Jim Hightower

Who's Spying Now?

Woody Guthrie once wrote about the two levels of thieves in our society: “Some’ll rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen.” It’s the fountain-penners who are out to steal our democracy from us today. These are powerful people–our own officials who are using terrorism as their excuse to shred our First Amendment rights. One example is a little-known, governmental body called the Foreign Intelli-gence Surveillance Court. Operating in absolute secrecy, FISC is where the FBI goes to get an OK to spy on people who are believed to be operating on behalf of a foreign power. Believed by whom? By the authorities——no one else is present when the federal agents get the court’s permission to spy, and FISC is notoriously quick to put its fountain pen to the approval papers. In a recent analysis of 934 formal applications to spy, this court approved all of them. Now comes the USA Patriot Act——so ugly that it would cause all the real Patriots of 1776 to gag. Slam-bammed through Congress last year by George W and his authoritarian sidekick, John Ashcroft, this thing is riddled with anti-democratic provisions. For example, it empowers the FBI to force libraries and bookstores to cough up the borrowing and buying records of any of us the feds call a terrorist. Under Ashcroft’s new law, anyone whose acts “appear to be intended to…influence the policy of government by intimidation,” is defined as a terrorist. Appears to be? And who decides if this vague and sweeping language applies to a particular person targeted by the FBI? The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The presiding judge of FISC has said that his secret court is one of the most important that we have “as we combat our hidden enemies.” In a democracy, our real enemy is a hidden court looking for “hidden enemies.”


You’ve heard of the Little Shop of Horrors, now comes the Little Boutique of Retail Ethnography. “Retail ethnography” is a bit of corporate gobbledygook that essentially means spying, prying, snooping, and generally intruding into the private lives of us consumers. It sprang from a simpler, more honest process called “market research,” but this research has gotten sneakier and darker. Instead of being aboveboard with shoppers, retail ethnography is the underhanded art of surveillance, using all of the latest technological gadgetry to monitor shoppers clandestinely. Hidden video cameras and microphones are computerized to “track” individual customers as they move through a store, identifying them by their body temperature and mapping their movements by passing them from camera to camera. If a customer lingers over a product, the cameras zoom in to record facial expressions. The latest advance in the “intrusion explosion,” as columnist William Safire has dubbed it, is a recently-opened Minneapolis boutique called Once Famous. Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times reports that this inviting shop, filled with artsy, upscale home furnishings is really not in the business of selling…but of spying. It’s a front, set up by Omnicom Group Inc.——a global advertising giant. Once Famous looks like a real store with clerks selling products to customers. But it’s really a surveillance lab that’s totally wired so analysts can watch the shoppers from a hidden control room. Manufacturers pay a fee to put a product in the store, then watch the video of customer reactions to the product. Most shoppers have no idea that their every movement is being recorded, analyzed…and sold. Sadly, under current law, this commercialized invasion of our privacy is legal.


One of the great promises of America is that with a load of luck and a lot of pluck, you can get somewhere. Jeanette Wallis is walking from Seattle, Washington to Washington, D.C. But her real aim is to get into the minds, hearts, and souls of the American people, rallying them to stand up for their democracy, which she sees as being greatly imperiled by the political and corporate elites who don’t seem to give a damn about what regular people think. Jeanette became a democracy agitator the hard way——she got teargassed, chased and arrested by riot police during the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle. She wasn’t protesting——just walking home from the store in her own quiet neighborhood. That’s when she decided that We the People had better start speaking out…or lose our freedoms. Taking to heart the First Amendment’s guarantee of our right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” she set out on her cross-country trek. As she goes, she talks with people about her grievances against the Powers That Be, and she listens to others who then put their grievances into hand-written letters for her to carry all the way to the nation’s Capital. She hopes to hand them to the president. “I’m just a messenger,” says this 30-year-old sojourner. With her dog, Sherpa, her 40-pound backpack, and her ideals to sustain her, Wallis is averaging about ten miles a day, weathering storms, camping out, and enduring aching feet. To learn more and to help Jeanette Wallis on her journey, contact her now at www.thewalkfordemocracy.org.

Jim Hightower is a speaker and author. To order his books or schedule him for a speech, visit www.jimhightower.com. To subscribe to his newsletter, the Hightower Lowdown, call toll-free 1-866-271-4900.

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Published at 12:00 am CST