At first glance it may not seem like anything bad happened to Stephen Sprouse and Kristin Douglas, Kansas Citians who ran off to Las Vegas at the end of 2003 to tie the knot.
But in his methodical and utterly convincing “Frontline” report at 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday on PBS, Pulitzer Prize-winner Hedrick Smith shows how the happy couple were spied on by their own government. They and 250,000 other visitors to Sin City were caught up in a massive dragnet made legal under the Patriot Act.
Hotel records, airline records, rental-car and gift-shop receipts - all were demanded by FBI agents in response to a vague report that al-Qaida “could have an interest in Las Vegas” in the lead-up to that city’s annual New Year’s celebration. It was one of the first, but by no means the last, instances of the Bush administration using the far-reaching powers granted by Congress after 9/11 to conduct warrantless searches on its own citizens.
The Sprouses’ personal information was hoovered up by powerful computers at the National Security Agency, which they learned about only when “Frontline” contacted them.
“They have no reason to be looking at me,” an indignant Kristin Douglas tells Smith. “I don’t think that I’ve done anything to raise any suspicion.”
OK, but was any real harm done to the Sprouses? Were they pulled off a commercial flight or denied credit or paid a visit by Homeland Security? No, no and no, Stephen Sprouse told me last week when I asked.
“But it doesn’t make me feel any better that nothing has happened yet,” Sprouse said. “My wife and I were upset, maybe `outraged’ isn’t the right word but, why? Why was it necessary to grab 250,000 names or whatever it was?” (According to “Frontline,” the report that triggered the massive data dive was later found to be erroneous.)
Smith is a former New York Times correspondent who was bureau chief in Moscow at the height of the Brezhnev era and who wrote a best-selling book, “The Russians,” shortly after returning from the Soviet Union in 1975.
He says it takes time to see the effects of an ongoing campaign of government domestic surveillance.
“I’ve lived in a society where people operate under the assumption that somebody else is listening or watching,” said Smith. “Over time people start to behave differently. They start to pull in their horns, even if they are technically free to speak and do what they want.”
From its Cold War founding, the National Security Agency was forbidden to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, but that changed after 9/11. What makes Smith’s report so valuable is that, in less than an hour, he lays out a short, accessible history of how the feds got into the domestic spying business in a big way.
First of all, the private sector does much of the dirty work. As Smith explains, privacy laws forbid the government to gather huge troves of data about its citizens. But that doesn’t mean it can’t tap into the vast databases kept by companies like ChoicePoint, which sells personal information to industry and a multitude of government agencies. “Frontline” reports that more than 50 federal agencies currently are plumbing through private data in nearly 200 spying operations. No search warrants are being asked for or issued.
Smith chose the Sprouses to be the human face of this troubling trend because, as white Midwesterners, they embody the idea that domestic surveillance has reached every corner of America. Well, that and they had Elvis video.
By scouring local newspapers during the week of the data sweep, Smith found the announcement of the Sprouses’ nuptials. The couple agreed not only to talk to “Frontline” but also to share the home movie of their Vegas wedding, held at a chapel where the King himself was in attendance.
Smith interviewed the former chief of NSA, who denied that he had authorized random data grabs from the public. More insights come from former Justice Department official John Yoo, now a professor at UC-Berkeley. Yoo, who helped write the Patriot Act and authored a now-infamous memo on allowable torture, is one of the media’s go-to guys for defending the seemingly indefensible.
“There are important Fourth Amendment issues here,” Yoo said, adding, “you can still have warrantless searches, but they have to be reasonable.” Yoo also argues that since we’re at war, “we don’t require reasonable searches and seizures” in many cases.
It was King George III in the 1700s who allowed British troops to conduct random searches in the American colonies. As Peter Swire, a former privacy adviser to President Clinton, points out to Smith, that’s why we have the Fourth Amendment - no more warrantless snooping.
“Frontline” makes a solid case that the federal government now routinely sidesteps the Constitution in the name of preventing terrorism, that it’s happening on a huge scale and that there are no plans to stop, at least not while permanent war is declared on a hidden enemy.
Really, all that’s missing is the tea party.