"I came here to drink milk and kick ass. And I've just finished my milk." - Moss, The IT Crowd

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I do not think that "respect for civil rights and civil liberties" means what you think it means

When a federal agency (in this case, the Department of Homeland Security) conducts an internal investigation to determine whether the civil rights of U.S. citizens were violated by improper surveillance, how can such an investigation possibly be meaningful if no detailed accounting of its findings is ever produced? If a tree falls in the forest but everyone who could hear it has been kept outside the forest's perimeter, did it make a sound?

In this case, DHS's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (OCRCL) responded to a complaint by the ACLU by conducting an investigation of whether the DHS acted improperly by engaging in domestic intelligence collection on non-violent protest groups which espoused policies critical of the U.S. government (particularly with regards to the Iraq war).
The document which triggered the complaint was a "Proactive Intelligence Bulletin" issued by the Intelligence Branch of the Threat Management Division of the Federal Protective Service (an agency within DHS), which provided a "Civil Activists and Extremists Action Calendar" listing groups for which "security partners are requested to report the various planned activities of these elements within their respective jurisdictions." Groups listed in the bulletin include such noted threats to safety and civil society as Code Pink (Women for Peace), Thinking People, The Center for Women and Democracy, The Humane Society of the United States, and (my omnipresent favorite) Various Anti-War Groups. Amusingly, the last sentence of the bulletin states, "This document is not intended for media release or public dissemination and should be destroyed by shredding or burning when no longer required."

After conducting the investigation, the OCRCL concluded that - hey, good news! - no wrongdoing or abuse of authority occurred. But they refuse to release to the ACLU the memorandum detailing their findings, on the grounds that it is a privileged communication protected from disclosure. Apparently their word, absent any evidence (other than that showing that abuse of authority did occur), should be good enough for us to feel secure that they investigated their own agency thoroughly and that everything is well and truly above board and beyond suspicion.

The best part: the first bullet point in the OCRCL's mission statement is "Promoting respect for civil rights and civil liberties in policy creation and implementation by advising Department leadership and personnel, and state and local partners." What a knee-slapper.

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