With Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell recently, and urgently, telling a Senate committee that the president must have even more powers to collect data from our e-mails and phone calls — under the much manipulated and evaded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — I had a question: If George Orwell were still alive, coming to the United States as a visiting professor of countersurveillance, would his name be on a no-fly list, sending him back to England?
After all, it was Orwell, in "1984" (a novel that turned into a documentary), who predicted ours eventually becoming a society under increasing surveillance:
"How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to."
There is not yet universal individual surveillance, but as reporter Dan Kennedy wrote in the Boston Phoenix: "It's not that you're being watched. It's that you might be, and that you have no way of knowing whether you are or not."
For one of many examples of how this administration reminds me of the slogan of the fabled and feared 19th century Pinkerton Detective Agency — "We never sleep" — then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld instituted in 2002 the Counterintelligence Field Activity Office (CIFA) to keep an unblinking eye on terrorism groups and foreign intelligence services inside the United States. CIFA, however, was barred by law from domestic spying on Americans.
But CIFA's database, in 2003, began to ignore that prohibition, gathering information — as Mark Manzetti reported in the April 25 New York Times — on "antiwar groups, churches, student activists" and other Americans who had been taught at some point in school that they had a First Amendment right to dissent from government policies.
The Pentagon pictorially and vividly named this Pentagon CIFA database "Talon" (a claw of a predatory animal). Much of what we have learned about Talon's extra-legal activities came from a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union for documents that were released, under that law, by the Pentagon last year.
Among Talon's trophies — likely to have been shared with the databases of other intelligence agencies — was an entry in 2005 that a "church service for peace" was about to be held in New York City. Presumably, Talon, through its liaisons with local enforcement agencies, informed the New York Police Department (long known for its "excesses" in surveillance) that this church service should be observed — maybe with plainclothes officers in the pews.
Another rather striking Talon entry warned that a "Stop the War" rally in Akron, Ohio, was "a potential terrorist activity." The legacy of J. Edgar Hoover — and his COINTELPRO (counterintelligence operation) surveillance and infiltration — still lives and thrives!
But since Hoover himself left us in 1972, he never could have conceived — nor, for that matter, could have Orwell — the ever-expanding advances in government surveillance technology that causes more Americans to have a sense, however fleeting from time to time, that some electronic tendril of government may be watching over them, but there's no way to be sure.
However, in a sudden shaft of good news for those of us who still harbor a hope that we have some privacy left, there is a government official — James R. Clapper, the Pentagon's new intelligence chief, who has responded to complaints from citizens (not only professional civil libertarians) that his increasingly controversial Talon database is acting beyond and beneath the law.
As reported by Reuters and The New York Times, Clapper has recommended to Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who is not as invincible to second thoughts as his predecessor — that the Talon database be declawed. As of this writing, Gates has not yet given the dismantling order, but it appears reasonable that Clapper would not have gone public with his desire to retire Talon if he has not had some encouragement from Gates.
An ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner, much involved in trying to regenerate the Bill of Rights, called Clapper's intention a "positive step" but cautioned that, as has happened in the past, the Pentagon could continue this kind of domestic spying under another name. "What we don't know about Pentagon surveillance within the United States," he told The New York Times, "far exceeds what we do know."
Still, I offer a toast to James Clapper, as I believe Orwell also would.
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of many books, including "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance" (Seven Stories Press, 2004).