Friday, May 25, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #58 - Part 6

Attacks on our ability to participate in the political process

In my rant last week about loss of the Commons, I said there is an attack on political participation, on our ability to take part in the political life of the nation, one that went beyond restrictions on voting and the increasing power of money - and that I'd point out some examples this week. So here we go.

First, I just love this one because it is so revealing. In the summer of 2010, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both announced a ban on BlackBerries on the ground that they were unable to monitor the communications conducted on those devices - that is, citizens could communicate in private without the government being able to listen in. the Obama administration condemned the ban, calling it “a dangerous precedent” and a threat to “democracy, human rights and freedom of information.”

Just six weeks later, the Obama administration proposed a mandatory “backdoor access” for all forms of Internet communication. That is, they wanted to force all companies dealing in Internet communication to build into their systems a convenient way for the government to spy on you.

They haven't won that particular battle yet, but they're still at it: Just a couple of weeks ago, CNet reported that the FBI is pressing Internet companies to decline to oppose a controversial proposal that would require firms, including Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google, to build in backdoors whose purpose would be to enable government surveillance.

Blogger and columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote:
The hallmark of a Surveillance State is that police agencies secretly monitor and keep dossiers on not only those individuals suspected of lawbreaking, but on the society generally, including those individuals about whom there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.
We have seen that in an abundance of ways, such as the New York Police Department, often working in conjunction with the CIA, engaging in a wide-spread spying campaign aimed at Muslims in the US, including individuals, students, institutions, and mosques located even hundreds of miles beyond the borders of New York City, all without any prior indication that a single one of these people or organizations were doing or even planning anything illegal.

Along with the growth of the Surveillance State, we are seeing attacks on the freedom of the press. Last Friday, May 18, the Obama administration was at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals insisting that New York "Times" reporter James Risen should be forced to testify in the trial of former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, who is charged with leaking classified information to Risen about a botched plot against the Iranian government.

The District Court had ruled that Risen had a qualified privilege not to testify against Sterling, saying "A criminal trial subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook." Astonishingly, in looking to have the Appeals Court overturn that ruling, the government argued that there is no such thing as a reporter's privilege. That is, the "balancing act" between freedom of the press and the public's right to know on the one hand and the government's desire for secrecy on the other must be decided in favor of the government. Even more: The Obama administration is arguing that such a balancing act does not even exist and the government's desire for secrecy must trump all else.

This is part and parcel of President Hopey-Changey's* attack on freedom of the press, which has included a record-setting number of prosecutions of whistleblowers, in the course of which the 1917 Espionage Act has been used against more accused leakers than all previous presidents combined.

A consensus has emerged during the presidency of Barack Obama: His administration is increasingly regarded as the worst on issues related to freedom of information and transparency. (Didn't he come into office promising "the most transparent administration in history?")

What's more, there is a different sort of attack on the press, on our ability to know and understand events, going on: An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences is being inserted into the latest defense authorization bill. Right now, the lies and propaganda which the State Department and Pentagon inflict on other people around the world can't be disseminated domestically. Some quaint idea about how the government should not actively lie to its own citizens. (I know, you don't have to tell me.) The amendment would “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of such materials, according to a summary of the law, enabling the government to treat us like the residents of a hostile foreign nation to be manipulated and duped. (Again, yes, I know.)

Meanwhile, there is an attack on both freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, as dozens if not hundreds of journalists and Occupy protesters have arrested for the supposed "crime" of attempting to document events as they happen, including, especially, the behavior of police. It's enough that nine free speech groups have appealed jointly to the Justice Department to protect the rights of media and protesters, saying "The First Amendment has come under assault on the streets of America."

However, even though the DOJ did take a good stand with regard to the Baltimore police department, those groups probably shouldn't expect an energetic response. Some weeks ago, a new pile of documents surrendered by the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request made it increasingly evident that there was and is a nationally coordinated campaign to disrupt and crush the Occupy movement.

The documents are heavily redacted with much information blacked-out, but even so they indicate the extent of the government’s concern about the wave of occupations that started with Occupy Wall Street. They reveal “intense involvement” by the DHS’s so-called National Operations Center, which the DHS says is “the primary conduit for the White House Situation Room” and “facilitates information sharing and operational coordination with other federal, state, local, tribal, non-governmental operation centers and the private sector.”

What I found particularly interesting is that back in mid-November, I raised the possibility that the police attacks on encampments were coordinated because both the tactics employed and the official justifications offered were so similar: It was always about "unsanitary and unsafe conditions" in the particular encampment being forcibly shut down. So I found it particularly interesting that in the documents, there is on November 21 a reference to how to handle things "if a protest area is on federal property and has been deemed unsafe or unsanitary by the General Services Administration or city officials."

Then there is what can only be called the weaponization of police, where riot gear seems to be normal street wear for cops and armored vehicles are replacing squad cars. An outfit called the LRAD Corporation has developed a device of the same name: LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Hailing Device. It can generate recorded sounds - the thing has an mp3 player in it - or produce a screeching siren, all at tremendous intensities of 137 to 162 decibels. To give you an idea of how loud that is, 130 decibels is threshold of pain.

The company insists it's to help police "provide clear instructions to protesters from long distances." "We really don't look at this as any kind of weapon," says the company's PR flaks. Right. Like the "instructions" involved will not consist of "stop protesting and leave now (or else)" - especially when you consider the device has already been used on Occupy protesters in Oakland, California.

Finally, there is the classic thing of an attack on dissent by means of police corruption and lying.

Last week I noted how cops can lie on the stand and expect to get away with it. Well, the NYPD has arrested thousands of protesters and journalists since Occupy Wall Street began in September - but the first actual trial of a protester ended last week. With an acquittal. What's important is how that happened.

Alexander Arbuckle is the name of the defendant, and he was arrested on January 1 with a bunch of others who were marching down 13th Street in lower Manhattan. The NYPD charged those arrested with disorderly conduct, claiming they were in the street blocking traffic. That's what the police report said, that's what a cop testified to under oath at the trial.

The problem was, photographs and video taken that night - including from the NYPD's own Technical Research Assistance Unit, which follows the protesters with video cameras (in almost certain violation of a federal consent decree) - clearly showed the protesters on the sidewalk and it was the cops who were in the street, on foot and on scooters going the wrong way down the one-street, blocking traffic.

There simply was no getting around it: The cops lied through their damn teeth. That's why Arbuckle was acquitted. But that should also make you think about all the other times when that particular set of fortunate circumstances does not arise and how many wrongfully-arrested, wrongfully-charged, wrongfully-convicted protesters have been the victims of official lying.


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