The Spy Game
Simultaneous proposals by U.S. President George W. Bush and Colombian President-elect Alvaro Uribe to deploy civilian spies as a component of their domestic counterterrorism strategies clearly illustrates the authoritarian tendencies of both leaders. Bush’s soon-to-be-implemented Terrorism Information and Prevention System (Operation TIPS) and Uribe’s scheme to establish a civilian militia both call for at least one million civilians to inform on their fellow citizens. There are striking similarities between both plans and Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), which are neighborhood watch groups used by Fidel Castro’s government to gather intelligence on the activities of the Cuban people. The fact that the CDRs have been repeatedly criticized in the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights reports has not diminished the enthusiasm of the Bush and Uribe administrations to implement their own versions of Cuba’s domestic spy program.
For more than 40 years, Fidel Castro’s government has recruited civilians into neighborhood watch groups as a means of defending Cuba from Washington’s many covert (including the Bay of Pigs invasion) and not so covert (the ongoing economic embargo) attempts to undermine and overthrow the Castro regime. According to Humberto Carrillo, the Cuban government official responsible for the neighborhood watch groups, “The CDRs know exactly who lives in each block, who they are, what they do, if they work or not … and keep a registry in coordination with the Interior Ministry.” The civilian committees also report to the government any potentially suspicious behavior and all contact between locals and foreigners.
As recently as March of this year, the State Department issued a report claiming that Cuba’s government “maintains a pervasive system of surveillance through… neighborhood-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). The Government traditionally uses the CDRs to mobilize citizens against dissenters, impose ideological conformity, and root out ‘counterrevolutionary’ behavior.”
But after years of criticizing the authoritarian nature of Cuba’s CDR program, the U.S. government is now planning to implement a similar scheme to help defend the United States against terrorism. In an explanation of the TIPS program that sounds eerily similar to Carrillo’s description of the Cuban CDRs, the Justice Department has claimed that the recruitment of more than a million mailmen, plumbers, electricians, utility workers and other members of the civilian workforce would establish “a national reporting system that allows these workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activity.”
Bob Levy of the Washington-based Cato Institute recently pointed out the likely consequences of the TIPS plan: “We are soon going to have guys who are meter-readers–these kind of people don’t just go to a lot of different places, they are uniquely positioned to enter private residences–so these guys come into our homes, supposedly to do what we expect them to do, then they end up rummaging around and filing a report with the Justice Department. This transforms America into a nation of meddlers and busybodies.”
During the 1960s and 1980s, government intelligence agencies used informers and other means to infiltrate and spy on thousands of law-abiding individuals and organizations whose only crime was disagreeing with U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam and Central America. While Operation TIPS intends to replicate that intrusion into the private lives of Americans under the guise of fighting terrorism, past governmental abuses of power suggest that any intelligence gathered would likely also be used against innocent citizens who are merely opposed to various domestic and foreign policies of the Bush administration. However, the implementation of the proposed domestic spy program hit a snag recently when the U.S. Postal Service announced it would not allow its letter carriers to participate in Operation TIPS.
Meanwhile in Colombia, President-elect Alvaro Uribe is also promising to institute a civilian intelligence-gathering program. This million-strong civilian militia will be supplied with radios that allow it to report to the Colombian military the suspicious activities of suspected “subversives,” which in Colombia often includes labor leaders, human rights workers and members of local civic groups. Considering Uribe’s militaristic anti-guerrilla campaign rhetoric and past links to civilian watch groups that evolved into illegal right-wing paramilitary death squads, it is almost certain that the new network of informers will target suspected leftists and further erode what little respect for human rights currently exists in Colombia.
Like the CDR program in Cuba and the TIPS plan in the United States, Uribe’s proposal calls on Colombian citizens to spy on their friends and neighbors. However, unlike the CDR and TIPS programs, Uribe’s scheme will endanger the lives of the one million unarmed Colombian informers who will inevitably become military targets in the eyes of the armed groups. With a decades-old war being waged between the Colombian military, right-wing paramilitaries and two leftist guerrilla groups, Amnesty International is concerned that “Uribe’s plan to create a one million-strong civilian militia of informers… will only fuel the spiral of political violence and drag the civilian population further into the conflict.”
The Bush White House has already displayed its willingness to develop close ties with President-elect Uribe. It has also requested that Congress authorize a $98 million counterterrorism aid package for the Colombian military and allow the Colombian army’s U.S.-trained counternarcotics battalions and U.S.-supplied helicopters to be used in counterinsurgency operations against leftist guerrillas who are on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
In its eagerness to use the war on terrorism as justification for escalating U.S. military involvement in Colombia’s civil conflict, the Bush White House has ignored reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even the State Department that the Colombian military maintains close ties to right-wing paramilitaries who are also on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist groups and are responsible for more than 70 percent of Colombia’s human rights violations.
From the beginning of its alleged war against terrorism, the Bush administration has allied itself with terrorists who have shown a willingness to support U.S. political, economic and military objectives. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush White House quickly developed ties with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, whose ability to brutally violate the human rights of the Afghan people was on a par with that of the repressive Taliban regime. At the same time, Washington allied itself with a Pakistani military dictatorship that has sponsored Kashmiri terrorist groups responsible for numerous bombings of civilian targets in India.
And now that Washington has set its sights on Saddam Hussein as the next target in the war against terrorism, the Bush administration is currently trying to convince Turkey–whose savage repression of its Kurdish population has made it one of the worst perpetrators of state-sponsored terrorism in recent decades–to join ranks with the United States in a military invasion of Iraq.
In light of the Bush administration’s track record since September 11, it should come as no surprise that it would use the war against terrorism as justification for expanding support for a Colombian military closely allied to right-wing terrorists. It should also come as no surprise that the Bush White House is willing to support Colombian President-elect Uribe’s proposal to create a million-strong civilian militia to combat “terrorism.” After all, the Bush White House is using the same justification for establishing its own million-strong network of civilian informers in the United States. Meanwhile in Havana, one can only assume that Fidel Castro is highly amused by the irony of these supposedly democratic nations implementing Cuban-style domestic spy programs.
This article originally appeared in Colombia Report, an online journal that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).