| From Capitol Hill Blue|
According to a printout from a computer controlled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice, I am an enemy of the state.
The printout, shown to me recently by a friend who works for Justice, identifies me by a long, multi-digit number, lists my date of birth, place of birth, social security number and contains more than 100 pages documenting what the Bureau and the Bush Administration consider to be my threats to the security of the United States of America.
It lists where I sent to school, the name and address of the first wife that I had been told was dead but who is alive and well and living in Montana, background information on my current wife and details on my service to my country that I haven’t even revealed to my wife or my family.
Although the file finds no criminal activity by me or members of my immediate family, it remains open because I am a “person of interest” who has “written and promoted opinions that are contrary to the government of the United States of America.”
And it will remain active because the government of the United States, under the far-reaching provisions of the USA Patriot Act, can compile and retain such information on any American citizen. That act gives the FBI the authority to collect intimate details about anyone, even those not suspected of any wrongdoing.
My file begins on September 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. A Marine guard standing post at the Navy Yard in Washington jotted down the license number of my Jeep Wrangler after I was spotted taking pictures of armed guards at the locked-down military facility.
That night, I found a card stuffed under my door from Agent John Ryan of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. I chuckled at the time because the lead character in Tom Clancy’s novels is named John P. Ryan.
I called Agent Ryan the next day. He wanted to know what the hell I was doing taking photos of a military facility. I explained that I was a journalist and taking pictures was what I did for a living. I directed him to a web site where he could find some of the photos I shot of the Navy Yard’s side gate on that day. He asked for additional information, including date of birth and social security number, which I provided, and then hung up.
I thought the matter was dead until a few weeks ago when an old friend from Washington called, said he was in the area, and suggested lunch. At lunch, he showed me the 100-plus pages of the file on me that grew out of that first encounter with Agent Ryan of NCIS.
“Much of this information was gathered through what we call ‘national security letters,’” he said. “It allows us to gather information from a variety of sources.”
A “national security letter” it turns out, can be issued by any FBI supervisor, without court order or judicial review, to compel libraries, banks, employers and other sources to turn over any and all information they have on American citizens.
The FBI issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year. When one is delivered to a bank, library, employer or other entity, the same federal law that authorizes such letters also prohibits your bank, employer or anyone else from telling you that they received such a letter and were forced to turn over all information on you.
According to my file, the banks where I have both business and checking accounts have been forced to turn over all records of my transactions, as have every company where I have a charge account or credit card. They’ve perused my book borrowing habits from libraries in Arlington and Floyd Counties as well as studied what television shows I watch on the Tivos in my house. They know I belong to the National Rifle Association, the National Press Photographers Association and other professional groups. They know I attend meetings of Alcoholic Anonymous on a regular basis and the file notes that my “pattern of spending” shows no purchase of “alcohol-related products” since the file was opened in 2001.
In the past, when information collected on an American citizen failed to turn up any criminal activity, FBI policy called for such information to be destroyed.
But President George W. Bush in 2003 reversed that long-standing policy and ordered the bureau and other federal agencies to not only keep that information but place it in government databases that can be accessed by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
In October, Bush also signed Executive Order 13388 which expands access to those databases to “appropriate private sector entities” although the order does not explain what those entities might be. In addition, the Bush Administration has successfully blocked legislation and legal actions that have tried to stop the expansion of spying and gathering of information on Americans.
FBI spokesmen defend the national security letters as a “necessary tool” on the so-called “war on terror.”
"Congress has given us this tool to obtain basic telephone data, basic banking data, basic credit reports," Valarie E. Caproni, the FBI general counsel, told The Washington Post. "The fact that a national security letter is a routine tool used, that doesn't bother me."
Obviously it doesn’t. Carponi signed at least one of the letters used to gather information for my file.
When I asked to keep the copy of the file, my friend said “no.” I promised to keep it and the source confidential.
“You can’t,” he said. “You can’t keep anything hidden. Your life is an open book with us and it will be to the day you die.”
After we left lunch and went our separate ways, I wondered how, if my life was under such scrutiny from Uncle Sam, he could meet me for lunch in a public restaurant and not be discovered? So the next day I went to a public phone in an out-of-the-way location and dialed his direct number.
It was disconnected. So I called the central number and asked to speak to him. The woman who answered the phone wanted my name and phone number so he could return the call. I hung up.
Then I drove home with one eye glued to the rearview mirror. Didn’t see anything suspicious but if I turn up missing one day, just forward my mail to General Delivery, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
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