I have been struck in the most recent years by the weird resonances between then and now. Hearing Chris Dodd read from Frank Church’s report in the Senate recently was an extraordinary linking between the abuses of power during the Vietnam War era and today. Every word about that time describes the present. The big differences is that laws have been passed to legalize the behavior that was then patently illegal. (And, one could argue on constitutional grounds, remains fundamentally illegal.)
I’m struck again by how strangely we’re repeating the mistakes of the past – though possibly on a grander, more technological scale – in these two items from BeSpacific:
Declassified documents described in today’s New York Times detail J. Edgar Hoover’s plans to jail thousands of people on his personal list of people who he suspected of “disloyalty.”
Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to “protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage.” The F.B.I would “apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous” to national security, Hoover’s proposal said. The arrests would be carried out under “a master warrant attached to a list of names” provided by the bureau.
The names were part of an index that Hoover had been compiling for years. “The index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven per cent are citizens of the United States,” he wrote.
“In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus,” it said.
Habeas corpus, the right to seek relief from illegal detention, has been a fundamental principle of law for seven centuries. The Bush administration’s decision to hold suspects for years at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has made habeas corpus a contentious issue for Congress and the Supreme Court today.
The Constitution says habeas corpus shall not be suspended “unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.” The plan proposed by Hoover, the head of the F.B.I. from 1924 to 1972, stretched that clause to include “threatened invasion” or “attack upon United States troops in legally occupied territory.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush issued an order that effectively allowed the United States to hold suspects indefinitely without a hearing, a lawyer, or formal charges. In September 2006, Congress passed a law suspending habeas corpus for anyone deemed an “unlawful enemy combatant.”
The Washington Post describes the FBI’s efforts to create a massive database of personal identifying characteristics.
The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion effort to build the world’s largest computer database of peoples’ physical characteristics, a project that would give the government unprecedented abilities to identify individuals in the United States and abroad.
Digital images of faces, fingerprints and palm patterns are already flowing into FBI systems in a climate-controlled, secure basement here. Next month, the FBI intends to award a 10-year contract that would significantly expand the amount and kinds of biometric information it receives. And in the coming years, law enforcement authorities around the world will be able to rely on iris patterns, face-shape data, scars and perhaps even the unique ways people walk and talk, to solve crimes and identify criminals and terrorists. The FBI will also retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of employees who have undergone criminal background checks so the employers can be notified if employees have brushes with the law . . .
It’s going to be an essential component of tracking,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s enabling the Always On Surveillance Society.”
If successful, the system planned by the FBI, called Next Generation Identification, will collect a wide variety of biometric information in one place for identification and forensic purposes.
In an underground facility the size of two football fields, a request reaches an FBI server every second from somewhere in the United States or Canada, comparing a set of digital fingerprints against the FBI’s database of 55 million sets of electronic fingerprints. A possible match is made — or ruled out–as many as 100,000 times a day.
Soon, the server at CJIS headquarters will also compare palm prints and, eventually, iris images and face-shape data such as the shape of an earlobe. If all goes as planned, a police officer making a traffic stop or a border agent at an airport could run a 10-fingerprint check on a suspect and within seconds know if the person is on a database of the most wanted criminals and terrorists. An analyst could take palm prints lifted from a crime scene and run them against the expanded database. Intelligence agents could exchange biometric information worldwide . . .
n the world’s first large-scale, scientific study on how well face recognition works in a crowd, the German government this year found that the technology, while promising, was not yet effective enough to allow its use by police. The study was conducted from October 2006 through January at a train station in Mainz, Germany, which draws 23,000 passengers daily. The study found that the technology was able to match travelers’ faces against a database of volunteers more than 60 percent of the time during the day, when the lighting was best. But the rate fell to 10 to 20 percent at night.
To achieve those rates, the German police agency said it would tolerate a false positive rate of 0.1 percent, or the erroneous identification of 23 people a day. In real life, those 23 people would be subjected to further screening measures, the report said.
You couldn’t make this stuff up (unless you’re Terry Gilliam). It’s just too weird and conspiratorial and over the top. But it’s happening. Right now.