Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Alarming Stuff

Of late, I've been setting off alarms when I enter certain stores.

At the Home Depot, people look at me curiously as the klaxons go off.

At the Autozone near closing time, the young woman behind the counter nearly falls off her chair at the clamorous blatting.

"Has that happened before?"

She shakes her head, wide blue eyes still wary.

"What do you think set it off?"

"Probably a cell phone or something," she says.

"I don't have a cell phone," I say, going to the aisle with windshield wipers. Since 9/11 someone has been having a go at my wipers a couple of times a year, twisting them out of shape or slitting the rubber. Once the rear window was bashed in. Another time, the rear lift gate was bent out of shape with a crowbar or some equally heavy implement. The slings and arrows of tri-state life. But at least I don't have to ask where Autozone keeps its wipers now.

At the Sears Hardware store, where they know me, the alarm announcing my entrance gets a laugh. The clerk who accepts my payment says with a giggle: "Must be something in your shoe."

Another clerk calls over to let me know that she has to "log it."

Log the alarm going off or me coming into the store?

She shrugs.

This wouldn't be worth writing about if I hadn't just read an article by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive and author of "You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression."

The article is headlined: "The FBI Deputizes U.S. Corporations." It is about the Bureau's "InfraGard" program. "Today, more than 23,000 representatives of private industry are working quietly with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security" says the lead. They receive secret warnings of terrorist threats before the public does, and in return, "provide information to the government." And according to one business executive, who showed Rothschild his InfraGard card, "they have permission to "shoot to kill" in the event of martial law."

The program began in 1996 in Cleveland, where the FBI enlisted local businesses in investigating cyber-threats. It grew rapidly after 9/11. In November 2001, InfraGard had only about 1,700 participants; today, it is a nonprofit organization with 23,682 members representing a wide range of businesses, including 350 of Fortune 500 corporations. It's still an FBI operation, with agents overseeing operations in 86 InfraGard chapters. Rothschild quotes Phyllis Schneck, vice president of research integration at Secure Computing: "We are the owners, operators, and experts of our critical infrastructure -- from the CEO of a large company in agriculture or high finance, to the guy who turns the valve at the water utility."

The reference to "water utility" reminds me of Geetha Angara, the 45-year old mother of three who was a senior chemist at the Passaic Valley Water Commission complex in Totowa, NJ; her body was found in a massive water treatment tank on 8 February 2005. She had been strangled and dumped in the freezing water. Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano focused his attentions on the 85 employees who worked the same day-shift as Angara, but investigations led nowhere. Despite repeated appeals from Angara's family, the case has not been referred out of the Passaic jurisdiction, to state or federal levels; there is no longer a full time investigation. Was her murderer, I wonder, a vigilante who felt he had official authority to get rid of a brown-skinned woman with a foreign sounding name, occupying a position where she could pose a very large threat to security?

Rothschild's article gets progressively scarier. InfraGard is not open for anyone to join. You must be sponsored by "an existing InfraGard member, chapter, or partner organization," and the FBI has to vet the applicant. Members are told to contact the FBI if they "note suspicious activity or an unusual event," and to inform on "disgruntled employees who will use knowledge gained on the job against their employers."

The American Civil Liberties Union warned in August 2004 that some InfraGard members could do more: they may be able to report on the activities of millions of individual customers of businesses. It issued that warning in a report titled "The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society." The ACLU has pointed out that communications of InfaGard members with the FBI and Homeland Security are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act because they fall under the "trade secrets" exemption.

Rothschild notes that the InfraGard member website cautions that the "interests of InfraGard must be protected whenever presented to non-InfraGard members;" and that in "interviews with members of the press, controlling the image of InfraGard being presented can be difficult." It urges "proper preparation for the interview" to "minimize the risk of embarrassment." It says that the "InfraGard leadership and the local FBI representative should review" questions submitted by the Press, "agree on the predilection of the answers, and identify the appropriate interviewee." Questions concerning "sensitive information should be avoided," it says.

Among the advantages of belonging to InfraGard is advance warning from the FBI through a "secure communication network complete with VPN [virtual private network] encrypted website, webmail, [e-mail] listservs, message boards, and much more." There are "almost daily updates" on threats "emanating from both domestic sources and overseas." Says Schneck: "People are happy to be in the know."

Since May 9, 2007 InfraGard has an additional role under National Security Presidential Directive 51, which instructs the Secretary of Homeland Security to coordinate with "private-sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure, as appropriate, in order to provide for the delivery of essential services during an emergency." Hundreds of InfraGard members are reported to have participated in emergency drills.

One business owner told Rothschild "that InfraGard members are being advised on how to prepare for a martial law situation." At one small meeting he said, agents of the FBI and Homeland Security discussed in astonishing detail what InfraGard members may be called upon to do. "The meeting started off innocuously enough, with the speakers talking about corporate espionage. From there, it just progressed. All of a sudden we were knee-deep in what was expected of us when martial law is declared. We were expected to share all our resources, but in return we'd be given specific benefits" such as the right to travel in restricted areas. "Then they said when -- not if -- martial law is declared, it was our responsibility to protect our portion of the infrastructure, and if we had to use deadly force to protect it, we couldn't be prosecuted."

Rothschild confirmed that such a meeting was held, but reports that another participant denies any discussion of the use of lethal force. The FBI also denies it -- vehemently.

I want to believe the FBI. But I wonder at the secrecy of the whole matter. Shouldn't we get everyone involved in preparing for disaster? Why make some people more equal than others? And I wonder at the people who participate in all this; don't they see the danger it poses to fundamental American values?

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