Monday, February 04, 2008

A return to the bad old Hoover days?

Who was the most feared man in Washington between May 10, 1924 and May 2, 1972? It was J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was not a President, though after his appointment as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 he lasted for 48 years, spanning the Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and part of the Nixon administration. There was a reason he remained in power in Washington for so long. Part of it was that he made the FBI his own personal fiefdom, dismissing agents or anyone else who crossed him, and in fact arranging the end of their careers. No one-- not Congressmen, Senators or even Presidents dared to cross Hoover. He held official Washington in an icy grip of fear.

And the key to his power was because he had files. Up to fifty million of them-- on any American who was noteworthy enough (or even knew anyone who was noteworthy enough) to attract his attention. If he couldn't find 'something' on somebody then he had his agents conduct surveillance (including wiretaps) into their family, their friends, or anyone else he could use as leverage should he ever have a desire to do so. Hoover made it a point to destroy the lives of anyone who dared challenge his power, and abused his charge by conducting surveillance on political opponents who were exercising their Constitutional rights and who had nothing to do with crime or criminal activity.

Once the scope of Hoover's activities came to light following his death, and also other abuses of civil liberties by the Nixon White House and other government agencies (such as the CIA) there was a brief period in the mid-1970's when concerns over civil liberties and privacy led to the the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, the creation of the FISA court and other reforms that made government more accountable and gave the FBI and similar agencies some laws to follow. Since Coolidge appointed Hoover, in 1924, we've had one President, who made limiting the domestic spying authority of government agencies any kind of a priority at all, and that President was Jimmy Carter, who served one term and signed many of the reforms of the 1970's into law.

FBI to collect database of human physical characteristics.

CLARKSBURG, West Virginia (CNN) -- The FBI is gearing up to create a massive computer database of people's physical characteristics, all part of an effort the bureau says to better identify criminals and terrorists.

But it's an issue that raises major privacy concerns -- what one civil liberties expert says should concern all Americans.

The bureau is expected to announce in coming days the awarding of a $1 billion, 10-year contract to help create the database that will compile an array of biometric information -- from palm prints to eye scans.

Kimberly Del Greco, the FBI's Biometric Services section chief, said adding to the database is "important to protect the borders to keep the terrorists out, protect our citizens, our neighbors, our children so they can have good jobs, and have a safe country to live in."

But it's unnerving to privacy experts.

"It's the beginning of the surveillance society where you can be tracked anywhere, any time and all your movements, and eventually all your activities will be tracked and noted and correlated," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Project.

The FBI already has 55 million sets of fingerprints on file. In coming years, the bureau wants to compare palm prints, scars and tattoos, iris eye patterns, and facial shapes. The idea is to combine various pieces of biometric information to positively identify a potential suspect.

A lot will depend on how quickly technology is perfected, according to Thomas Bush, the FBI official in charge of the Clarksburg, West Virginia, facility where the FBI houses its current fingerprint database.

Thomas E. Bush III is not a first or second cousin of the current President, though I've not been able to research definitively if or how closely related he is beyond that.

What concerns me is that this seems to be one more brick in a virtually endless succession of steps that have come-- from both Democratic and Republican administrations-- that give official spy agencies such as the FBI pretty much a window into anyone's life.

It is unfortunate that no one really addresses this issue anymore, taking it for granted that 'we have to protect ourselves from criminals and terrorists' or whatever other bogeymen they throw out there, so therefore we should all just accept these new spy powers.

Yeah, I know. I may get some more comments from Ron Paul supporters. I still consider him to be somewhat of a nut though, what with arguing against the civil rights movement and even against the Civil War, apparently having no problem with institutional racism. Unfortunately, Bush I (the former head of the CIA) raised an endorsement from the ACLU as a red flag against Michael Dukakis in 1988, and since then it seems that all major candidates of both parties have taken it as a matter of course that they should just go along with the flow towards ever and ever more restrictive police powers (I never hesitate to remind people that when Clinton's ATF tried to shoot their way, unannounced into Waco, it was technically legal because 'someone' had said their might be drugs in the compound-- though no evidence of that was actually found later-- so the 'no-knock' attack was legal under 'war on drugs' legislation pushed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980's.) In other words these laws last way beyond any administration and can be used or abused by any future administration.

Or by any future rogue bureacrat, out to create his own empire within Washington.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had an uncle whose career Hoover tried to destroy after anti-war activists broke into the office he headed. He was lucky that there was a paper trail on security problems within the office that prevented Hoover from firing him (about three years short of his retirement) but he couldn't prevent Hoover from forcing him to relocate halfway across the country for his final few years in the FBI.