Privacy SOS

A number of recent news items suggest that our government is on the wrong track when it comes to fighting terrorism at home and abroad. And last week we learned that the taxpayer bill for these services has grown exponentially.

For the first time in history, the annual budget for intelligence agencies has been revealed, though clearly not in detail, showing us that the United States spent over $80 billion on intelligence last year alone. For some perspective on that number, consider that the state of Massachusetts’ projected fiscal year 2010 expenditures totaled just shy of $28 billion, while the State of Wyoming plans to spend less than $7.8 billion in 2011. The $80 billion for intelligence is more than double what these agencies spent prior to 9/11, and some members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are alarmed by that jump. Committee member Diane Feinstein released a statement saying, “It is clear that the overall spending on intelligence has blossomed to an unacceptable level in the past decade.”

What is this $80 billion in taxpayer money buying us, the taxpayers? For starters, as we have explored before, it is buying us a steady stream of programs enabling government snooping into the private lives of innocent citizens. But recent reports in the news raise other, much more difficult questions about some of the tactics law enforcement and intelligence agencies are using in terrorism prosecutions.

Some journalists and academics are wondering: is the FBI doing its job finding home grown terrorists to prosecute, or is it creating home grown terrorists and then prosecuting them? The difference, legally speaking, isn’t clear, but it is an incredibly important question, with huge implications for how we do law enforcement and justice in this nation.

One thing is clear, however: the FBI is using paid informants to create phony terror plots and then work hard to sell them to unsuspecting, even if likely susceptible, targets. There have been many such cases, of which the “Metro DC bomber” is only the most recent.

In another case from a few years ago, four men from Newburgh, NY, all African-American converts to Islam, were charged with attempting to blow up a synagogue. The defendants claimed that a paid FBI informant who set up the phony terror plot not only coached them through the planning stages, but also lured them into participation by promising large cash payments. One of the four convicted of terrorism charges said he participated because a family member needed life-saving surgery, and they didn’t have the money or insurance to cover it. As Talking Points Memo observed, “if the men were motivated as much by material concerns as by an ideological affinity for Islamic jihad, it raises questions about whether using government informants to gin up phony terror plots and lure others into participating is the most effective way to combat domestic terror.”

Back to the DC Metro plot: FBI investigators say that a Virginia man, Mr. Farooque Ahmed, agreed to work with men who claimed to be al-Qaeda, but who were really paid government informants. The informants instructed Mr. Ahmed to carry out surveillance of a Washington D.C. hotel and Metro station, which Mr. Ahmed allegedly did. He is thus being charged with attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, collecting information to assist in planning a terrorist attack on a transit facility, and attempting to provide material support to help carry out multiple bombings. He is pleading not guilty.

Nobody knows whether or not Mr. Ahmed — or the Newburgh four, or others in similar cases — would have attempted to carry out violence in the United States were it not for the FBI’s increasingly regular instigation of terror plots. But one thing is certain: we now have evidence that the government is using such government-hatched plots to validate some extremely invasive, anti-civil liberties search policies in public places.

It wasn’t long after news of Mr. Ahmed’s arrest before D.C. authorities began talking about doing bag searches in Metro stations. That is, the government concocted a plot to blow up a Metro station, found someone stupid, desperate and/or malicious enough to fill in as the main character, and then told us that we may have to give up our privacy in order to prevent such attacks from occurring. Does that sound like smart intelligence, national security or civil liberties policy?

As Andrew Sullivan noted, we pay for the loss of our liberties not only through our pocketbook, but also in our personal, day to day lives. The logic defies…well, logic:

If we learn about a terrorist plot, it's evidence that police need more power so that they can keep us safer. A lack of intelligence about terrorist plots is evidence that police need more power to find out how safe we really are. A successful terrorist attack is evidence that police don't have enough power to fight terrorists. Whereas the successful arrest of a terrorist is either evidence that police haven't yet been given enough power to eliminate terrorism, or that the power we've given police is working and we should give them more power so we're even safer.

The government clampdown on civil liberties is happening on all levels, from the local to the federal. The Obama Department of Justice is currently trying to push through new rules governing electronic surveillance to make it easier for the government to spy on you and me. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for records to help explain why the government needs these new, broad surveillance powers. The government refused to hand over any documents, so EFF is suing. In short, the government wants near total freedom to spy on Americans, but won’t even explain why it needs these new powers.  

To make matters even worse for us lowly citizens, a 2004 U.S. military-commissioned study shows that our government programs are completely off track if we want to keep our country safe from radical terrorist bombers. The report conclusively shows that suicide terrorists kill themselves to kill Americans not because they hate our freedoms, but because they hate our military occupations. A new study underlines those findings: former Air Force lecturer and current University of Chicago professor Robert Pape presented his findings to Congress late last month, using data gathered from studying terrorism for over six years. Professor Pape agrees with the U.S. Military, saying, “We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns, … and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100% of the terrorist campaign.”

So there you have it. The military itself says that our near trillion dollar wars are what drive terrorist violence against us. The FBI spends much of its time and resources creating fake terror plots only for local government to use these fake plots as justification to clamp down on our civil liberties. And meanwhile, the federal government steps up its aggressive, civil liberties shakedown.

I’m left asking: who really hates our freedoms? And why do we continue to invest billions of dollars in wars and intelligence when we know — the military says it! — that the way to stop militant Muslim terrorism is to stop our wars?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.