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Michael Hammerschlag: Unpatriotic Spying

Unpatriotic Spying

by Michael Hammerschlag

The decision by the Bush Administration to go after the New York Times for exposing a portion of their spying- the unauthorized NSA spying on calls to Afghanistan- sets up the central struggle for America’s soul. Truthfully, no one is much alarmed by monitoring connections with Afghanistan or scanning US mosques for radiation; both have a legitimate national security justification. But the FBI is spying on 30,000 people a year- according to the Washington Post, permitted by warrantless so-called national security letters (NSLs) under Section 505 of the Patriot Act, and now it turns out the Pentagon, CIA, and NSA have all also been engaged in illegitimate and unjustified spying on Americans, including harmless peace groups and all US-foreign e-mail. In October, Bush expanded access to those files by "state, local and tribal" governments and "appropriate private sector entities", whereas John Ashcroft had canceled the 6 month destruction of the records of innocents- now they are kept forever. The Pentagon, especially, appears unable to distinguish between legitimate protest and possible threat. As warriors, they are trained to attack preemptively, which is why there are so many prohibitions against the military operating inside America.

The Total Information Awareness program (run by John Pointdexter) mined and linked all government and commercial databases: 20 billion records including bank records, motor-vehicle records, driver's licenses with digital photographs, credit histories, family, Social Security #, names of neighbors and landlords… for “interesting” associations. It was supposedly shut down after a public outcry in 2003, but in reality it was just shifted to the Commerce Dept., and renamed the Matrix: the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange - built by Florida’s Seisint Inc. after 9-11, and run by ex-drug smuggler Hank Asher, whose company performed the Felon Purge against mostly black Florida voters in the 2000 election (42% inaccurate, according to our research*).

“Seisint turned over the resulting 120,000 names - people the company claimed had a high terrorism quotient... - to federal and Florida law enforcement authorities.”
-- St. Petersburg Times.

Seisint has since been sold to Lexis/Nexis after Asher was forced out. States participating in Matrix include Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Connecticut; and formerly Alabama, Georgia, Utah, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Oregon, and New York. Technically privately owned (though run by the FBI and HSA), the MATRIX has no oversight mechanism- inaccurate information can’t be corrected or removed. The program was supposedly partially dismantled last April. Meanwhile, the NSA’s and ex-British allies’ worldwide Echelon monitoring system reportedly scans some 3 billion calls and messages a day.

Given that there were only 300 NSL’s before 9-11, there's no way there are 30,000 legitimate terrorism suspects a year in America - there probably aren't even 3000. People cognizant of the depths of this administration’s vindictiveness understand this is a Bush Enemies List, targeting those who dare to criticize the crimes of this arrogant imperious administration. Why else would he ignore the rubber stamp FISA court in the separate NSA cases, which has turned down only 1 request in 3500? We are now talking about maybe abusing the privacy of one hundred thousand innocent citizens, or more. It is unconstitutional, illegal, vicious, cowardly, and has the potential to destroy the America we thought we were; yet incredibly, the Patriot Act makes exposure of this spying a serious crime, meaning victims are left forever in the dark, basting in their suspicions. Congress is close to renewing these atrocious provisions permanently, which allow thousands to rip through anyone's life without any oversight or limits. Aware people realize the NSA has been scanning all foreign calls since the 70’s- a 1978 law banning monitoring US Citizens was never really followed, but snooping intentionally directed at individuals is radically different.

Desperate to prevent the imminent parade of victims and the full extent of the Orwellian structures Bush has created from being exposed, he is fighting back with the most potent thing he has: investigating the NYT for who leaked the information about his illegal spying. This has the enormous ancillary benefit of muddying the waters on the Plame leak investigation, permitting Republicans to practice their favorite smokescreen- equivalence. Now when national security leak investigations come up, they can bring up the dastardly exposure of the secret spying, equate it to the treacherous betrayal of the CIA's Plame (and her contacts and front company); and talk reporters into the false conclusion that both sides do it- about the same, and so they balance themselves out. Because of pressure to show both sides, reporters are highly susceptible to this- even though prosecuting a whistleblower who exposes your crimes is outrageous.

Whether the press can resist this false dichotomy and avoid being intimidated by the persecution of the NYT, and pursue this story to the depths it leads, depends nothing less than the future of the American experiment. Even some liberal and anti-government Republicans are deadset against the unlimited snooping promoted by the President, realizing 95% is still below the surface. This is an administration that has viciously slandered any critics, practiced dishonesty on an industrial level, started an unnecessary disastrous war, transferred trillions of dollars from the poor, middle class, and unborn to the rich in tax cuts and corporate payoffs, and now has engaged in massive spying of its critics. The only possible purpose for this is intimidation and injury... and the potential for abuse is infinite.

The levels to which they would stoop were revealed by Ambassador Joe Wilson in a speech at Brown University.

-----"In the year before the controversy, I made $850,000. In the year after, I made $150,000. They set out to destroy my consulting business, and succeeded. I would have meetings with people, and they would stop them and say, 'don't deal with him, we're going to destroy him.' “ (ProvJournal w audio) “If you cross the Bush administration, we will do to you what we just did to Joe Wilson's family," he said. "Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. That's what the message was."----

Mandating absolute secrecy mandates uncontrolled abuses. No American should ever be spied on without valid reason and a judge's consent. Not only must these blanket Patriot Act spying provisions be reversed- the political victims of them should be informed and exonerated, and compensated for this treachery. The total abrogation of citizens' privacy has to be stopped, or we will all be nothing more than bits and bytes, subject to deletion at the whim of any bureaucrat.

Otherwise, with widespread torture, secret prisons in Eastern Europe, more prisoners than any other country, uncontrolled political spying and bullying of critics: it is official: under Bush… we have become the Soviets.


*In an examination of 14 Florida Counties, Deb Cupples discovered 42% inaccurate matches: men matched to women, blacks matched to whites, people of totally different names but same birthdate. Because Florida listed Party affiliation and race on voter forms, this gave election supervisors extraordinary ability to skew results, if they desired- though real felons were already vastly Democratic. They also matched felons from around the country with voters in Florida, although 2 judges ruled that illegal. I had the 42,000 names around 9-11, since admitted to be much more, but never pursued what was Palast's story. In 2001, Palm Beach Post said 19,398 had actually been removed, 4800 of which didn't match.

In a long Vanity Fair story, DBT creator Asher amazingly comes off as admirable, brave, and generous. He left DataBaseTech before they perpetrated the notorious felon purge: "They wrote the program wrong. They forgot to only link people with felonies. They had misdemeanors too, so if some poor guy 20 years ago shoplifted, drove away from a gas station without paying for the gas or whatever, they tagged him as an illegal voter… It’s idiotic!" Ironically, authorities only discovered his smuggling past when Asher came to them to help rid his Bahamian island of Columbian dealers and told them, so even his life is being screwed up by 23 year old context-less allegations.

NOTE: Longtime NYT reporter David Rosenbaum was murdered in Washington DC Jan 8 in a beating/robbery near his NW home- the last thing he wrote was how Alito had defended Nixon's use of wiretaps in 1984, saying the AG should be immune from ordering illegal wiretaps.


Michael Hammerschlag's commentary and articles ( have appeared in the Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hawaii Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel; and Moscow News, Tribune, Times, and Guardian. He broke the first comprehensive story on media mistakes in the 2000 election.

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