The Washington Post’s project, Top Secret America, examines the efforts of local enforcement personnel to aid Uncle Sam in monitoring Americans in states across the country.

Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.

The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation’s history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The government’s goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States.

State governments are collecting more and more data on ordinary U.S. citizens under the presumption that individuals are potentially engaging in planning activities to commit terrorist crimes. Many people think they don’t need to worry about being in the spotlight of anti-terrorist enforcement efforts because they have nothing to hide. If you subscribe to this theory, think again after you read this compelling example of the broad range of everyday activities characterized as potentially suspicious:

Suspicious Activity Report N03821 says a local law enforcement officer observed “a suspicious subject . . . taking photographs of the Orange County Sheriff Department Fire Boat and the Balboa Ferry with a cellular phone camera.” The confidential report, marked “For Official Use Only,” noted that the subject next made a phone call, walked to his car and returned five minutes later to take more pictures. He was then met by another person, both of whom stood and “observed the boat traffic in the harbor.” Next another adult with two small children joined them, and then they all boarded the ferry and crossed the channel.

All of this information was forwarded to the Los Angeles fusion center for further investigation after the local officer ran information about the vehicle and its owner through several crime databases and found nothing.

Authorities would not say what happened to it from there, but there are several paths a suspicious activity report can take:

At the fusion center, an officer would decide to either dismiss the suspicious activity as harmless or forward the report to the nearest FBI terrorism unit for further investigation.

At that unit, it would immediately be entered into the Guardian database, at which point one of three things could happen:

The FBI could collect more information, find no connection to terrorism and mark the file closed, though leaving it in the database.It could find a possible connection and turn it into a full-fledged case.

Or, as most often happens [emphasis added], it could make no specific determination, which would mean that Suspicious Activity Report N03821 would sit in limbo for as long as five years, during which time many other pieces of information about the man photographing a boat on a Sunday morning could be added to his file: employment, financial and residential histories; multiple phone numbers; audio files; video from the dashboard-mounted camera in the police cruiser at the harbor where he took pictures; and anything else in government or commercial databases “that adds value,” as the FBI agent in charge of the database described it.

I was recently on a hike near Harper’s Ferry. First I hiked to an elevated outlook point from which I took several pictures of the railway bridge and the train station.  Then I walked down to the railway bridge to take some more pictures. From there I walked into the town of Harper’s Ferry to take even more pictures of said railway bridge and train station. Was I plotting an attack? NO! I was an unsuspecting tourist capturing images of the sights for my enjoyment at home.  Was I being tracked as a suspicious subject? I don’t know. 

We all care to protect ourselves and our children from terrorist attackers. However, the level of information gathering, analysis, and sharing going on in many developed nations today is moving us ever closer to the perils of a police state. Americans still enjoy a very high level of freedom and rule of law in their country; however, I am still concerned about the rate at which monitoring activities are expanding here and abroad. With the expanded capacity for police monitoring and enforcement, arise the grave dangers of the abuse of such a system. 

The recent debate over nude body scanners seems insignificant when compared to the activities described in this Washington Post report. There is a need for a serious public debate about whether the level of terrorist threats really warrants such intrusive monitoring activities by the state.