Attract Government Attention and Get Your Name Run Through a 'Terrorist' Database

Offending the powerful can be dangerous in an increasingly authoritarian world.


In 2021, it's unfortunately not surprising to learn about routine federal surveillance of people who attract official attention. We live, after all, at a moment when freedom looks haggard and unloved even in liberal democracies and a record number of journalists are behind bars. That the practice of running people's names through multiple government databases appears to be routine doesn't bode well for the United States, let alone the world beyond.

"Documents obtained by Yahoo News, including an inspector general report that spans more than 500 pages" expose snooping by Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Counter Network Division, Jana Winter wrote in a December 11 report. "The division, which still operates today, had few rules and routinely used the country's most sensitive databases to obtain the travel records and financial and personal information of journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers and others."

CBP agent Jeffrey Rambo was initially implicated for inquiries about Ali Watkins, a reporter at The New York Times. That included "pulling email addresses, phone numbers and photos from passport applications and checking that information through numerous sensitive government databases, including the terrorism watchlist." But it quickly becomes apparent that he's been hung out to dry for doing what he was told by means that are considered normal within the federal government.

"According to records included in the inspector general report, such vetting was standard practice at the division," Winter adds.

Given the range of tools available to the feds, it's not a shock that their use has become rote. What's the point of having vast (if unreliable) databases on people's activities if you're not going to use them? To the databases, add geotagging data and information scraped from social media by contractors. Running background checks as a matter of course may be creepy, but it's difficult to imagine it not becoming standard practice when that information is available at agents' fingertips.

"For two decades, we've seen how the collect-it-all, share-it-all philosophy underlying post-9/11 law enforcement floods agencies with sensitive personal information on millions of Americans," Hugh Handeyside, an ACLU attorney, told Yahoo News's Winter. "When agencies give their employees access to this ocean of information, especially without training or rigorous oversight, the potential for abuse goes through the roof."

Surveillance has become ubiquitous because of the fetishization of national security as an overriding concern, but also because it's so easy to access information on almost everybody. Even professional spies complain that it's almost impossible to remain covert in a world of "digital obstacles that are the hallmarks of modern life: omnipresent surveillance cameras and biometric border controls, not to mention smartphones, watches and automobiles that constantly ping out their location," as The Wall Street Journal recently noted.

Individuals like The New York Times's Watkins become targets in an era when surveillance is easy, and in which official attention is commonly turned against people who the powerful view with hostility. After the surveillance story broke, the Associated Press demanded to know why one of its reporters was targeted for snooping. The related story observed that "the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump had obtained records belonging to journalists, as well as Democratic members of Congress and their aides and a former White House counsel, Don McGahn" and that "During the Obama administration, federal investigators secretly seized phone records for some reporters and editors at the AP. Those seizures involved office and home lines as well as cellphones."

Governments have never liked being scrutinized and criticized, but free countries expect them to suffer the spotlight as the price of controlling the dangerous apparatus of the state. If they don't like it, that's too bad. That a country enjoying the protections of the First Amendment for free speech and a free press puts the screws to people who attract attention emphasizes the fact that the rest of the planet is in even more dire straits.

"They are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions," the Norwegian Nobel Committee commented while awarding the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, who resist the repressive efforts of the governments of the Philippines and of Russia.

"The number of journalists jailed around the world set another record in 2021," the Committee to Protect Journalists announced just days ago. "Invoking new tech and security laws, repressive regimes from Asia to Europe to Africa cracked down harshly on the independent press."

While the worst of such repression is in explicitly authoritarian countries, 56 journalists have been arrested in the U.S. this year, which is as many as in 2017-2019 combined.

Journalists don't exist in a bubble, of course. As I noted in my recent piece about the mistreatment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by Britain and the United States, journalism isn't a status, but rather an activity in which anybody can engage. Reporting and commenting on the missteps and abuses of the powerful is an effective means not only of holding them to account, but of getting under their skin. Annoying powerful people has become an increasingly dangerous activity even where it was once safe.

"The world is becoming more authoritarian as autocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression," Sweden's Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance observed last month (other groups make similar points). "Many democratic governments are backsliding and are adopting authoritarian tactics by restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, a trend exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic."

We saw such backsliding under former President Donald Trump, who attacked the legitimacy of critical press outlets and threatened government action against media companies. It continues under President Biden, who set his Justice Department against parents who criticize school policies. When presidents lash out at reporters and threaten the use of law enforcement against critics, it follows that government agents see nothing wrong in probing and tracking people who come to their notice.

Curbing surveillance against journalists, activists, and other high-profile individuals won't be accomplished as an isolated goal. Freeing critics of the powerful from routine snooping requires reemphasizing liberty as a priority that outweighs national security, public health, or any other concerns on the minds of politicians. Then, and only then, will we be free to live in a world which sees those in government office as the proper subjects of scrutiny, and not those who hold them to account.

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  1. "We saw such backsliding under former President Donald Trump, who attacked the legitimacy of critical press outlets and threatened government action against media companies."
    It is impossible to attack something that doesn't exist. Tuccille also doesn't really understand the meaning of the word: 'critical'. Apparently, he believes that being critical and being a lying sack of shit is one and the same thing.

    1. I love how they attack trump for talking about a dishonest press when Biden actually sends the FBI to raid their homes.

      1. How heartless of you... isn't it obvious that the mainstream media is far too tough on Biden already? If they would be any more critical of his Building Back Betterism they'd literally be the Pravda!

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        2. Unka Joeys Bring Back Better needs to be highly and throughly criticised. Biggest piece of garbage legislation I've seen ever. Except for some similar pieces of junk floated in some wonky foreign countries.

    2. Imagine if Trump weren't so effective at controlling critical media outlets; he probably would've been impeached 6 times! Legitimately!

      1. Did he even equal the number of subpoenas and investigations of journalists that Obama started?

        I recall 1 time under trump.

      2. If President Trump was one-tenth as authoritarian and/or malevolent as his statist enemies claim he is, he'd still be in the White House.

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  2. "Attract Government Attention and Get Your Name Run Through a 'Terrorist' Database"


    Parents who oppose CRT in their children's public schools should be treated like terrorists.


    1. Execs of spittin tobacky companies should be checked against a terrorist database if they complain about taxes or government policies that result in inflation causing a $0.10/pouch increase.

    2. Indeed, if there's anything more dangerous than white supremacists (aka Democratic policies and their former voters), it's concerned parents.

  3. ... USA #44 internationally for press freedoms!!! Yea, USA! #44! Wooo-Hoooo!!!! DEFEND that freedom! Maybe someday we can make it to #43!!!

  4. To be fair, a lot more journalists belong in jail, if for no other reason than that they're committing fraud. "Journalism" shouldn't consist of merely uncritically repeating whatever you're told by a "spokesman" without an acknowledgement that "spokesman" is an actual job title for a "media relations officer", i.e., a paid propagandist. When you start noticing how many news reports include the phrase "according to a spokesman", you realize the news is reporting the literal truth - a spokesman really did say that - without delving into the question of whether or not what the spokesman said was the truth. Hint: It's not. You don't get to remain a spokesman if you're going to be telling the truth. Jen Psaki could tell you that, and she's an incredibly stupid liar. And yet there are plenty of "journalists" who report on what she says as if what she says might accidentally have any relation to the truth.

    1. No Jerryskids, people do not belong in jail because they didn't do their job the way you think they should have.

      1. Ah yes, fraud isn't something to be concerned about in a libertarian society because truth is what the government and corporate shills say it is. Sorry, forgot we were working with Reason's marxist themed libertarianism here.

      2. When a guy claims he's a house painter and I hire him to paint my house and he comes over to my house and re-shingles the roof, I'd suggest it's not a matter of opinion as to whether or not he did his job properly. If you call yourself a journalist but are really just repeating propaganda, you're committing fraud.

      3. but many SHOULD be in the CrowBar Hotel for knowingly and/or negligently spreading falsehood.

        lets take mug nappies as a fer instance:
        when the GOOD ONES have holes in them big enough to allow a thousand or more WooFlew viral particles to stretch out in a straight line, then fload through those openings in foank formation( the long liine going sideways, not single file one at a time) they are useless for "protection". When the GOOD particle masks I wear for sanding, gringing, etc, let so much junk tho=rough my nose is dripping black dust, teeth grinding on the particles, after only one hour of use, t then those same masks can in NO WAY even slow down a virus which is well under one thousandth the eixe of the grit I scrape off my face, tongue, nostrils, inside of the used mask.
        Yet the press continuelaly declare "masks are effective in preventing the spread of the virus".

        Or how about the 12,000 or so deaths occurring very soon after taking the shot.... good grief, back when they were developing another vaccine fifteen years ago, they observed FIVE deaths over six months due to the shot, and discussed ending the programme. After another seen, they DID so, terminating that trial and ending the programme for that shot.

        Has any lamestream journalist bothered to dig into such things? Not that I'ev ever read. Plenty of "non-traditional" true journalists have done, though. but they get suppressed, fired, blacklisted, terminated, ostracised, shunned, and otherwise abused.. for simply publishing an uncritical report of actual hard science findings.

    2. You know who else jailed journalists based upon their politics?

      1. Abe Lincoln?

        1. BOOM. HEADSHOT.

      2. Interesting response considering Jerryskids didn’t mention their politics.

    3. How about reporters? Can they repeat what a spokesman has said?

      A journalist is just a reporter that has gone stupid.

      1. they can IF they attribte the source as the source. Then the weight falls on the source, not the reporter.
        Howeve,r a real journalist will dig below the surface, thorughly research a matter, find the truth, or at least both sides of"the story" and report accuratly, with their sources and thought processes. THEN a public will be informed, and can decide for themselves.What we now get, in the main, is neither journalism nor reporting. It is flat out propaganda originating from higher up. The press have become the mouthpice, the loudspeaker, for the ones in control. WHEN will some dog pull back the curtain so the little nerd in the booth can now be observed as the one puling the strings and pushing the levers. Game over.

  5. “We saw such backsliding under former President Donald Trump, who attacked the legitimacy of critical press outlets and threatened government action against media companies. It continues under President Biden, who set his Justice Department against parents who criticize school policies.”

    One of these things is not like the other.

    1. “The media is really, the word, one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake,’” Trump told Mike Huckabee in an interview for the two-time Republican presidential candidate’s new show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. “I guess other people have used it perhaps over the years but I’ve never noticed it. And it’s a shame. And they really hurt the country. Because they take away the spirit of the country.”

      1. And that’s like investigating parents as terrorists how?

        1. If Bone Spurs didn't like something he called it FAKE NEWS, which is easier than having to learn something. He tore up his PDBs w/o reading them, he called them FAKE NEWS. The only thing he listened to was Putin, which he literally preferred over our 18 Intelligence Agencies.

          1. And calling the media fake news is like investigating parents as terrorists how?

          2. The only thing he listened to was Putin, which he literally preferred over our 18 Intelligence Agencies.

            If they won him the election, doesn't that objectively make them the best intelligence agency?

            1. He lost the popular vote twice, lost the electoral college once and committed fraud to win EC once ("CROSSCHECK"). That is why he is called the biggest loser.

          3. Those of us paying attention during the Trump years noticed the media WAS fake news. How many hours were wasted talking about Russiagate, when everybody involved already KNEW it was fake?

            1. What were you watching ? RT, previously known as Russia Today ? You should have watched one of the American channels Comrade.

              1. Because Racheal Maddow > facts?

          4. Poor kid - still parroting the Russia lies.

            I wonder if it ever considers why Putin waited until Joe was in the Oval Office before invading Ukraine...

            It's almost as if Putin was sure the other guy would drop bombs on his ass if he did, but he's not worried about that now. Hmmm....

  6. Funny how a headline on individuals subject to surveillance quickly turns to a rant on Trump and journalists.
    Welcome to Reason.

    1. References to Trump in the article: 2

    2. I mean ENB doxxed a guy for a tweet critical of her.

      1. But the editors would never come in here as sockpuppets to attack those critical of them. Never.

  7. Put your feet on Pelosis desk and get arrested as a terrorist.

    1. And rightly so! How dare anyone defy the sanctity of our Betters? They are untouchable to the commonfolk and any crime committed against them or their property is a felony tenfold! They're not some filthy SMEs burnt down and looted by some peaceful protesters in bumfuck nowhere!

  8. By the way. Wouldn't this normally include things like the J6 commission going after bank, tax, email, and even personal journals of opposition party members who weren't even at the Capitol? Or is that not an abuse due to reasons? Instead let's focus on trump criticizing a press that lied about him for 5 years.

    Great article.

    1. Are you getting a Trumpy Bear for Xmas? I bet you are!

      1. Nice non sequitur.

        Youre broken like sarc i take it?

        Weird how you Trump obsessed faux libertarians seem perfectly fine with the J6 political non violent arrests and investigations into political opponents with government resources. I mean if you can't see this makes even Maduro jealous why do you call yourself a libertarian?

      2. I haven't seen you here in a while. Are you going to start using your DOL sock again?

  9. <

    While the worst of such repression is in explicitly authoritarian countries, 56 journalists have been arrested in the U.S. this year, which is as many as in 2017-2019 combined.

    I wonder what the difference between 2017-2019 and this year is….

  10. the press deserved every fucking second of T calling it out two times over

  11. Marcus Licinius Crassus: In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled. Tomorrow they will learn the cost of their terrible folly... their treason.
    Gracchus: And where does my name appear on the list of disloyal enemies of the state?
    Marcus Licinius Crassus: First.

  12. Simple solution, prohibit government from initiating force.

  13. It used to be that government served the people. How come it seems to have gotten twisted around, as seems to be the case.

  14. Well, since the supreme court has effectively repealed the fourth amendment, anytime a person contacts anyone by phone, text, computer, mail, in person, or steps foot out of his house, he has forfeited his rights to be "secure" and so is then subject to government search For The Greater Good. The founding fathers were so eighteenth century.

  15. Most U.S. Supreme Court rulings are multi-facteted, not just a single topic. Today in 2021 one could argue that ALL surveillance - electronic and old fashioned - that results in totalitarian style 24/7 “warrantless” surveillance, that exceeds 2 weeks, is illegal for police chiefs, FBI Directors and even national security agencies.

    The explicit verbatim wording in the “Carpenter v. US” ruling clearly stated that no American would be subjected to totalitarian style warrantless surveillance that essentially created a map of that person’s personal life - unless they obtained a search warrant from a judge. This ruling was also preceded by a GPS ruling also requiring a warrant. The high court ruled that the surveillance itself was a “search” governed by the clear language of the 4th Amendment.

    Today we literally have a “Thought Police” violating the “Carpenter” ruling. We have security, intel and law enforcement agencies viewing LEGAL 1st Amendment activity essentially as probable cause to search a person’s computer, email, texts, phone records, etc. Our tax dollars are funding this illegal activity. It’s also counter-productive, wasting taxpayer resources on legal speech exercises instead of focusing on probable cause from actual crimes.

    Another way to view it: the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially declared the “Bush Preemption Doctrine” is now illegal in the USA. Preemption doctrines are illegal.

  16. Democrats are in charge again; Of course there is political-leaning terrorist lists again. It was exactly the same B.S. when Obama and the Democrats where in charge. They've been trying to *force* Nazism on everyone since the Great Depression and getting more forceful by the year.

    because that's what Nazi's do......

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