Columns » Max Brantley

Un-American activity

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The audience at the Market Street Cinema reacted with a ripple of recognition during a recent showing of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the new film about Sen. Joe McCarthy and his infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Unexpectedly, in black-and-white footage from the 1950s, there was Arkansas’s former senator, John McClellan, demanding that McCarthy produce proof that the woman McCarthy was accusing before the committee truly was a Communist.

McCarthy was soon disgraced, but the fear-mongering and suspicion live on. We now know that it was not just suspected Communists who were investigated. Long after the fact we learned that the FBI also kept secret files on civil rights leaders, entertainers, homosexuals, and a host other non-conformists. And that was with old technology.

Snooping today is far less fettered, and, thanks to the godawful USA PATRIOT Act, so is the government’s use of it.

We don’t talk anymore about the need to root out Communists or civil rights agitators. But say the word “terrorist,”’ and the rationale for domestic spying rises afresh.

Its current form may be the most virulent. Whereas some suspicion, no matter how faint or bogus, had to attach to targets in the past, today, the FBI can build a file on any of us, without any specific reason.

Once created, the file will never be destroyed. We will never know of its existence. We won’t be able to protest it, or even check its veracity. And information in it can be shared with anyone, anywhere in the world — in the public sector or private — that an official declares “appropriate.”

There may already be a file on you.

Ask yourself: Since Sept. 11, 2001, have you used a credit card? Flown on an airplane? Visited a casino? Bought a book? Searched the web? Spoken on a phone? Sent an e-mail? Rented a car? Taken out a loan? Cashed a paycheck? Invested in stocks or bonds?

Sure, you say. But ...

But nothing.

If some crank called your house and someone in government decided that all of that crank’s associations needed to be checked and monitored, there could be a file with your name on it today.

If — and this apparently really happened — a suspected terrorist, or someone suspected of having contact with a suspected terrorist, flew into Las Vegas, the FBI could sweep up the names of everyone else who visited Las Vegas that week. If you happened to be there at the same time, you may already be in the data bank.

Did you read about the London bombings on the Internet? Maybe the bombers were interested too and certain Web sites were being monitored. Any of us may have been caught unawares in the invisible, global dragnet.

The process is called “contact chaining,” and the legal instrument that makes it possible is called a “national security letter.” If a hotel, library, or Internet server is issued one, that business or institution is required to turn over whatever information the FBI demands — and never even breathe a word about having been asked.

Privacy laws used to bar businesses and institutions from releasing specific customer information. But provisions of the Patriot Act override the privacy laws.

If any of this offends you, you might let our folks in Congress know. It’s clear we have our new McCarthys. It’s time for our McClellans to speak up.



Mara Leveritt is contributing editor to the Times and an author. Max Brantley is on vacation.

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