Wednesday, June 01, 2005

How to Make 4,000 Terrorists (and One Reporter) Disappear Overnight

Any day now I expect to open my door and find two beefy guys wearing crew cuts and JC Penny suits, flashing badges and asking me tough questions.

This is what happened to Bill Conroy, an online journalist who published the details of a memo leaked from the Department of Homeland Security on

(It’s also happened to dozens of left-wing political activists; see my previous WitList entry -- Your Pocket Guide to the Patriot Act.)

The memo, which was not classified, instructed employees of US Customs to “sanitize” its database of 4,000 terror suspects by re-categorizing them as something else. For example, a terrorist investigation related to cash smuggling would be reclassified as simply “smuggling.”

The reason? About 18 months ago the DHS was ordered to consolidate its 12 separate ‘terrorist watchlists’ into one Big Kahuna watchlist, to be overseen by the new Terrorist Screening Center. The Customs Department apparently didn’t get that memo, and now it’s frantically trying to catch up. But rather than figure out which of those 4,000 people are actual terrorists, the department decided to simply wipe the list. Presto! No more terrorists. Isn’t bureaucracy wonderful?

This also happens to fit neatly with the ongoing effort to turn the Patriot Act into a general purpose crime fighting tool (for more on that, see my last blog entry).

Essentially, Customs employees were instructed to rewrite the past. In case this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s what Winston Smith did for a living in Orwell’s 1984. And the DHS did not want the public to know about it.

Here’s the scary part. A few weeks after Bill Conroy reported this story, he got a visit from two Federal agents at his home and then at his place of work. They demanded that he turn over his source for the memo. Conroy refused. They then tried to intimidate his boss, who also stood firm. They did this even though a) no crime had been committed, b) they had no warrant, and c) Conroy wrote the story on his own time for a Web site unrelated to his day job.

The agents also refused to allow Conroy to record their conversation and failed to adequately identify themselves.

Conroy is author of a online book titled “Borderline Security: A Chronicle of Reprisal, Corruption, and Cronyism in the US Customs Service.” You think maybe that might have had something to do with that social call from US Customs?

Yes, this has happened in the past. The McCarthy Red Scare in the ‘50s; the Co-Intelpro program to infiltrate anti-war groups in the ‘60s and early ‘70s; the harassment and surveillance of El Salvador and Nicaraguan support groups in the ‘80s. Each time, we vowed we wouldn’t let them do this to us again. Well, they’re doing it to us again.

Here’s what’s different this time: What you’re looking at right now. With email, blogs, and the Web, abuses of power like this are harder to keep quiet. As individuals, we can’t keep history from repeating itself. All we can do is turn on the lights and wait for the cockroaches to scramble back to their holes.

So let’s turn on a few lights by sharing this blog entry with your friends and with the media. We all could do with fewer roaches.


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