Features » May 12, 2004
Fear for Sale
September 11, 2001, was Derek Smith’s lucky day. There were all those pieces of people to collect—tubes marked “DM” (for “Disaster Manhattan”)—from which his company would extract DNA for victim identification, work for which the firm would receive $12 million from New York City’s government.
I have no doubt that Smith, like the rest of us, grieved, horrified and heartsick, at the murder of innocent friends and countrymen. As for the 12-million-dollar corpse identification fee, that’s chump change to the $4 billion corporation Smith had founded only four years earlier, ChoicePoint of Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
For ChoicePoint, with its 15-billion-plus records on every living and dying being in the United States, Ground Zero would become a profit center lined with gold. Contracts would gush forth from War on Terror fever not hurt by the fact that ChoicePoint did something for George W. Bush that the voters would not: select him as our president.
Here’s how they did it. Before the 2000 election, Choice-Point unit Database Technologies, under a $4 million no-bid contract under the control of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was paid to identify felons who had illegally registered to vote. The ChoicePoint outfit altogether fingered 94,000 Florida residents. As it turned out, less than 3,000 had a verifiable criminal record; almost everyone on the list had the right to vote. The tens of thousands of “purged” citizens had something in common besides their innocence: The list was, in the majority, made up of African Americans and Hispanics, overwhelmingly Democratic voters. And that determined the race in which Harris named Bush the winner by 537 votes.
270 million suspects
But before ChoicePoint’s miles of files on Americans could become a wartime weapon, the United States had to change radically. That change was announced by President Bush: On September 11, we Americans were the victims of the terrible attack.
By September 12, we became the suspects.
Not one single U.S. citizen hijacked a plane, yet President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, through powers seized then codified in the USA PATRIOT Act, fingered 270 million of us for surveillance, for searches, for tracking, for watching.
To say that ChoicePoint is in the “data” business is to miss their market concept utterly: These guys are in the Fear Industry. Secret danger lurks everywhere. Al Qaeda’s just the tip of the iceberg. What about the pizza delivery boy? ChoicePoint hunted through a sampling of them and announced that 25 percent had only recently come out of prison. “What pizza do you like?” asks CEO Smith. “At what price? Are you willing to take the risk?…”
ChoicePoint also has a product to calm the fears of mothers panicked by the stories on Geraldo of child-snatching cults: “ChoicePoint Cares.” That’s the name of the corporation’s DNA identification program to help reunite kids on milk cartons with their parents.
Underneath ChoicePoint Cares, Ground Zero identi-fication work, and pizza-man rapist hunts lies the sales pitch of panic. For a jittery nation, ChoicePoint has the computer Prozac: DNA databases and criminal history certification so you won’t be taken hostage by child-napping hijackers who deliver your pepperoni-and-double-cheese pie. The company wants to remove your discomfort at their entry into your bank records and bloodstream; to convince you to want them to hold the info on you and your children; to encourage you to think of their recording your every move as protection, not intrusion, the security of a kindly big brother to watch over you.
ChoicePoint is a little sensitive about its little DNA biz. The company insisted to my research team that they only track DNA of criminals and missing kids.
But an insider at ChoicePoint says the chairman told him about a longer-term plan. “Derek [Smith] said that it is his hope to build a database of DNA samples from every person in the United States,” from birth to death and beyond linked to all other data on a person. The plan, said the source, is for now kept under wraps because Smith expects “resistance” from the public. (Thanks to investigator Eric Boucher for this info. Boucher attracts informants through his day job as rock star Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys fame.)
Until September 11, the Fear Industry had a tough sell. The Berlin Wall was down and Americans were chillin’ through eight years of Clintonian peace and prosperity. The old liberal notion that more jobs meant less crime tested true. The national mood was “What, me worry?”
September 11 let the venomed bats out of the cupboard: Total Information Awareness (TIA), USA PATRIOT, not to mention plans for a couple of wars, all drafted long before the attack. Seizing on the tragedy, our presi-dent dusted the bat droppings off these freeze-dried Orwellian schemes and presented them to America as his swift, bold response to the Threat Out There.
The Third Ring
In Hollywood, Jack Nicholson picked up the zeitgeist: “If I were an Arab American I would insist on being profiled. This is not the time for civil rights.” I imagined hardened pillboxes on Malibu beach.
Maybe Jack’s right, and we have to trade a couple of freedoms for our safety. But is our new imitation KGB spending our cyberspy budget to make us truly safer?
I had hoped so, until a “little birdie” faxed me what appeared to be confidential pages from ChoicePoint’s contract with Mr. John Ashcroft’s Justice Department. A no-bid $67-million deal offered profiles on any citizen in half a dozen nations. The choice of citizens to spy on caught my eye. While the September 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, ChoicePoint’s menu offered records on Venezuelans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Argentinians and Mexicans.
What do these nations have in common besides a lack of involvement in the September 11 attacks? Coincidentally, each is in the throes of major electoral contests in which the leading candidates—presidents Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva of Brazil, Néstor Kirchner of Argentina and Mexico City mayor Andres Lopez Obrador—have had the nerve to challenge the globalization demands of George Bush.
When Mexico discovered ChoicePoint had its citizen files, the nation threatened company executives with criminal charges. ChoicePoint protested its innocence and offered to destroy the files of any nation that requests it.
But ChoicePoint, apparently, presented no such offer to the government of Venezuela, home of President Hugo Chavez.
Hugo Chávez drives George Bush crazy. Maybe it’s jealousy: Unlike Mr. Bush, Chávez won office by a majority of the vote. Or maybe it’s the oil. Venezuela sits atop a reserve rivaling Iraq’s. In Caracas, I showed Congressman Nicolas Maduro the ChoicePoint-Ashcroft agreement. Maduro, a leader of Chávez’s political party, was unaware that his nation’s citizen files were for sale to U.S. intelligence. But he understood their value to make mischief.
If the lists somehow fell into the hands of the Venezuelan opposition, it could im-measurably help their computer-aided drive to recall and remove Chávez. A Choice-Point flak said the Bush administration told the company they haven’t used the lists that way. The PR man didn’t say if the Bush spooks laughed when they said it. Our team located a $53,000 payment from our government to Chávez’s recall organizers, who claim to be armed with computer lists of the registered. What was practiced in Florida, without Choice-Point’s knowledge, could be retooled for Venezuela, then Brazil, Mexico and so on. Is Mr. Bush fighting a war on terror…or a war on democracy?
Which brings us to the Third Circle:
That which took shape here is a disguised kind of intelligence…which is annexed to the third security ring, which is the invisible ring.
The man spoke these words in Spanish, with an American accent, unaware of the camera. He added a moment later, “We are doing a job and [I trust] he will not be childish, Mr. ‘Corey,’ and that he will be on the corner saying, ‘I am from the CIA, I am from the CIA.’”
I watched this murky video in Vene-zuela’s capital. The men caught in the lens discussing these vague espionage plans worked for Wackenhut Corporation, Caracas. You may recall Wackenhut, the jails-R-us guys who got caught running the illicit spying operation on Alaska oil industry whistleblowers.
The man who headed Wackenhut’s oper-ations in Alaska shifted to Venezuela in 1991 where, according to Spy magazine, he ran a “black” information (i.e., disinformation) campaign against the government. Currently, the company has a contract to protect the U.S. embassy, a delicate job after our State Department’s applauding a coup against the elected Chávez government.
Wackenhut does not deny the authenticity of the Third Ring tape. It was just “an ordinary meeting of company officials.”
And here the darkness descends. Wackenhut says its rent-a-spies acted legally for a client they cannot name. Is it credible to believe that Wackenhut, doing sensitive security work for the U.S. ambassador, could conduct operations, legal or not, which could provoke a foreign power? Indeed, a plotter on the tape says, “All of you must be invisible with regard to everything that is related to the American embassy.”
What exactly is Wackenhut up to? And how does the Bush crew use or misuse ChoicePoint’s lists of Latin electorates?
Herein lies the danger of this brave new world of the privatization of spookery: We lose control. By “we,” I mean Americans and our elected representatives. Even in the worst days of the CIA, Senator Frank Church held hearings and exposed the dangerous rot in our intelligence services. A special prosecutor went after Ollie North’s Iran-Contra gang, which gave weapons to the Ayatollah. But how do we challenge the new privateers in espionage who can go for Mr. Ashcroft or Mr. Bush where prudence or the law tells them not to?
Hacking the Constitution
There are glimmers of ill doings already. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Washington, sued to obtain Ashcroft-ChoicePoint documents. The contract—no-bid, of course—remains so secret, even its true cost and title has been, extraordinarily, withheld. But EPIC found several gems, including the gushing notes of a government spook who requested that agents think of “far-out, funky” ways to use data.
More disconcerting was a handwritten note in government files recommending ChoicePoint for more work because the company “is very responsive to [U.S.] Marshals Service and has made enhancements to their public information database…to meet our needs.” Uh, oh. If ChoicePoint obtained special info for Big Brother, then officialdom crossed a legal line. As the privacy institute’s attorney Chris Hoofnagle explains, the law permits the government to access private databases that are freely available on the commercial market. But private companies may not create wide-ranging files on U.S. citizens for the government. In other words, if the FBI can’t spy on Americans without probable cause for suspicion, it can’t get around the law by handing the espionage work to a contractor. It’s not a small difference. The law in question is the Bill of Rights. Those Amendments prohibit our government from investigating us unless there’s reason to believe we are criminals.
Courageous federal judge Rosemary Pooler ruled, “As terrible as 911 was, it didn’t repeal the Consitution.” But with the privatization of computerized surveillance, the Constitution can be secretly hacked.
What about Jack Nicholson’s point? Screw rights, we want safety. Well, Jack, we’re both old farts who can remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, the Russians were going to drop The Big One on us. But we didn’t have to worry, Mrs. Gordon told us, if we just got under the desk, covered our necks and, “Don’t look at the flash!”
TIA, ChoicePoint’s DNA info for the FBI’s “CODIS” files, Genoa, data mining, the Third Ring…it’s the new “Duck and Cover.” Does this really make America safer?
ChoicePoint’s Smith admonishes that, if we’d only had his databases humming at the airports on September 11, the hijackers, who used their own names, would have been barred from boarding. However, experts inform me that Osama no longer checks in as “Mr. bin Laden,” even at the cost of losing his frequent flyer miles.
Nevertheless, our president suggests that, if we can get semen samples from every American and Venezuelan, take off our shoes at the airport, don’t ask the names of the seized and imprisoned or the price of contracts, we’ll be safe from the Saudi hijackers and baby snatchers and from…them…whoever “them” are.
Just remember, Don’t look at the flash!
This article is excerpted from the election edition of Greg Palast’s New York Times bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, out this month from Penguin.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2003) and Armed Madhouse (2007), and the newly released Vultures Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Carnivores (2011). Palast has won the George Orwell Courage in Journalism Award his investigative reporting. His stories have been published in many newspapers and magazines, as well as broadcast on the BBC and Democracy Now! His website is at www.GregPalast.com.