SNITCH CULTURE - How Citizens are Turned into the Eyes and Ears of the State, by Jim Redden, Feral House, Venice, California © 2000, ISBN: 0-922915-63-6, 235 pp, $15.

Review by Del Meyer, MD

Jim Redden, a journalist for 20 years and currently an investigative reporter for the Portland Tribune covering City Hall and Crime, spoke at the recent annual convention of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons in Cincinnati. As an investigative reporter on crime, he became increasingly concerned about living in a surveillance society. Serious crime is at a 30-year low, with murder and violent felonies dropping in every region of the nation. Minorities are earning more than ever before, and the schools have never been safer. Yet large segments of the population live in fear – a fear created and exploited by opportunistic politicians and power-hungry law enforcement officials to justify the most sophisticated police state ever created.

Redden believes that at the heart of this nightmare is the snitch, government’s weapon of choice against criminals and law-abiding citizens alike. Snitching is nothing new. References are seen in Biblical as well as in Shakespearean times, and are always considered evil. Although it is recognized that there may at times be a need for an informant, snitching generally carries a very negative connotation. And most snitching has little positive value.  Recently, 3,000 Anthrax tips were mostly false, and 11,000 terrorist tips were of no help. And yet, snitching is pervasive.

The same month, Forbes had a cover depicting Life During Wartime, with a series of articles on hidden micro-cameras, better eavesdropping with new technology and broader legal authority. It was a look at the compelling and alarming implications for your finances, businesses, and personal liberties during this new war on terrorism. It also pointed out that Echelon, a joint project of five English speaking countries since 1947, has a network of fiberoptic cables with a dragnet over the entire globe that sift through billions of e-mails, telephone calls, wireless transmissions and faxes daily.

Although born during the wake of a war, this intrusion continued during the cold war and relative peace. The distinction between war and peace, however, is getting muddled. David Halberstam in his recent book, War In A Time of Peace, discusses the wars we experienced during the Bush and Clinton years. The B-2 bombers took off from Missouri on a 14-hour mission to the Balkans, hitting their unseen targets accurately, with the crew returning by the following evening to rejoin their wives and families in the comfort of their own homes. Americans may not had truly experience a war effort.

Redden documents that we have been intruding on private individuals for most of the last century. We are gathering incriminating information on pregnant women concerning their babies before they are even born. If we enroll in a public school, we are spied on by other students, our teachers and our counselors. Many schools provide anonymous telephone tip lines for students to squeal on their classmates. Teachers and counselors are encouraged to report students with "antisocial tendencies" to the police. Reports of typical juvenile behavior now result in suspensions, expulsions and arrest.

College campuses are riddled with informants. Politically active teachers are monitored by students who oppose their views. Students’ political organizations are infiltrated by undercover operatives gathering information on controversial campus speakers and upcoming demonstrations.

Informants track us after we graduate and enter the workforce. Routine pre-employment background checks may involve personal information from neighbors and friends. Some bosses hire undercover agents who pose as workers and spy on everyone in the company. The government may send over fake customers to owners of businesses to trick them into breaking civil rights laws. To that we might add that the licensing boards may send over fake patients to spy on us. Insurance companies may videotape claimants in the privacy of their own backyards.

Encouraged by government snitch programs, children rat on their parents, parents squeal on their children and children report on their siblings. Neighbors as well as spouses are encouraged to spy on each other.

Obeying the law is no protection against informants since snitches frequently set people up, trick them into breaking the law, or simply lie and commit perjury. Snitching has become entertainment as in America’s Most Wanted and The Jerry Springer Show. Snitch culture did not come about by accident. Republicans and Democrats alike, working with law enforcement officials, have built a nationwide intelligence-gathering network which was assembled piece by piece over the past century when threats have precipitated a series of new domestic wars: The War on Crime, The War on Drugs, The War on Youth Violence; Spousal Abuse, Senior Abuse; and now The War on Terrorism. Redden thinks it is more accurate to think of these as America’s War on You.

Redden believes the ultimate symbol of this power is Echelon, a massive system of space-age listening devices and supercomputers maintained by the US Government’s top secret National Security Agency. Created over the course of the Cold War, Echelon is an information vacuum cleaner which can monitor virtually every phone call, e-mail, fax, radio transmission, television broadcast and other forms of electronic communication in the world today.

This book has seventeen chapters with a large number of actual instances that support the development of our current state of surveillance, as outline in each of the above statements. There are also ten smaller chapters that are case studies of great issues of the past century and how each has developed into its own peculiar form of snitching of which many Americans now consider a normal function of government. This short paperback is a wake-up call. Redden warns us that being told that the government is your friend is like telling the blind kid, "Don’t worry, you have nothing to be afraid of."