The Homeland Directive is a 2011 graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston, put out by Top Shelf Productions. It’s something of a political and medical thriller and doesn’t involve superheroes at all, so it’s a little different from our normal fare around here, but it’s a strong offering by a smaller publisher, so it’s definitely worth a look. We’re leaving the evaluation of the story and art to others, as normal, focusing instead on the legal aspects of the plot. Spoilers inside.
I. Dirty Money
The basic premise is that the Director of Homeland Security (which should actually be the Secretary of Homeland Security) is ordered by the President to ensure that there are zero terrorist attacks on US soil. So the Director… goes off the reservation a little bit. He has someone (we never really learn who) infect new US currency with a weaponized bacterium obtained during the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The theory is that if consumers can be scared away from using cash, the government will be better able to track us (more on this in a bit). Interestingly, they got one thing right: new US banknotes are indeed issued by Federal Reserve Banks. The notes themselves are produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which delivers new notes to the twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks, which are located, as the story relates, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco.
There we actually run into a little hitch. The reason the main characters figure out that cash is the means by which the disease is spread rather than by person-to-person contact furthered by airline travel is because Cleveland and Richmond, where some of the first cases appear, aren’t exactly major travel hubs. But six Federal Reserve Banks are located in the top ten largest metropolitan areas in the US, and nine out of the twelve are in the top twenty. New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Atlanta also have massive airports, so I’m not sure how plausible it is to discard the travel theory so quickly.
In any case, infecting physical currency might well be a decent way to scare people away from cash, so it’s a rather ingenious concept, and the problem here isn’t that the plot wouldn’t work, but that discovering it might be even harder than they think. If anything, the concept is a little too devious, which only makes the story that much more serious.
II. Ubiquitous Surveillance
Also central to the story is the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy (BOCA), which engages in exceptionally detailed surveillance of pretty much everyone. First of all… BOCA doesn’t actually exist, as far as we know. The closest thing we’ve got is the Bureau of Consumer Protection, a section of the Federal Trade Commission, but the focus of the BCP is mostly on things like false advertising and some predatory lending practices. Stuff like that. They don’t really do surveillance, and truth be told, rarely take a pro-active stance on anything. The BCP is largely reactive, responding to consumer complaints, and does not actively police the marketplace for violations.
That being said, the kind of surveillance that BOCA engages in is distressingly plausible and has been the subject of conspiracy theories for years. Remember ECHELON? Signals intelligence program from the Cold War which many suspect has been repurposed for domestic use. There’s also Carnivore, which seems to have been replaced by NarusInsight, allegedly in use by the NSA to track all email and electronic communications. Even before 9/11, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 required telecommunications companies to modify their hardware to permit law enforcement agents to tap in to communications networks. No one really knows whether or not this sort of detailed mass surveillance is happening, and the government won’t say (which isn’t exactly encouraging), but the fact of the matter is that, legal or not, the government could probably do this if it wanted to. The technology certainly exists, and they certainly can do if if they have a warrant. Warrentless surveillance has been controversial for a long time, but things have really stepped up post 9/11, so even if the particular system the authors describe does not exist per se, it’s absolutely a timely consideration of real issues facing the legal system.
III. The Rule of Law
Most generally though, the book seems to concern itself with federal agents acting essentially beyond the law. This, it is sad to say, does happen, and this kind of thing has been the subject of a number of federal cases in the last decade, including ACLU v. NSA, 493 F.3d 644 (7th Cir. 2007) (holding that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue as they could not produce evidence that they were the subjects of surveillance), and In re NSA Telecoms. Records Litigation, a ridiculously complicated series of lawsuits which were consolidated in the Northern District of California. Many of these were ultimately dismissed, as Congress granted retroactive immunity to telecom companies with the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
More than that, we’re all aware of things like Gitmo and the litigation surrounding the detention of alleged unlawful combatants. If the federal government really, really wants to do things that are illegal, as suggested in this story… it probably can, and the Constitution be damned. There’s a reason why entities like the ACLU and EFF exist.
The Homeland Directive does contain wild illegalities, but they’re the sort of illegalities that are all too plausible, and the authors definitely deserve some credit for nailing how US currency is distributed via the Federal Reserve system. Here are some reviews, and an interview with Venditti.