The federal government keeps a terrorist database, which should come as no surprise, but the ease with which law-abiding Americans get caught in it just might.
There’s a chilling report out on the National Targeting Center, a secretive division of Customs and Border Protection, using that terrorist database to target American journalists.
It’s like something right out of George Orwell’s 1984 — if Oceania had bothered with niceties like buying a woman a drink before intimidating the hell out of her.
Yahoo’s Jana Winter reports on Jeffrey Rambo of the Targeting Center, and, man, did they get that first word right.
Rambo apparently posed as a possible source for national security reporter Ali Watkins, and so they met at an unmarked Washinton speakeasy:
Once at the bar, however, she found that the man seemed more interested in gathering information about her than in providing her with information. And he appeared to know a lot about her, including details of her travels and her relationship with James Wolfe, an older man who worked on Capitol Hill.
If this is starting to look to you like a federal agent intimidating a reporter, you’re right. Using an anti-terrorist database to help get the dirty job done, too.
It was Rambo’s defense of his actions that might disturb you most:
As part of that process, he and others he worked with vetted those potential contacts, pulling email addresses, phone numbers and photos from passport applications and checking that information through numerous sensitive government databases, including the terrorism watchlist.
“When a name comes across your desk you run it through every system you have access to, that’s just status quo, that’s what everyone does,” Rambo told investigators.
“All of the things that led up to my interest in Ali Watkins were standard practice of what we do and what we did,” he told Yahoo News. “And probably what’s still done to this day.”
It’s a fascinating article, although you will have to deal with a few gratuitous “Trump-era” references, as though this kind of thing hasn’t been going on for more than 20 years under presidents of both parties.
Reason’s J.D. Tuccille noted, “Given the range of tools available to the feds, it’s not a shock that their use has become rote.”
To the databases, add geotagging data and information scraped from social media by contractors. Running background checks as a matter of course may be creepy, but it’s difficult to imagine it not becoming standard practice when that information is available at agents’ fingertips.
“While the worst of such repression is in explicitly authoritarian countries, 56 journalists have been arrested in the U.S. this year,” Tuccille writes, “Which is as many as in 2017-2019 combined.”
There aren’t all that many reporters actually covering sensitive issues that might draw Washington’s ire. That 56 have been arrested in one year is a big tell.
Routinely intimidating journalists — including using Washington’s mammoth surveillance apparatus — is like something out of a ’70s conspiracy thriller.
Yet here we are.
When concerned parents of school kids are “domestic terrorists,” everybody is a domestic terrorist. I say, flood the database. They can have only so many Rambos and there are 330 million of us.
I’m not kidding about this.
Back in the late ’90s, when we found out that the NSA was scanning basically all the emails ever sent or received, I decided to become “a fly in the ointment, Hans, a monkey in the wrench, a pain in the ass.”
I created a custom signature that Microsoft Outlook would stick at the end of all my emails and replies. Instead of something like, “Stephen Green, Drinker,” my signature was a random collection of words like terrorism, bomb, embassy, cocaine, border, marijuana, etc. I encouraged friends to do the same.
Let their computers chew on a jillion innocent emails, I thought.
Eventually, I grew bored and quit. Now I’m sorry I quit.
Was I tilting at windmills? Sure, but sometimes that’s the only best option.
Sometimes, asserting your liberty to be left the hell alone, even in vain, is enough: It at least reminds you that you haven’t bent the knee.
Well, maybe it’s time to tilt at a few more windmills.