Are Terror Suspicions Getting Out of Hand?

This opinion piece ran in the Sunday Republican on January 1, 2006.

By Christopher H. Pyle

How many terrorists do you suppose we have in the United States today? Real terrorists, like Mohammed Atta, who led the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as opposed to anti-war Quakers?

Seriously. What's your best guess? Fifty? One hundred? More? Before Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI's watch list consisted of only 16 names. Today it contains 80,000. As of June 2005, the National Counterintelligence Center had amassed files on 190,000 individuals. Do these numbers strike you as reasonable, or are the suspicions getting out of hand?

The Pentagon is especially suspicious of Americans. Its Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) employs 1,000 people to monitor "threats" to the military within the United States. Between July 2004 and May 2005, CIFA's "Operation TALON" recorded 1,519 "suspicious incidents," most of them involving protest activity by domestic peace groups. In some instances the groups appear to have been infiltrated.

The military's Northern Command, which is supposed to help civilian agencies clean up after a terrorist attack, employs more than 150 intelligence analysts charged with developing "actionable intelligence" to "prevent" terrorist attacks. "Prevent" presumably means compiling round-up lists of civilians in case the military needs to "secure" the site of an attack. But the military does not need to know anyone's name in order to secure a site. It just needs to impose a curfew and turn the violators over to the police. Military enforcement of civilian law is illegal. Indeed, it is a crime.

In 2002, President Bush secretly ordered the military's National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the telephone communications of hundreds, if not thousands, of American citizens without prior judicial authority as required by the Fourth Amendment.

This is not the first time military agents have wandered off the reservation. During the 1960s and 1970s, Army intelligence secretly employed 1,500 plainclothes agents, working out of 300 offices coast-to-coast, to spy on all civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of 20 people or more. They collected a warehouse full of files on lawful civilian political activity. That operation was shut down by Congressional protests, but has returned, larger than ever.

Today's military spies do not work alone. They are closely linked to a dozen federal agencies, 65 FBI field offices, 2,000 police departments and scores of foreign police and intelligence agencies, all of which collect information on suspected "terrorists." If you think "terrorists" refers to al-Qaida and its associates, you would be mistaken. Environmental activists have been labeled "eco-terrorists" by the FBI simply for protesting a lumbermen's convention by hanging a banner. The Pentagon considers non-violent Quakers a "threat" because they oppose military recruitment at high schools. The California National Guard monitored the "Raging Grannies," an anti-war singing group, because, as a spokesman explained, no one can tell when the grannies might be infiltrated by terrorists.

Flush with federal funds, states are creating "intelligence fusion centers" to process, index and store reports of suspicious people that flood in through inter-agency pipelines. Like the FBI and the military, states are hiring private companies like Choice Point to flesh out dossiers on thousands of law-abiding protesters, which are then shared with more than 100 "joint terrorism task forces."

Why has a legitimate effort to identify suicide bombers metastasized into the massive surveillance of protest politics? One answer is that the people who run this system can't tell a terrorist from a Quaker. Another is that it is easier to investigate Americans, because they speak the only language our intelligence agents understand.

Whatever their excuse, one thing is clear. These domestic spies are eager to add to, but not subtract from, their files and lists. If a suspect shares your name, you are likely to be stopped at the airport, rejected for employment or denied a security clearance, over and over again. Unfortunately, there is no way to correct such an erroneous file, because the files are secret. And, even if the files of one agency could be corrected, the files the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other agencies on the network would still be infected. Years later, when the network is queried, the original error will come back as a hundredfold "truth," simply because so many agencies believe it. The time has come to scale back this bloated system, before intelligence analysts drown in trivia, before the reputations of decent citizens are destroyed, and before the sheer scale of the spying intimidates Americans from ever questioning their government. One remedy would be to limit the label "terrorist" to associates of al-Qaida. Another would be to limit the number American citizens who can be under suspicion of terrorism at any time. When this cap is reached, old suspects must be deleted from the files before new ones can be added. These are crude remedies, but they would restore a sense of proportion to a surveillance system that has gotten way out of hand.

Christopher Pyle, a former intelligence officer, teaches constitutional law at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics (1986).

Related Link:

Christopher Pyle - Faculty Profile