Big Brother is coming to town:
- NEW BEDFORD -- A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."
Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.
The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.
The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.
"I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book," Professor Pontbriand said. "Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it."
Although The Standard-Times knows the name of the student, he is not coming forward because he fears repercussions should his name become public. He has not spoken to The Standard-Times.
... The student told Professor Pontbriand and Dr. Williams that the Homeland Security agents told him the book was on a "watch list." They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student, the professors said.
Dr. Williams said in his research, he regularly contacts people in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other Muslim hot spots, and suspects that some of his calls are monitored.
"My instinct is that there is a lot more monitoring than we think," he said.
Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.
Plainly, this kind of anecdote underscores the ease with which programs aimed strictly at stopping terrorists (or those with a "clear link" to terrorists) can be expanded into areas having little to do with terrorism.
And that really is the issue, isn't it, with the the program uncovered in the recent revelations about the Bush administration's surveillance of American citizens through the National Security Agency? (Though it must be pointed out that, for now, it's difficult to ascertain whether the UMass surveillance was conducted under the same program as the NSA work.)
This raises really significant constitutional issues, and raises the immediate question of whether the Bush administration is intentionally provoking a constitutional crisis. Today's analysis in the Washington Post points out:
- Bush's constitutional argument, in the eyes of some legal scholars and previous White House advisers, relies on extraordinary claims of presidential war-making power. Bush said yesterday that the lawfulness of his directives was affirmed by the attorney general and White House counsel, a list that omitted the legislative and judicial branches of government. On occasion the Bush administration has explicitly rejected the authority of courts and Congress to impose boundaries on the power of the commander in chief, describing the president's war-making powers in legal briefs as "plenary" -- a term defined as "full," "complete," and "absolute."
... Congress asserted itself in the 1970s, imposing oversight requirements and passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said FISA "expressly made it a crime for government officials 'acting under color of law' to engage in electronic eavesdropping 'other than pursuant to statute.' " FISA described itself, along with the criminal wiretap statute, as "the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance . . . may be conducted."
No president before Bush mounted a frontal challenge to Congress's authority to limit espionage against Americans. In a Sept. 25, 2002, brief signed by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, the Justice Department asserted "the Constitution vests in the President inherent authority to conduct warrantless intelligence surveillance (electronic or otherwise) of foreign powers or their agents, and Congress cannot by statute extinguish that constitutional authority."
The brief made no distinction between suspected agents who are U.S. citizens and those who are not. Other Bush administration legal arguments have said the "war on terror" is global and indefinite in scope, effectively removing traditional limits of wartime authority to the times and places of imminent or actual battle.
"There is a lot of discussion out there that we shouldn't be dividing Americans and foreigners, but terrorists and non-terrorists," said Gordon Oehler, a former chief of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center who served on last year's special commission assessing U.S. intelligence.
By law, according to University of Chicago scholar Geoffrey Stone, the differences are fundamental: Americans have constitutional protections that are enforceable in court whether their conversations are domestic or international.
Bush's assertion that eavesdropping takes place only on U.S. calls to overseas phones, Stone said, "is no different, as far as the law is concerned, from saying we only do it on Tuesdays."
Michael J. Woods, who was chief of the FBI's national security law unit when Bush signed the NSA directive, described the ongoing program as "very dangerous." In the immediate aftermath of a devastating attack, he said, the decision was a justifiable emergency response. In 2006, "we ought to be past the time of emergency responses. We ought to have more considered views now. . . . We have time to debate a legal regime and what's appropriate."
Bush already has appeared to declare himself beyond the law on numerous fronts, most notoriously on his attempts to ignore the Geneva Conventions regarding torture. It is not just a recurring theme: It's a standard MO. "Very dangerous," indeed.
You know, I was around when most Americans realized that Richard Nixon was a threat to the nation's well-being, and I remember what happened then. I don't think it will happen to George W. Bush, but I thought that about Nixon, too.