I feel so much safer. Arnold's Army is on the way to the Mexican border. One thousand National Guardsmen of California, guys with names like Sanchez, Kowalski, Huang and Gutierrez, are being sent by a guy named Schwarzenegger to stop the invasion of immigrants. OK, I'm down with that-ever since the first Pilgrims immigrated to these shores, just about every new American has wanted to shut the Golden Door behind them.
But the bogus border patrol has nothing to do with stopping illegal immigration. After all, even as dim a flashlight as our president, who ordered the governor to send the Guard to battle stations, knows that a couple hundred more professional border patrolmen would do a better job than a thousand weekend warriors marching around the desert. And besides, if the Guard actually stopped the flow, there'd be riots in La Jolla when restaurant patrons discover they'll have to bus their own dishes.
According to George Bush, there's more to this boundary buildup than stopping trans-border commuters. The president tells us the war on immigrants is just part of the War on Terror. Our borders, he tells us, are open and the bad guys can just wade right in. But if we've learned anything at all from the Sept. 11 attack, it's that al Qaeda flies business class. Indeed, one of the weirder factoids about that dreadful day is that several hijackers put in for their frequent-flyer miles.
So, if it's not really about stopping illegal immigration and not about stopping terrorists, what's it all about, George?
The answer: It's all about elections.
Huh? Join me in the time machine and travel back to the year 2000. In May of that year, six months before the presidential election, the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris, ordered the "scrubbing" of 57,000 names from the state's voter rolls. These were, said Jeb, ex-cons voting illegally.
But they weren't. Rather, the "felons" on the list were, in the majority, citizens guilty only of V.W.B.-Voting While Black. This ethnic cleansing of Florida voter rolls gave the election to Jeb's brother George (and thereby jump-started Al Gore's movie career).
This heist of the 2000 presidential race could only have been accomplished via a lucrative link-up between the government and private companies that collect and sell your personal data-"data miners"-who operate beyond the reach of the laws meant to protect us from our government.
Federal law prohibits the government from keeping files on us unless we are suspected of a crime. The law in question is the United States Constitution. Nevertheless, the regime in Washington has found a loophole in the rules laid down by our Founding Fathers. The government doesn't keep the records; they just rent the data from these Spies-R-Us operators. You can call it the privatization of the FBI-though it is better described as the creation of a private KGB.
With a big enough database, it's no problem at all to match innocent voters to felons somewhere in the U.S., especially among ethnic groups with common last names, including blacks and Hispanics. And that's how the game was played in Florida in 2000: matching, for example, and removing Johnny Jackson Jr.'s registration because someone named John Fitzgerald Jackson was serving time in Texas.
And they did it again in 2004, and not just in Florida this time. Using the new Help America Vote Act, the secretaries of state of Ohio and Colorado conducted their own suspect voter roll purges. In both cases, the officials were also state chiefs of the Bush re-election campaign.
The key is the databases. The question, then, is: How can the Bush administration convince Americans that the government, through private contractors, should be permitted to keep secret files on Americans?
The answer is fear. Fear sells better than sex. They are coming to get us is the line used to convince us they should be allowed to track our phone bills and our travel plans.
The biggest data mine of info on U.S. citizens is owned by ChoicePoint Inc. of Alpharetta, Ga., which holds, by my last count, more than 16 billion records of our financial, medical and other data-plus, its hot new product, a database of personal DNA profiles. It was a ChoicePoint unit that gave Florida the list of African-Americans wrongly tagged by the state as felons.
ChoicePoint's CEO and founder Derek Smith is, after our president, the nation's top fear salesman. To hawk his wares, he declared, "The mothers of this country are wrestling with threats!" Really? One of his scary stories, pre-Sept. 11, was finding, from Choice-Point's records, that one in four pizza delivery drivers had been in jail within four months of starting the job bringing you your pie.
"What pizza do you like?" Smith said. "At what price? Are you willing to take the risk associated with the company that doesn't screen their drivers?"
Then came Sept. 11, 2001-his lucky day, financially at least. Fear became an easy sale. With ChoicePoint's "success" in Florida (ChoicePoint's word), and given a boost by al Qaeda's attack, the company picked up contracts worth, reportedly, more than a billion dollars from the FBI, Homeland Security, federal intelligence agencies and local police departments.
And ChoicePoint has also picked up work with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Hunting for suspected non-citizens is the lucrative new vein in data mining. Because al Qaeda no longer seems so scary, we must have a new threat: the brown horde streaming across the border.
In the 2004 election, data mining opened up a whole new game in elections manipulation.
Just after midnight on Oct. 8, 2004, a month before the presidential election, my BBC investigations team began to receive several strange e-mails intended for Tim Griffin, research director for the Republican National Committee, and other honchos of the Bush re-election campaign in Washington, D.C. Attached to each was a spreadsheet, marked "CAGING.XLS," with thousands upon thousands of names and addresses.
How they ended up in our computers instead of theirs-well, such things happen. It was, we determined, a list for mass challenges of black voters with "suspect" addresses.
And who were these "suspect" voters Republicans secretly targeted? There were pages and pages of black soldiers and sailors. We reached the home of one, Randall Prausa, whose wife said he had been shipped overseas-thus making voting from his home address subject to challenge. It's not, by the way, illegal for a soldier to vote from Baghdad, even a black one, but it gave the Bush operatives grounds for a "challenge."
In 2004, an unprecedented 1 million voters were challenged and shunted to "provisional" ballots. More than 600,000 of these were never counted. The decision to count or not count these votes-mostly cast by minority voters-was left to each secretary of state. Ohio's Kenneth Blackwell, the one also leading the Bush re-election campaign, rejected enough of the votes to hand the state, and the White House, to George Bush.
Expanding databases will be crucial to electoral games in 2008. Dozens of states have passed new voter-I.D. laws to prevent non-citizens from voting. But the fact is that, of tens of millions of votes cast, we can't find a dozen cases of non-citizens voting-risking jail time to cast a ballot. But the facts have not stopped the I.D. push.
Voter-I.D. laws blocked 300,000 people from casting ballots in 2004, and the new wave of laws should quintuple that. And those challenges of allegedly illegal residents will only be possible if we maintain intricate identification files on legal citizens. The government can't do that, but the contractors can.
I do want to point out one flaw in trying to protect ourselves with a thick wall of databases. ChoicePoint's Smith points out that, had the government ordered airlines to dip into his databases on Sept. 11, 2001, the hijackers could have been nabbed at the gate. Maybe true, but on that day the terrorists checked in using their real names. I understand that Osama no longer boards planes as "Mr. Bin Laden"-even though he loses all his frequent flyer miles.
Author Greg Palast will launch his new book, Armed Madhouse: Who's Afraid of Osama Wolf?, China Floats Bush Sinks, The Scheme to Steal '08, No Child's Behind Left and Other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War, in San Diego on Saturday, June 10, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4190 Front St., in Hillcrest. www.GregPalast.com.