Bolivian President Evo Morales and the common name “Robert Johnson”) to the Maryland State Police’s “terrorist” list (which included peaceful anti-war activists, death penalty opponents, and pacifist Catholic nuns). There’s little cross-check-ability from list to list and it’s virtually impossible to get your name scrubbed, if you’re even fortunate enough to learn your name was included in the first place. Obama should set up a task force to unsnarl the database tangle and set up a transparent system whereby citizens can challenge their erroneous inclusion on terrorist watch lists.

Doing this would set the tone for civil-rights reform and gain momentum for the challenges ahead — like recalibrating the NSA — that will necessitate unswerving determination and dexterous Beltway tight-roping.

Political dissent may have gotten a bad rap under the Bush administration, but it’s actually the mark of a healthy society, a crucial cog in the complex machine of democracy.

Certainly Obama needs to keep tabs on the ever-unfolding economic crisis. But a quieter — yet equally important — crisis of democracy looms just beneath the surface.

Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. He is the author of “The Suppression of Dissent: How the State and Mass Media Squelch USAmerican Social Movements” (Routledge, 2006), and “Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States” (AK Press, 2007). Boykoff is a former Madison resident and graduated from Madison West High School in 1988.