No Greater Threat
By C. William Michaels
February 21, 2003

"There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country where police were allowed to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country where the government is entitled to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your e-mail communications; if we lived in a country where people could be held in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, the government would probably discover more terrorists or would-be terrorists! But that wouldn't be a country in which we would want to live."

- Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold on the Senate floor on October 11, 2001,
when he became the only senator to vote against the US PATRIOT Act.

No Greater Threat is the first and only book to analyze the entire US PATRIOT Act - all 150 sections. As author C. William Michaels points out, only a few of the radical provisions of this unprecedented act are set to expire in the year 2005: The remainder of the Act "will be a permanent aspect of American life." Because of this, "an understanding of the PATRIOT Act is important for every concerned person in the United States." Howard Zinn (A People's History of the United States) calls this book "immensely useful and a wake-up call for all Americans concerned with defending our civil liberties."
Algora Publishing (

Most of the attention devoted to the national response after the September 11 attacks has involved foreign policy, military action and the international situation. No less significant is the transformation of the United States into a potential national security state.

Influences on the development of a possible national security state stretch back almost to the founding of the nation.

There are at least 12 common characteristics to a national security state (NSS). There may be more, but considering NSSs of various types (especially after WWII), these characteristics are the most common. It should be noted that to become a NSS, especially the less overt form which is the most likely prospect for America (all of these characteristics need not be completely fulfilled. Rather, the stronger these characteristics become, the more likely it is that a possibly permanent NSS will emerge.

The 12 characteristics are:
  • Visible increase in uniformed security personnel.
  • Limited accountability of law enforcement and security officers.
  • Reduced role of the judiciary and executive treatment of suspects
  • Secrecy of ruling authority and continued momentum of threat
  • Media in the service of the state
  • Public and national resources called to service against security threat
  • Patriotism moving to nationalism
  • Lack of critical response by religious denominations
  • National wartime or security mentality and permanent war economy
  • Targeted individuals or groups
  • Direct attack against dissent
  • Increased surveillance of citizenry
Other characteristics could be mentioned: merging of corporate and government powers, enlistment of youth in service of the state, how the state is portrayed in schools, restrictions upon outside travel by citizens, and restrictions upon access to information.

As the year 2002 continues to year 2003 and beyond, America is poised precariously close to fulfilling nearly all of these characteristics. The brightly painted red-white-and-blue bus sitting at the flashing yellow road sign that reads "Now Entering National Security State" is ready to move forward.

America has a long history of government restrictions on political expression and intrusions and investigations into private lives. These national actions have been the response to political threats to national security - either real or imagined.

The development of "national security" as a primary concern of the federal government (in recent expression from 1993 to the present all-encompassing status of that theme) has come about through several influences. They include the slow collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the continued or emerging role of other nations in sponsoring terrorism, the ongoing unrest in the Middle East, and the persistent presence on the world stage of states known to be sympathetic to the cause of terrorists, like Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria.

With this combination of influences, over a relatively short and recent time period, "national security" was transmuted from a generalized object to an operative theme of federal investigative and law enforcement agencies as well as of Congress and the White House.

Terrorism, especially domestic terrorism, has been a central government concern for at least seven years. Among the legislation passed by Congress during this time was the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Arrest and prosecution of those who commit terrorist crimes are imperative. Yet the nation cannot become so single-minded that this cause becomes the defining characteristic of both domestic and foreign policy.

Targeted Individuals or Groups
A NSS exists in response to a threat. That threat must be identified, declared, and made real. The national government must be seen as responding to this threat on a daily basis. The "image of the enemy" is proclaimed by the national government as a means of continually maintaining its claim to legitimacy in striking against the enemy.

Today, the targeted groups are of Middle Eastern descent. Anyone who looks like an Arab may be suspect. At the same time the Justice Department condemned violence "hate crimes" directed against Arab-Americans, it is seeking to round up Middle Eastern residents, question Muslim college students and failing to apologize for the dragnet arrests of more than 1,000 individuals, generally of Middle Eastern background. These men (including both visitors and US citizens) have been seized and held since September 11 attacks - some on very flimsy evidence.

By late 2001, the FBI had begun a program of interviewing 5,000 mostly Arab individuals. The American Civil Liberties Unions claims that since September 11 there have been more than 100 cases of harassment or poor treatment of Arabs or Arab-Americans at US airports. FBI agents, accompanied by local or state police officers, are going to homes, businesses, or schools of Arab-Americans to ask questions.

Direct Attack against Dissent
A National Security State cannot survive long in the wake of dissent, of criticism. It must meet a constant need to justify its existence to its population. Direct targeting of dissenters, whether individuals or groups, has yet to occur on a large scale and might not occur. Yet, some disturbing trends can be noted already, some based on what appears to be a return to the old habits on the part of federal investigators. Now attacks by the government or governmental agencies against dissenters can be made to seem part of the national response to terrorism. Marginalization of dissent, silencing or threatening of dissent, and legal action against dissenters by the government are classic features of a national security state.

This does not mean that people would be dragged from their homes in the middle of the night or that Congress would pass a new Sedition Act. It does mean that government will begin to promote the notion that dissent should become increasingly unpopular. It does mean that there will be state and federal initiatives to make "patriotism" a greater priority, which in turn will mean that anyone who challenges government policy will be "unpatriotic." From there is will be just a few stops to making it appear that dissent and protest, cherish rights of American citizens, is an affront to society itself.

In an incident that may be an indication of things to come, on December 14, 2000 the Denver police department raided the office of a Denver peace group and seized membership phone numbers, email lists, phone tree names and other lists containing the names of 984 people.

The Denver police department was found to have classified the American Friends Service Committee as a "criminally extremist" group. The AFSC, a policy and program outreach of the American Friends (Quakers), is an 85-year-old organization well known for its persistent, careful and insightful responses to issues of peace and justice and criticism of government foreign policies and military actions. The AFSC, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was among hundreds of peace and activist organizations in the police department's surveillance files. The Denver police have also created files on local protest activities against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

This "1984" environment is closer than many people believe. New electronic surveillance powers have been granted by the PATRIOT Act. FBI and NSA surveillance activity will include e-mail and other Internet traffic, telephones and cell phones.

New technologies are being developed to allow private surveillance of computer systems and Internet use. There are cameras monitoring highways and intersections, convenience stores, grocery stores, shopping areas, ATMs, airports, train stations and the downtown areas in most cities. There are efforts to link police cameras with other public agency video networks. There are proposals to put security cameras on the National Mall in Washington, DC. In May 2002, new facial recognition cameras and monitoring equipment were installed at, of all places, the Statue of Liberty. The cameras are positioned so that it would be difficult for people to turn away or hide their faces. At this rate, going about your business or visiting the US capitol, you could be caught on camera more than 200 times per day.

The crime of "domestic terrorism" in Title VIII is described as an act dangerous to human life, intended to influence government policy and a crime under state and federal law. While this definition has not yet been interpreted to include political advocacy groups or political protest, there is potential for government abuse or very broad interpretation of that definition.

It must be noted that these crimes also include an attempt to commit the crime or conspiracy to commit the crime. This means that "potential terrorists" who are know to use computers can be subject to surveillance, even if no crime has yet been committed.

The CIA has sought to broaden its powers for eavesdropping and surveillance and to reduce judicial review of these activities. The FBI has been seeking powers even beyond the far reaches granted by the PATRIOT Act.

Attorney General Ashcroft has said that to oppose these new investigation and surveillance powers is to side with the terrorists. ("The CIA's Domestic Reach," The New York Times, January 20, 2002.)

The PATRIOT Act could be viewed as encouraging citizens to turn in their neighbors. It is a crime to "harbor" or "assist" a terrorist.

A mid-May "Eye on America" segment on the CBS Evening News reported on the disturbing development of ordinary citizens becoming the subject of government inquiries following comments or statements made in a workplace, gym or other locale. If this trend continues, what a person writes, says, or does, in any number of venues or situations, can be a matter of government interest.

Surveillance of citizenry by its own government is not acceptable. This is a free country of free citizens. Surveillance by government or law enforcement authorities of anyone believed to be suspicious, for any reason, must be carefully and consistently justified.

A national security state is not the America most Americans want but it is an American that is likely to happen if its citizens do not realize that it is p to them, no less that the government itself, to ensure that individual liberties are safeguarded.

It is incumbent on Americans to recognize that national security does not come from the government itself, or the military, or new weapons, or armed guards at courthouses. It is a collective security beyond the state itself, beyond personal needs, beyond the concept of a nation. An American interested in exploring those concepts, rather than increasing surveillance and law enforcement, is an American that will come to terms with itself and will realize the much more complex response, at home and abroad, that is needed to reduce the threat of terror.

For more information contact:
C. William Michaels, Esq., a Baltimore-based attorney and writer, has been active in social issues for more than 30 years. In addition to serving as the Justice and Peace Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, he has taught law at the University of Baltimore and was hosted the weekly broadcast, New Earth Radio.

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