The Age of Surveillance; the aims and methods of America's political intelligence system: extracted from works by F. J. Donner (since, edited)


If anyone has the right or ability to comment upon the covert institution of domestic intelligence in North America it's the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, Frank Donner.

Frank's career as a civil rights lawyer, and now author, began with his collecting of related material in the forties. By the sixties it had turned into such an extensive  library that his colleagues began to consider it a public resource, with everyone from the LA community, including its judges, utilizing and even contributing to its development.

But Frank's mandate to explore the system as a human rights council illuminated in a new way the underpinnings of repression in US political culture. His conviction that covert surveillance of people's lives, and similar activities unrelated to law enforcement, constituted a serious and largely ignored threat to political freedom, and was inherently dangerous without effective regulation. And so Frank became the Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

With the Democrat’s initiative of that era to declassify much of the government's files, Frank found first-hand an "enormous range and volume of disclosures about intelligence abuse". The explicit documentation of covert practices he found there -which continued unchecked, regardless of the changing of administrations- confirmed beyond challenge that surveillance of dissent is such an institutional pillar of the US political order that, in fact, it constituted a mode of governance.

The identification of "subversives", writes Frank, makes possible then the harassment and punishment phases to follow, and that is the ultimate objective of the intelligence system so as to restore order. And basically, it's little more than the moral character of the intelligence community that regulates the repercussions that their targets are to suffer.

 Considerable effort is required to sustain the public perception that judicial proceedings prevent intelligence abuses, and thus hide the true role of surveillance in US statecraft. And in fact, infringements on the constitutional rights of individuals are theoretically subject to judicial restraint. But in real-life such relief has rarely been forthcoming.

The clandestine character of intelligence operations effectively handicaps the pursuit of any judicial remedy. Also, the ambiguity of the measure of injury that's suffered by the victim, combined with the natural importance that they're able to make about protecting the security of the nation, further heightens the burden of proof required to successfully prosecute.

Even when such formidable forces can be overcome, judicial remedies are only aimed at the petitioner, and not at the root-cause of controlling the inevitable tyranny of a this vast, unchecked covert army.  For Elaboration See; Covert-army

It’s only been with the disclosure of the scope and impact of political intelligence abuses in recent years that's made it possible for victims to seek judicial relief at all. But even though fines were levied (and paid for with taxpayers dollars) the oppression continues. Such devastating abuses in fact, that no amount of relief can restore the bloom to the political desert of our time.

The neutralization of movements and groups that were destructively targeted by the intelligence community in the past were considered a cheap price to pay for the protection of the status quo. For Elaboration See; Manufacturing a Police State.

Frank Donner says that the availability of a courtroom remedy has in fact protected intelligence from a more basic institutional challenge. "In effect, our courts have provided a shield for intelligence, by offering a deceptive relief from its excesses without disturbing its unregulated power-base."

For this reason Frank's book is devoted to addressing the politics supporting the continuation of unregulated covert forces, and the sociological consequence of such wholesale dismissal of the constraints of law and human rights on domestic development.

Frank defines the covert network "as a passionate tribal constituency, which seeks to implement its suppressive agenda at the decision and policy-making levels of government. This layer of officialdom is replenished by an entrenched cadre of the old-boy network that "supports their own, first and foremost", and which keeps the flame burning during times of criticism and reshuffling".

Fundamentally the entire Intelligence institution is based upon guile and deceit, and thus its members become thoroughly practiced at it. "Plausible denial" is their basic saving grace, and a raw administrative expediency their overriding agenda. Clearly, there's very little room in these operating parameters for principled public leadership.

Therefore Frank calls into question the very legitimacy of the FBI to conduct the all-encompassing investigations of "subversive activities". This blanket term has historically been the excuse for a lawless vigilante style of persecution whimsically directed at whomever the old-boys network deemed warranted.

Countless people, who for no other reason than their opinion, have been subject to the massive and arbitrary upheaval of their lives. Homes, reputations, businesses and even families have been systematically torn apart in the name of political expediency, extra-judicially, for what was whimsically determined as un-American activities.

Intelligence in America got its legitimacy from the anti-union movement, as a proven tactic in the class-warfare struggle. During the civil war the Pinkerton Detective agency was employed for military espionage by the War Dept., and remained an asset with various insiders thereafter --especially to aid business in the anti-union movement.

Aggressive tactics were designed tested and used by their covert forces to wreck the unions. The sabotage of public support for unions was easily accomplished by instigating violence on the picket lines for example, or by manufacturing internal dissent, or seeding retaliatory provocation within the ranks, or infiltrating the administration with scandal etc. And of course the constant machinations of the propaganda effort sewed it all together. The system worked so well as to virtually eliminate the union’s power in America even today.

Frank Donner’s book goes on to develop the full history of the military-based intelligence movement. But the theme remained little changed. A particular mind-set is inclined to emerge using warfare strategies in which self-interest and raw expediency tends to dominate, and has too often become the institution's modus operandi.

The functionality of the intelligence enterprise combined with human nature inclines a self-justification mechanism to develop which can easily thwart controls in these circumstances. With the type of resources commanded, the subversion of competitive agencies or those with an oversight capability becomes much easier. And may in fact, more readily present itself as a bulwark against criticism of excesses, or for irresponsible failures to validate assumptions for example.

The raw-expediency ethos that's developing in today's international affairs is a predictable consequence of society allocating power over its development simply to those who've accumulated wealth. For in such a system "greed begets wealth, and wealth begets power, and power tends to rule in its own image".

Thus the ideological conflict  with the socialist movement has contributed significantly to today's operational norms. The collective well-being was considered a threat to the self-interest of the elite, and  the military-based intelligence community is lavishly commissioned to defend the status quo. But the growth of an independent organ of state operating to monitor, punish, and frustrate extra-judicially the political activities of a country’s nationals is the classic embodiment of political police, and is in fact a benchmark of a police state.

According to Frank; "American Liberalism has failed to curb the use of covert tyranny because of its libertarian traditions of denouncing every aspect of communism –even the beneficial- and blindly supports the self-interest ethos of big business. And because the "New Deal" liberal standard-bearers (lawyers, intellectuals, academics) have been too willing to compromise their professed commitment to mechanisms for equity -such as freedom of political expression for example- as a price they'd pay to enter the corridors of power in an insiders role. "

The post-Vietnam and post-Watergate disclosures have made it possible for the first time for a full exploration of the massive government intervention that was launched, so we can better understand the scope of the threat that exists to the democratic process. For only in a shared understanding of the reasons for the moral outrage of that era can the public hope to prevent its recurrence.

The use of private organizations which were often started and operated by former FBI or military personnel, such as the American Security Council, The National Civic Federation, The American Defense Society, The National Security League, The National Council for the Prevention of War, and The Church League of America, etc., took a leading civic role at the time with noble rhetoric, yet covertly  tended to undermine any rise in principled leadership in favor of status quo self-interest. 

History is well endowed with chronicles of the social costs of intelligence's raw administrative expediency. When the sedition act was proposed in 1798 for example, Edward Livingston warned;

"The country will swarm with informers, spies, dilators, and all the odious reptilian tribe that breed in the sunshine of despotic power... The hours of the most unsuspected confidence, the intimacies of friendship, or the recesses of domestic retirement , afford no security. The companion whom you must trust, the friend in whom you must confide, the domestic who awaits in your chamber, all are tempted to betray your imprudent or unguarded follies, to misrepresent your words, to convey them distorted by calumny, to the secret tribunal where jealousy presides -where fear officiates as accuser, and suspicion is the only evidence required.... Do not let us be told that we are to excite fervor against a foreign aggression just to establish a tyranny at home... and that we are absurd enough to call ourselves free and enlightened, while we advocate principles which would have disgraced the age of Gothic barbarity."

Perhaps Michael Rivero said it best though; "If your freedoms can be taken away at a moment's notice or with a whimsical dictate, then your freedoms are only an illusion. They don't exist and they never did. You are not truly free nor have you ever been. You have only been indulged."

And so it is today…