A man and his wife went to see a film at an Ohio movie theater recently. When they left, the man was being escorted by agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). What could he have possibly done to interest DHS? Was he plotting a terrorist attack? Was there indeed a threat to the "homeland" being neutralized here?
The DHS website states that, outside of its counter-terrorism mission, they are tasked with "safeguarding and securing cyberspace," which enumerates such crimes as bank fraud, data breaches and child pornography.
The man in question, who was not named by media reports on the incident, attracted the department's scrutiny for wearing his prescription glasses, which happen to be enhanced with a wearable computer known as Google Glass. This clearly did not implicate him in a plot to bomb something, forge immigration documents, distribute child pornography, or any other serious threat to the "homeland," so why did DHS step in?
It turns out, the theater was concerned that the man might be recording the film for black market distribution. An employee of the theater reportedly then contacted Hollywood's lobby, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which in turn informed DHS. Amazingly, the feds jumped, dispatching agents to the theater before the movie was even over.
One can envision a red rotary telephone sitting on the desk of a top honcho at the MPAA, offering a direct line to the DHS in the event that they're notified of a possible theft of intellectual property.
Is this really how we protect our "homeland" now? Or is this series of events a symptom of something much more sinister?
As an investigative reporter with a history plumbing the corruption that is eating at the heart of our system of government, I have come to believe that this is just one relatively benign example of a larger cancer -- a cancer that has so metastasized in the American body, the survival of our democracy now seems nearly impossible.
We have become accustomed to and desensitized by war. Our attention spans have been trimmed by a corporate media controlled by very few rich interests, and a crumbling public education system faced with constant assaults by private interests. Our protests against our war machine go ignored, with our small flashes of outrage relegated to the length of a commercial break. Relatively few of us have even begun to understand how compromised by corporate greed and power our system of government has truly become.
Even those who recognize the problem and take to the streets to speak out against Wall Street and the big banks only address the tip of this massive, opaque iceberg we've crashed into. The truth is, the United States no longer has a government of, by and for the people. We are ruled by amoral multinational corporations that exercise their dictates by purchasing our government and flexing its muscle against the only thing that threatens their vast wealth and opulence: the people.
Welcome to the American plutocracy.
The Corporate Protection Racket
When the unregulated casino of Wall Street nearly came crumbling down in 2008, former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson, who at the time was serving as Secretary of the Treasury, helped orchestrate what ultimately became the largest transfer of public funds into private hands in American history.
He proposed that $700 billion in taxpayer-backed financing be provided to large banks, insurers and Wall Street's casino gamblers in order to keep them afloat, despite a seemingly endless array of corrupt practicesthey committed against the very taxpayers whose money they so desperately needed.
Paulson and the Bush Administration essentially robbed the people's wealth to enrich their friends and political contributors. In doing so, they also awarded themselves the absolute power to orchestrate this crime without any oversight at all.
Paulson's bailout plan gave the Secretary of the Treasury absolute power to buy "broadly defined assets, on any terms he wants," hire anyone he saw fit and even appoint corporations as financial deputies of the federal government. But that's not all.
Paulson's proposal was so audacious that he even sought the power to exclude the courts from ever questioning where this money went or why. To use the words of his plan: "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency." While that language was taken out of the bill after it briefly caught the public's attention, the final text of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 still bars any judicial intervention through injunction or restraining order "other than to remedy a violation of the Constitution."
The shocking tragedy of this theft became almost comical when we finally learned that the leaders of the banks who had so abused the public trust were later rewarded with nearly $2 billion in bonuses, paid directly from the taxpayer slush fund Paulson handed over to them.
This fiasco is just one of the countless ways in which the top 1 percent of Americans enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and middle class. And despite overwhelmingly voting for the candidate of "change" in 2008, Bush's successor Barack Obama only escalated the bailouts, aided by the Federal Reserve and its policy of "quantitative easing."
When this finally became too much for the downtrodden of America to stomach, we witnessed the birth of Occupy Wall Street -- a scrappy bunch of protesters who, despite their relative disorganization, captured the attention of a nation and put pressure on our elected officials in a way they hadn't experienced in generations.
Wall Street did not react to this new challenge by sitting down with the protesters to better understand their grievances. Neither did their employees in our Congress. To the honchos on Wall Street, there was no need for such overtures. They had a taxpayer-funded army of law enforcement personnel ready and willing to silence this puny protest.
What this experience demonstrated is that a little public pressure and a big splash in the media will get Wall Street so panicked that they'll get the red rotary phone ringing, for the DHS, the FBI, the IRS, and even the U.S. military. In very short order, these well-meaning demonstrators were branded domestic terrorists and pummeled into submission.
For the purposes of corporate and special big-money interests, all those who dissent, protest, challenge or attempt to change what has been unfolding in modern American are now considered to be terrorists, and treated as such by our government. Every federal agency now operates under this assumption, even in the era of "hope" and "change." Even an innocent trip to a movie theater might result in one being interrogated by federal agents.
Increasingly, journalists and whistleblowers are receiving the same treatment, branded by the corporate hand for a thorough investigation by federal law enforcement. We may be told that America is a nation of laws, but today those laws can be easily bent by those with enough money, turning our society's rules into weapons against anyone who may threaten corporate gains.
Aaron Swartz -- who co-founded the social media website Reddit, only to commit suicide at just 26 years old -- is one unfortunate soul who stared directly into the face of this beast, and was prosecuted to death for his defiance. The plutocracy threatened him with decades behind bars for the heinous crime of stealing academic papers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- content the school could otherwise sell access to -- and sharing them with nobody.
The case of Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer is another example of corporations flexing the U.S. government's muscle against the people. He helped expose a security flaw in AT&T's iPad login portal. Instead of using it for nefarious purposes, he notified the company and detailed AT&T's vulnerability on the web. For the offense of embarrassing the nation's largest telecom, Auernheimer was sent to jail. That red rotary phone rang, and once again the outcome spelled doom for an American who dared challenge corporate power.
The Demise of Justice
In the American plutocracy, our system of justice has decayed so far that even children are now used as a corporate commodity, enriching the owners of private prisons and the corrupt judges who keep the supply chain moving.
In Pennsylvania, judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were convicted of racketeering for taking money from the builder of for-profit juvenile prisons in exchange for a steady supply of child prisoners. Over a five year period, over 5,000 children were estimated to have been locked away in these facilities, some on charges as ridiculous as mocking a school principal on the Internet.
Horrifying as that is, the cases that haunt me the most, for their exemplification of the power corporations hold over our system of justice, are the prosecutions of Alabama's former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, Jr. and Diaz's co-defendant, big tobacco foe Paul Minor.
At the time of these events, it was widely suspected that these cases were motivated by politics. However, to better understand the unprecedented nature of these cases, one must first grasp the larger backdrop against which they unfolded: a series of events that came to be known as "Attorneygate."
This scandal erupted after the Bush Administration took the unprecedented step of removing nine U.S. Attorneys in the middle of their terms. We later learned that the same fate was being considered for 26 more. By 2007, nine top-ranking Department of Justice officials, including then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, had resigned over the scandal. They quit after it was discovered (PDF) that the DOJ dismissed their attorneys in retaliation for refusing to aggressively prosecute the Bush Administration's political opponents.
The tragedy of these revelations was that most eyes were affixed on the fired U.S attorneys, while few were asking about those whom the Bush Administration allowed to remain in their jobs -- and who those attorneys were prosecuting.
In the simplest terms, Siegelman's anti-corporate views posed a threat to gambling interests in the Deep South, which regularly pay enormous sums to the Republican Party. He also dared to introduce a PAC that aimed to create a state lottery to benefit college students, impinging upon these interests' turf.
In those days the gambling industry had a red rotary phone in the Bush White House, personally installed by the disgraced casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And as the odds would have it, that was being answered by the Bush Administration's most influential power broker, Karl Rove.
With two specially selected U.S. Attorneys on the case -- Leura Canary, the wife of a former Rove business associate, and Alice Martin -- and help from the suddenly appointed U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller, Republicans and the gambling industry ensured that Siegelman never stood a chance against the bribery charges that would ultimately land him in jail.
Despite their actions and the custom for incoming presidents to appoint fresh faces at the DOJ, both Canary and Martin kept their jobs when the Obama Administration came to town. Canary decided to step down in 2011; Martin walked years earlier, taking a job with an executive search firm in 2009.
The case against Siegelman was plagued by allegations of jury tampering and witness coaching. Siegelman's home was burglarized, as was his attorney's office. Even more frightening, the controversial whistleblower in the case, Dana Jill Simpson, saw her house burned down and was later run off the road by an off-duty police officer.
The only items stolen in the burglaries were documents pertaining to Siegelman's case, and the burglars were never caught. The arsonist who targeted Simpson also got away. However, I was able to track down the former police officer who ran her off the road. Local authorities released him from the scene of the accident without a citation.
It is highly unusual that such a string of crimes would not be of interest to the FBI. Then again, we have seen just how Nixon-type plumbers work. It is reasonable to arrive at the grim conclusion that law enforcement was somehow involved in these crimes, given the nature of the case.
In neighboring Mississippi, the bribery case against Diaz, Minor and their co-defendants was equally bizarre. This time, it wasn't gambling interests pulling the strings: it was big tobacco dialing its red rotary phone to the DOJ, freshly stinging over losing control of the Mississippi Supreme Court despite the Chamber of Commerce's multi-million dollar ad campaign against Minor. Facing litigation in the state that threatened billions in big tobacco's profits, the plutocracy once again went to work.
The U.S Attorney who prosecuted Minor and Diaz was Dunnica Lampton. He was also one of the prosecutors the Bush Administration was considering for dismissal. However, something changed their minds. I believe that something was the prosecution of Diaz, Minor and their cohorts.
This case, much like the Siegelman case, was plagued with increasingly familiar problems, including a series of burglaries and another case of arson. Here too, nothing of value was taken from the targets except documents, and none of the criminals were ever caught. Examining all the facts, I found myself again speculating about law enforcement involvement.
Even though the corrupt Bush Administration has long since left town, Obama did not bother to pardon Siegelman or Minor. On the contrary, his Administration actually brokered a deal on behalf of Rove, who flagrantly ignored subpoenas from Congress to testify about his alleged involvement in Attorneygate.
Against the protest of Congress, Bush ensured Rove would never testify by claiming it was his privilege as chief executive to keep his aide from speaking to them. The Obama Administration largely respected this claim, brokering a deal for Rove to speak with Congress behind closed doors and not under oath.
Minor, meanwhile, remained in prison until the beginning of 2013. Siegelman is still behind bars.
Bedtime for Democracy
Through all of this, the American media has kept our public mostly daydreaming about anything other than the corruption of the institutions that underpin our whole way of life.
In the American plutocracy, wars are somewhere far away, easily ignored and given much less attention than the more urgent domestic problems many in the poor and middle classes face, like whether they'll have jobs, health care, housing and the ability to care for their families. And even with so much media focus on these domestic problems, they too are not well understood by the public, leaving any attempt to assign blame for our deteriorating democracy easily misdirected.
It would seem the plutocracy's agenda is to keep Americans sleepwalking through their lives, believing they are free but remaining blissfully unaware that their country and their children's future have been sold off to the highest bidder. Our representatives in Congress have found employment elsewhere, for interests entirely opposed to our own, and their new employers would rather the majority of us don't know about it.
There was a time in the U.S. when the bright light of truth would scatter the darkness, right our wrongs and help the country move forward. But in the plutocracy, even when the public stirs in response to the monstrous crimes our government commits, that awakening is short-lived and ultimately dismissed by the media's gatekeepers as irrelevant, too old, or just not what news viewers want to see.
Paging Justin Bieber. You're needed on channel 42.
Go to sleep little ones. Soon there will be an election, and you can wake momentarily to take part in the pantomime that you are helping pick someone to represent you.
Larisa Alexandrovna is a freelance investigative reporter based out of Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband, libertarian radio host Scott Horton. She blogs exclusively for The Progressive, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited by Stephen C. Webster.