An American Police State In The Making

OK, gut-reaction time. I hope I’m wrong about this:

The White House is weighing whether to pre-empt the Sept. 11 commission’s final report this summer by embracing a proposal to create a powerful new post of director of national intelligence, administration officials said on Thursday.Under the proposal, management of the government’s 15 intelligence agencies, and control of their budgets, would be put under the direction of a single person. That authority is now scattered across a number of departments and agencies.

This plan was developed some time ago by Brent Scowcroft, Poppy’s National Security Advisor (who, while I had many differences with him, at least knew what the phrase “national security” meant) and was ignored by the WH until Karl could find a political use for it. Now, in an attempt to undercut the damage the Commission’s report will apparently do to Junior’s image as Mr Terrorist-Fighter, the BA is going to drag this thing out of the closet and propose it for real.

There are two problems with this approach no matter whose it is. Let’s take the lesser one first: it probably won’t work. Nixon tried the same thing when he reorganized the various agencies or sections of agencies responsible for policing the trade in illegal drugs, folding the BNDD (Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs), part of ATF (Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms), and part of the FBI into the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). The result was, at best, only a marginal improvement over what came before it. Intelligence didn’t get any better, of course, just because they were sharing it, and the cowboy mentality of the new DEA soon had SWAT teams breaking down the doors of elderly couples because DEA “sources” had given their handlers the wrong address (or the wrong town, state, country). The old turf wars were replaced instantly by new turf wars (that exist to this day, albeit in less virulent form than in the early days), co-ordination with street cops–the fundamental intelligence gatherers in the drug war system–was significantly worsened because the new power of the DEA required them to take control of investigations, which street cops resented (they still call the DEA “Glory Hounds”–and worse (“The Drug Enablement Agency” is one I’ve heard)–and Customs, furious that its budget had been cut, developed layers of new management levels to insulate itself from DEA interference.

The IC itself tried to co-ordinate the sharing of international intelligence by creating “intelligence steering committees” like the DID (Defense Intelligence Directorate) and the SISG (State Intelligence Steering Group) in which the heads or deputy heads of the IC–CIA, NSA, NI (Naval Intelligence), G2 (Army Intelligence), DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), SDI (State Dept Intelligence) and so on (there are 15 of them)–would meet regularly to share information and develop strategies. That hasn’t worked all that well, either. Turf battles remain as Directors jealously guard any information that they either want the credit for developing or don’t trust the other agencies to handle, and most meetings turn out to be a lot like playing 7-card stud, with everyone showing a few goodies but keeping their Aces firmly in the hole–and playing them close to the vest.

The worst part of re-organizations like this, though, is that they inevitably give the new agency a whole lot more power to invade privacy and run roughshod over inconvenient laws than they ever had before. The DEA is allowed to do things no police agency before it was empowered to do, and that brings us to the second and far more serious difficulty with this proposal.

Giving a single authority the right to collect, examine and act on whatever it considers to be information “vital to the nation’s security” comes periously close to the creation of a KGB-style secret police. At some point, I want to write a post devoted to an explanation of exactly why our intelligence-gathering capabilities are so poor (the way profiling is used is at the top of the list, followed closely by an unhealthy reliance on technology), but for now suffice it to say that no police or intelligence agency on the planet is ever satisfied; no amount of information is “enough”–there’s always more you want, more you claim you need, and the requirements have no inherent limits.

Last December, John McKay at archy (who has also just redesigned his site, and it looks terrific), reported on a Chicago Sun-Times article (no longer available) about a new FBI counter-terrorism initiative:

The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.[…]

“The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning,” the FBI wrote.

This is the sort of KGB-like insanity we can expect from an agency with new powers and the rock-ribbed belief that everything they can find out about somebody should be theirs for the taking. (John asked at the time: “I wonder if you can use an almanac to find the White House?”) I’d worry a lot less about this were it not for the new PATRIOT Acts, which are tailor-made to allow a police state to develop in the name of making us “safer”.

The creation of an intelligence agency that destroys the boundaries between international and domestic intelligence-gathering is dangerous enough, but combined with laws that dispense with little things like warrants and probable cause, you’ve got an ideal environment for the radical growth of a police state.

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