DEFENDS THE MEDIA’S PERFORMANCE:
Noted Reporter Robert Dreyfuss Draws Crowd Here
Robert Dreyfuss, a freelance writer from Alexandria, Va., addressed the topic of government surveillance at Stony Run Friends Meetinghouse on May 7. Dreyfuss has published articles in Rolling Stone, The Nation, Mother Jones, and American Prospect, covering the NRA, the CIA, the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the influence of the tobacco industry. He specializes in politics and national security issues.
“The Seamless Web”
Dreyfuss described how Attorney General John Ashcroft envisions a “seamless web” of intelligence, stretching from the FBI/CIA headquarters to the joint taskforces to the local police squadrons.
Dreyfuss explored hypothetical situations wherein a citizen’s relatively benign actions could still end up in a database logging suspicious activities, such as getting pulled over on the streets of a town in Iowa with Pennsylvania license plates. “You could be entered in without engaging in criminal activity,” Dreyfuss stressed.
He added, “Once you’re in a database it looks innately suspicious.” Suddenly, he said, the peace activist is flagged as a potential terrorist, and the next time he is looked up by law enforcement officials he might be treated as such.
Since September 11 and the resulting PATRIOT Act, what has been going on in the intelligence community? Dreyfuss said that we simply do not know.
Eighteen thousand subpoenas have been issued, each of which could be requesting potentially huge amounts of data, and 125 FBI agents have been assigned to track domestic and international terrorists and have been “collecting intelligence.” The agents’ duties include counting the number of mosques in every city and identifying every crop duster and airfield across the United States. All this information is then stowed away in files somewhere for future access. According to the MOSAIC theory of intelligence, Dreyfuss explained, agents collect information because they never know when they might need it.
Private companies have been collecting data for decades. Marketing researchers use surveys and data analysis to compile profiles on consumers containing travel patterns and store purchases. Now the FBI, through use of subpoenas, has access to that information.
An even greater cause for concern comes from information collected by election consulting companies from “informal” telephone surveys. Through the apparent anonymity of phone surveys taken over 20 years’ time, consulting companies develop increasingly accurate profiles of citizens regarding their political views. Dreyfuss asked, “What is to stop the FBI from obtaining this information?”
A natural follow-up question would be, “What is to stop the FBI from using that information to harass political dissidents?”
Terrorists (Not) Among Us
For the last two years Americans have been running scared. Republican victories in Congress clearly show how important homeland security is to the American public. Some citizens who otherwise would have opposed the war in Iraq jumped on the invasion bandwagon, citing “national security risks” that had to be addressed by the Bush administration.
Dreyfuss, however, made this claim to his Baltimore audience: “I don’t think there are a lot of terrorists.”
He threw out statistics such as how many people were convicted in Chicago from 1995 to 2002 (one person), and how many people in the entire United States were referred for prosecution last year (1,208). The total amount of time sentenced for these convictions? Two months. Turns out the accused “terrorists” were picked up for crimes such as license forgery.
Even if there are attacks in the future, said Dreyfuss, they probably are not preventable. Spending $40 billion on the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, he said, is “just dumb.”
Despite low numbers of terrorist incidents, Chicago and New York City have recently overturned consent decrees that previously restricted police departments from political espionage. Now, among other things, they can photograph people at demonstrations.
A common practice is FBI agents infiltrating activist groups and talking to members and demonstration participants. “The FBI is not supposed to do this,” said Dreyfuss. He stressed that agents are supposed to conduct criminal investigations: “look into a crime and find out who was responsible.” However, the nationwide panic over terrorism has allowed the FBI to take more preventative measures.
There’s not a lot to worry about—yet, assures Dreyfuss. He notes that the “electronic linking of databases is still years away. Local and state databases are still not accessible with one keystroke.”
Just look at the FBI, currently having trouble restructuring itself as an intelligence agency. Most of the FBI taskforces have been created only in the last few years. Dreyfuss said that Hollywood depictions of law enforcement and surveillance technology such as those featured in “Enemy of the State” “exaggerate by a factor of 10.”
In terms of local and state cooperation, some local policemen are being granted national security clearances and trained in antiterrorism and intelligence. Said Dreyfuss, “The police are not yet on board with this.” Some think it’s “dumb” and “draws resources away from catching bad guys.” To many local agencies, terrorism is just “not on their radar.”
Dreyfuss pointed to the sniper attacks in southern Maryland/Washington, D.C. area last year. Even with all the “cool technology we have,” local police and FBI agents were unable to quickly apprehend the killers.
The September 11 attacks were another prime example of bungling between different departments of federal agencies. Despite the massive amounts of data on hand to identify potential terrorists, the stored information did not prevent an actual terrorist attack. The critical part is using the data to make associations, said Dreyfuss.
Dreyfuss mentioned that several libraries in the United States have burned reading lists to protest the government’s expanded powers to subpoena library user information. Several members of the audience cheered, but Dreyfuss shook his head and cautioned them: “We don’t want to have a country where people are too scared to keep records because the police will get them,” he said. He also referred to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, when William Starr subpoenaed diaries, mentioning, “no one in Washington is keeping a diary now.”
He pointed out that it is important for a country to maintain a sense of national history, to remember and learn from its mistakes. Collective amnesia can be dangerous when it comes to foreign policy, he said.
Addressing an audience worried about the actions of the Bush administration, Dreyfuss reassured them that Ashcroft and others “are getting exactly what they want, but really, they’re not very smart.”
Dreyfuss countered the audience’s concerns that things are going from bad to worse in the United States. “I don’t think that America’s ‘going fascist’,” Dreyfuss said. He maintained that this period in history was only “another swing of the pendulum.” In time, he said, congressional investigations will reveal wrongdoings and the pendulum will swing back in the opposite direction, towards increased civil liberties and a relaxation of FBI surveillance.
Dreyfuss pointed to the 1970s as another episode in which media exposés ended problems with FBI abuses. Dreyfuss is convinced that a similar flurry of newspaper reporting in the near future will correct the problems of the present.
Nothing happening today is a unique cause for alarm, said Dreyfuss. “There’s a long history of Attorney Generals running amok.”
The audience was critical of Dreyfuss’ opinion of the American news media (“cable TV gets an F minus,” he said, but, “the New York Times gets an A”). Dreyfuss defended the press, mentioning how time and budgets are in short supply, resulting in sometimes underdeveloped—but not deliberately censored—news coverage. He said, “I know reporters at the New York Times and Boston Globe. They’re doing good work. They’re not bowing to corporate pay-masters.”
Members in attendance asserted that the city newspapers are part of the growing conservatism in the country and that reporters have a civic duty to champion social justice issues in their papers. Dreyfuss responded that reporters are doing the best they can and are, above all else, working to present balanced perspectives.
Anti-war crusading? Criticizing the Bush administration and the PATRIOT Act? “That’s not my job,” Dreyfuss told the audience. “That’s your job.”
The talk was co-sponsored by Baltimore Indymedia, Coalition Against Global Exploitation, American Friends Service Committee, Baltimore News Network, Baltimore Peace Action Network, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
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This story was published on June 4, 2003.