Posted by Brad @ 11:11 am on November 29th 2010

Mission Creep

One thing that infuriates me about both liberals and conservatives is that they justify the expansion of federal authority with best cases. For instance, for that one time perhaps that the government might listen in on a potential terrorist in Detroit talking to a handler in Yemen, and the government then (in time) uses that information to stop a legitimate bomb plot…for that case, it is justified to let the government listen in on conversations Americans are having with people overseas. Nevermind any discussion of how often that best-case-use-of-powers ever happens – if indeed it ever happens at all – and nevermind how often it might happen relative to the how the power likely will be used. The mere existence of the best-case is a kind of abstract hypothetical moral justification that proves all. And, needless to say, proud that they’ve proven their case, they’ll leave, and not be in the room anymore when the federal authority digs in and is used in all sorts of cases having nothing to do with that original best-case hypothetical. The federal government bypassing the need for a warrant and instead just taking it’s terrorist hotline wiretap info and using it as evidence to prosecute grandma for trying to buy medical marijuana? It is but a small price to pay for the sake of hypothetically catching that hypothetical terrorist.

Today, a few such stories.

1. Here in Philadelphia, TSA agents took it upon themselves to search a woman’s wallet and papers, and then decide there was something suspicious about her checkbook – suspicious not in the sense that it could bring down an airplane (despite the fact that the TSA has perhaps never stopped such a thing, it is at least their ostensible—and only—purpose), but in the sense that it seemed to the officers she might be in a “divorce situation” and trying to steal the checks from her husband, or something. The burden of proof was then on the flyer to show the officers that she was not, in fact, embezzling money (they had not, it seems, learned their lesson from the Campaign for Liberty worker incident, despite the nice press releases).

How any of that relates to a secure airplane is beyond me, but that’s the real truth of federal authority. In this case, folks who have a hard-on for 24 love to imagine their choices to let the government do anything it can to fight evil-doers is some kind of cut-to-the-chase pragmatism, and those who try to “argue” and “logic” and shit are just fantasy-land pacifists. When, actually, Jack Bauer tackling a guy with sticks of dynamite strapped around his torso as he makes a break for it up an airplane boarding ramp is, in fact, the fantasy, while the far more mundane reality is that all you’re doing is having security professional making 33k a year listlessly searching 30,000 Americans every day, and since nobody likes having power and not using it, they’re going to start finding shit to accomplish like forcing you to put shampoo in a baggie, or declaring a jihad on nail clippers, or finding evidence of other crimes. And don’t be surprised when other responsibilities are folded in, like say fighting the War on Drugs. That is the nature of expanded authority.

And that asshole who gave the Jack Bauer scenario as a way to justify creating and handing over this new authority? He’s nowhere to be found, having moved on to his next fantasy to bang on about and leaving the rest of us simps holding the bag.

2. Speaking of the War on Drugs, Willie Nelson was busted for pot possession by border patrol agents despite not being at the, you know, border. But we cry to our politicians about illegals taking our jobs (despite the fact that they probably didn’t), who then bang on about how Mexican thugs are coming into this country in droves to simultaneously be incredibly lazy as well as fleece us all for millions and perpetrate devious schemes to get on welfare and have babies and get free college educations, which then causes them to shovel money and moral authority to border states and border agencies in the hopes that they militarize our border, who then just pump that money into whatever they were doing anyway, in this case hassling senior citizens driving around in fancy RVs that reek of pot but do not contain any illegal immigrants – and really, do you think the officer that stopped Willie Nelson’s tour bus did so because he honestly thought there were a bunch of migrant workers onboard?

They can do this, because every power we give over to protecting our borders are in fact powers that we give to federal agents which they can use at their discretion anywhere within 100 miles of not just the US-Mexican border, but technically anywhere within 100 miles of a border, which includes all coasts and thus, 2/3s of the United States population. But…Mexicans!

3. Also, did you know that the Department of Homeland Security – specifically the division tasked with making sure our borders and ports are protected – is also apparently in the business of shutting down websites that link to torrents due to concerns about copyright infringement? Or, as Kip puts it, “Apparently terrorists were plotting to fly pirated movies into skyscrapers.”

4. Relatedly, the DHS has also decided, in the wake of the Yemeni parcel-bomb plog, that all non-commercial international shipment packages weighing over 16 ounces and destined for hte United States must include the recipient’s social security number or have to go through port screening. The restriction is so bizarrely over-the-top that it has forced countries like Japan to declare that it won’t ship any over-a-pound packages to America unless it’s by sea. This will, of course, cause many billions of dollars of economic damage to the United States for no real purpose aside from looking busy, covering DHS’s ass, and further reiterating that there is nothing the federal government can’t or won’t do in the name of Fighting Terrorism.

And that’s not even getting into the terror-fighting powers that are being used against purported organized crime and/or internet gaming rings.

5. Finally, it is worth noting that Rep. Pete King (R-NY) has officially asked the State Department to pursue the idea of declaring WikiLeaks a terrorist organization (Joe Lieberman is softly backing this). Mark Thiessan asked for this back in August during the first round of leaks, and sounded insane. Now, it’s coming from the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

It is worth pointing out the obvious: that under no conceivable definition that passes any kind of sniff test could what WikiLeaks does be considered an act of terrorism. It is also worth pointing out that declaring an organization terroristic seemingly solely because they embarrass the government and engage in practices that makes operating in secrecy more difficult is the domain of fascistic states, at least as we have conventionally defined fascistic. Also worth pointing out: once something IS declared under the purview of terrorism, that opens up the door to all those things we had previously accepted because of our Jack Bauer hypotheticals. Meaning, when we said that it was okay to kill people without trial, or hold them without charge, or torture them without recourse, we had always imagined that we were talking about some kind of tough-as-nails terrorist mastermind, and probably not a prissy Swede using anonymous sources to leak embarrassing information that our makes our government look bad. But, because we haven’t insisted on any straight-jacket limits to these terror powers, all it takes is a state department directive at the behest of a guy like Rep. King, and any journalist undermining the government line is, theoretically, suddenly subject to drone strikes, assassinations, indefinite detention, a loss of all constitutional protections, etc. If “terrorist” is anyone who undermines the government and makes it harder for them to execute a strategy ostensibly related to fighting terrorists – and that is not a stretch, at this point; we are practically there already – then, quite literally, that is the power the the government has reserving for itself.

All of this authority was, of course, handed to the government in the name of national defense/security in one fashion or another. And all, without exception, are quickly morphing into all-purpose tools. Because it’s mighty handy circumventing the justice system in the prosecution of terror suspects – so, if we ALSO believe, say, pot use or illegal movie downloading or check embezzling are bad, how can you object to applying them there too, unless you’re pro-pot use/illegal movie downloading/check embezzling? Besides, if you’re doing none of those things, you have nothing to worry about, citizen.

This is why, be it in health care or national security, the default position to the federal acquisition of new authority should always be extreme skepticism and intransigence. Because sunset clauses never sunset, power has its own inertia, authority demands action, and freedom, once given up, is almost never given back.

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