South Pomfret resident Bill Arkin isn't shocked by recent revelations about the worldwide and domestic spying operations of U.S. intelligence agencies.
That's because he and colleague Dana Priest reported extensively on privacy invasions by U.S. espionage agencies in an investigative series, "Top Secret America," published in the Washington Post more than three years ago.
Arkin and Priest showed how the national-security state had expanded exponentially in the years following the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. They reported, for example, that more than 3000 government organizations and private companies are engaged in "homeland security" activities in 10,000 locations around the United States, six of them in Vermont.
Arkin will update and analyze his findings as they relate to Vermonters and millions of other Americans at a conference on Wednesday in Montpelier. He's the featured speaker at the free, day-long event in the Pavilion Auditorium sponsored by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Arkin's talk will focus on "the big national picture and how Vermont fits into it," he said in a telephone interview on Monday. He'll also be touting his newly published book, American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.
Vermont has become "a perverse Ground Zero in the accelerating surveillance society," the state ACLU warned in a recent report. And Arkin explains why: "Large areas of the state are under federal jurisdiction because we happen to border that dangerous country, Canada."
The ACLU report outlined some of the government prying that occurs in Vermont in the name of homeland security: Drones patrol the state's border with Quebec; three dozen local police agencies in Vermont have purchased automated license plate readers that record and store motorist data; the U.S. Border Patrol sets up roadblocks on I-91 in Hartford — nearly 100 miles south of the Derby Line crossing point.
Arkin points further to the Williston-based Vermont Information and Analysis Center, where Department of Homeland Security spooks process data gathered by federal, state and local agencies.
The Vermont National Guard isn't simply a benign group of locals helping the state recover from disasters such as the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene, Arkin adds. Washington is putting "demands on the guard to fulfill out-of-state homeland security roles that dilute the control of the governor over the guard," he notes. And then there's "Norwich University's addiction to federal money that supports the false notion of cyber warfare."
So is the Green Mountain State becoming a police state?
Arkin, who has lived in South Pomfret for 20 years, bristles at the term. Referring to the national context, he says the government's escalating encroachments on privacy don't conform to "a Hollywood picture" of what a police state would look like. "It's not about people wearing uniforms and breaking down your door," Arkin cautions. He suggests it's more accurate to say that "the territory we call freedom is getting smaller and smaller, while the territory that was regulated on a local and state level is increasingly being regulated on a national-security level."
Arkin doesn't see much chance of fascism soon descending on a state with a historical commitment to "freedom and unity."
"I don't think anyone in Vermont is a particular target of surveillance," he says, "but I do think everyone in Vermont is subject to the voracious appetite the federal government has for personal information."
Arkin, 57, combines his intelligence-sifting skills, developed as a U.S. Army analyst in cold-war Berlin in the 1970s, with the optimism of a progressive activist. Prior to becoming a part-time Post reporter in 1998, he worked for organizations such as Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch and the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. Arkin is a believer in the power of the people.
The National Security Agency's propensity for "collecting everything, including inside the United States, is going to be its downfall," he predicts. "It's setting the stage for what I believe will be a very strong movement to come up with rules for protecting privacy."
He's also not unconditionally opposed to U.S. government eavesdropping. "I sure as fuck hope we're tapping North Korea leader's phone," Arkin remarks.