Thursday, June 20, 2013

NSA: America's STASI

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine,
When San Diego Veterans for Peace member Joe Cruz told the crowd at a June 1 support rally for Bradley Manning, who’s currently being tried in a court-martial for turning over U.S. diplomatic secrets to the now-defunct Wikileaks Web site, that the U.S. had become “a security state, a surveillance state … worse than East Germany,” he probably had no idea just how right he was. Four days later, on June 5, the British newspaper Guardian revealed on its Web site that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had obtained a court order on Verizon demanding records on every cell-phone call made in the U.S. on Verizon’s network. They published the actual text of the order, which demanded so-called “telephony metadata” from the company and also forbade anyone at Verizon from revealing that the government was getting this information.
This was just the first in an electrifying series of revelations that showed just how much the U.S. has moved from a constitutionally limited government to an authoritarian state along the lines of the one described in George Orwell’s 1984. (Not surprisingly, sales of Orwell’s book have zoomed up since the story broke.) Though the order the Guardian obtained covered only three months — April to July 2013 — Obama administration officials and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, revealed that the program has been in effect at least since 2006 and it’s been aimed at all the major cell-phone carriers. It even has the James Bond-ish name “Mainway.” Later the Washington Post broke the news that another NSA program, called “Prism,” was looking at every single e-mail sent over all the major U.S. Internet service providers (ISP’s).
At least two additional NSA surveillance programs have been revealed since the initial story broke. “Nucleon” intercepts telephone calls and routes their contents to government listeners, and “Marina” spies on foreign computer users’ e-mails and other Internet communications much the way “Prism” does domestically. Americans now rival the Chinese and other people living in out-and-out dictatorships as among the world’s most spied-on people by their own government. And what’s especially ironic is that all this espionage is made possible by the Internet, which we’ve been told ad nauseam is going to be a liberating force that brings down dictatorial governments and ensures that governments can no longer hide secrets from their own people.
The Internet allows the NSA to do what agencies like the Soviet Union’s KGB, East Germany’s STASI and their equivalents in other Eastern Bloc countries could only have dreamed of: maintain 24/7 surveillance on an entire nation’s population. STASI and the KGB could announce that they were recording everyone’s phone calls, but most people were rational enough to realize that nobody could listen to that amount of intercepted communications every day. Indeed, unlike the NSA, STASI and similar agencies were quite open that they were recording everything because the way they controlled people was by instilling fear. If you were aware of the spying, you instinctively edited your phone calls because you never knew that today yours might be one of the calls they actually did listen to.
With modern computer technology, the NSA and its personnel don’t have to listen to or read every word of every phone call or e-mail. All they have to do is set their equipment to pick up on certain “key words” which their “algorithms” tell them are associated with people who just maybe, might be, kind of possibly, potentially inclined to commit an act of terrorism. The Internet, the cell phone, and especially the modern-day “smartphone” that marries them, have become the real-world equivalents of the telescreen in Orwell’s 1984. They constantly monitor us through phones that contain GPS trackers and computers we obligingly never turn off. They keep track of everything we say, write, or buy, and endlessly feed information about our most personal habits, including where we are every moment of every day, both to the government and to the private companies that offer us these “services.” Big Brother is not only watching us; we’ve invited him in and we’re paying him through the nose for the privilege.
Don’t believe me? Read what the CEO’s of major computer and Internet companies have had to say about the subject. In 1999, when the Internet was far less of a mass phenomenon than it is now, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, said that in the age of the Internet, “You have zero privacy anyway — get over it.” Ten years later, in an interview on CNBC, Google CEO Eric Schmidt justified Internet-based espionage in intimidating language a STASI bureaucrat could well have used to justify their actions:
I think judgment matters. If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines — including Google — do retain this information for some time and it’s important, for example, [to remember] that we are all subject in the United States to the PATRIOT Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities. (Emphasis added.) [—_Get_Over_It]
Remember that in 2009, when Schmidt said that, the NSA’s domestic surveillance program had been in effect for at least three years. What’s more, as CEO of a major Internet company, he would have known about it. Of course, he would have been ordered not to tell anybody about it, and judging from his ringing endorsement of the surveillance state he wouldn’t have broken the story even if he had been allowed to. But he well knew that it was not only “possible” that information on people’s Google searches “could” be made available to the government, it was happening automatically, day after day after day. Just as former President Eisenhower warned against “the influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” we now face the growing power of an intelligence-information complex in which government and private corporations have come together to monitor our lives 24/7, both to sell us merchandise and to control our political and social thoughts and actions.
After the initial stories broke in the Guardian and the Washington Post, the first polls that came out indicated that most Americans were just fine with being spied on by the NSA as long as it was in the name of preventing future terrorist attacks. More recent polls, however, expressed considerably more skepticism about the government’s case for the surveillance. In a poll released June 17 [], the Pew Research Center announced that 49 percent of their respondents believed the leaks served the public interests, versus 44 percent who thought they harmed it. What’s more, unlike previous polls on national security issues, there wasn’t a partisan split between Republicans, Democrats and independents: all supported the leaks by margins of 5 to 6 points, well within the poll’s margin of error.
Nonetheless, the same poll revealed an overwhelming sentiment for prosecuting Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old data analyst for a private contractor at the NSA who has claimed responsibility for the leaks. Of the Pew respondents, 54 percent thought the government should pursue a criminal case against him versus 38 percent who said they shouldn’t. Curiously, sentiment for prosecuting Snowden was weaker among political independents (48 to 43 percent) than either Republicans (59 to 37 percent) or Democrats (59 to 35 percent).
What’s more, younger people (18- to 29-year-olds) were more likely than anyone else in the poll to say the leaks served the public interest — 60 percent said they did, 34 percent they didn’t — and they were the only ones with a plurality against prosecuting Snowden (50 percent said he shouldn’t be, 44 percent he should) and the only ones with a majority against the NSA’s data collection efforts in general (55 percent disapprove, 43 percent approve). That may be the most hopeful sign from the entire controversy. The generation that, more than any other in our society, has grown up with the Internet and taken its convenience for granted — and that has actually produced the leakers (Snowden is 29 and Bradley Manning is 25) — is more skeptical about government than any other and less inclined to believe official proclamations that these programs have actually helped prevent terrorist attacks.
The Tea Party is also looking good in the aftermath of the NSA revelations. I’d long written off the Tea Party as just another incarnation of the radical-Right movement that began in the late 1930’s in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its vast expansion of government power to deal with the Depression, but on this issue a lot of Tea Partiers are breaking with the Republican Party and its acceptance of the national security state. Indeed, according to the Pew poll Tea Partiers are more likely to be opposed to the NSA’s screening than any other political group. By a margin of 65 to 29 percent, Tea Party Republicans disapprove of the programs. All other political subgroups in the Pew poll supported the NSA: non-Tea Party Republicans by 50 to 46 percent, moderate to conservative Democrats by 61 to 36 percent, and liberal Democrats by 52 to 45 percent.
And Tea Partiers aren’t just sharing these views on the Q.T. with opinion pollsters. As Elspeth Reeve recently revealed on the Atlantic Wire [], the Tea Partiers are making connections between the NSA domestic espionage, the Internal Revenue Service singling out grass-roots Tea Party organizations for special scrutiny of their claims to tax-exempt status and the subpoenas against the Associated Press and Fox News over their alleged receipts of government leaks.

The NSA revelations, Reeve wrote, are “leaving the Tea Party feeling vindicated. ‘They say that those of us in the Tea Party wear tinfoil hats and we’re out there and all that,’ Tea Party Tribune editor Ken Crow tells the Daily Beast’s Michelle Cottle. ‘But take a look around!’ FreedomWorks communications director Jackie Bodnar says, ‘This is definitely not an isolated thing. … It’s part of a huge list of Fourth Amendment violations that have been happening for years.’ The Tea Party told-ya-so’s show the split between establishment Republicans and the conservative activists. House Speaker John Boehner called NSA leaker Edward Snowden a traitor. Rep. Peter King [R-New York] is even calling for Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter Snowden leaked to, to be prosecuted for treason. But on Tea Party Facebook pages, Snowden is a hero.” And with mainstream Democrats like Dianne Feinstein joining mainstream Republicans in defending the NSA, the one U.S. Senator who has so far dared to question the program is also the one U.S. Senator who filibustered against the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan: Tea Party darling Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).

Of course, a lot of the people in Pew’s poll — including the majority of so-called “liberals” who endorsed the NSA’s internal espionage — are probably buying the profuse apologias being churned out by the Obama administration and the officials in charge of the spying programs themselves. They insist that they’re not actually listening to people’s phone conversations — even though they have the technology to do so — but are merely collecting the so-called “metadata.” That means everything about a phone call — who places it, who receives it, how long it lasts and, most importantly from a surveillance point of view, where the parties are when it takes place — except what is being said during it.

As Guardian reporter James Ball explained in a sidebar to their original story [], “Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation say that by knowing who the individual speaks to, and when, and for how long, intelligence agencies can build up a detailed picture of that person, their social network, and more. Collecting information on where people are during the calls colors in that picture even further.” Ball noted that the information the Justice Department was demanding when they subpoenaed the records of 120 Associated Press journalists over a story about an anti-terrorist campaign in Yemen, “which led to clashes between the media and the White House over what was widely seen as intrusion into a free press … was telephony metadata: precisely what the court order against Verizon shows is being collected by the NSA on millions of Americans every day.”

Ball conceded that “the primary purpose of large-scale databases such as the NSA’s call records is generally said to be data-mining: rather than examining individuals, algorithms are used to find patterns of unusual activity that may mark terrorism or criminal conspiracies. However, collection and storage of this information gives government a power it’s previously lacked: easy and retroactive surveillance. If authorities become interested in an individual at a later stage, and obtain their number, officials can look back through the data and gather their movements, social network, and more — possibly for several years … In essence, you’re being watched: the government just doesn’t know your name while it’s doing it.”

Another galling part of the government’s defense is that the NSA’s universal surveillance over every American who uses a cell phone or the Internet is “lawful.” It may be under the USA PATRIOT Act, that heap of repressive, authoritarian dung pushed through Congress in the wake of 9/11 — when almost nobody dared to vote against it and virtually no Congressmember even bothered to read it — but it sure ain’t under what is supposed to be the supreme law of this land, the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment couldn’t be clearer: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Electronic communications may not have existed when the Founding Fathers wrote that, but a nationwide data collection program that swept up millions of people and recorded who they talked to, when, where and for how long, without any “probable cause” to believe any of them were actually engaged in something illegal, was exactly the kind of sweeping, dictatorial abuse of power the Fourth Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights were designed to prevent. Under its own rules, the government of the United States can’t gather massive haystacks of information about innocent people in search of a few criminal or terrorist needles — and neither can any other country that wishes to remain a republic.

Oh, but the government’s apologists continue bleating, the NSA’s universal surveillance of Americans is “effective.” President Obama himself went on the Charlie Rose Show on TV to say so. NSA director Keith Alexander appeared before Congress and said that the massive surveillance had stopped 50 potential terror attacks in 20 countries. Not that we have any way of knowing whether that’s true, because the programs are secret. So are the results. In the one case where Obama actually named an alleged terrorist whose plot was supposedly stopped through the NSA’s scrutiny — Najibullah Zazi, arrested in late 2009 for plotting to bomb the New York subway system — it turned out, according to the Miami Herald [], that Zazi’s al-Qaeda contacts had been so extensive and above-ground, “the e-mail that disrupted the plan could easily have been intercepted without Prism.”

The whole attitude of the U.S. government — “we need to spy on you 24/7 to find the terrorists who want to kill you” — underscores just how absurd the whole idea of a “war on terror” is. Ordinarily, when a country is at war, its citizens recognize the need for secrecy about its troop movements, locations and battle plans because the military needs to conceal that from the enemy until the battle is fought. After the battle happens, its outcome usually is pretty widely known. A government can try to lie and say it’s doing better on the battlefield than it really is, but enough servicemembers who actually fought either write, call or come home with the actual story that cover-ups like that don’t last long. The “war on terror” is different in that not only the maneuvers leading up to the battles but the battles themselves are secret, and so are their outcomes.

Indeed, by creating the “war on terror,” the Republican and Democratic Parties of the U.S. have brought us the kind of “perpetual warfare” George Orwell described in 1984. The dictatorship in 1984 kept itself in power indefinitely not only by continually spying on its own citizens but by keeping the country in a state of “war” that, like the “war on terror,” could never definitively be won or lost. As Orwell explained, “While wars could be won or lost, no ruling class could be completely irresponsible. But when war becomes literally continuous … there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded. … Efficiency, even military efficiency, is no longer needed. Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. … The war … if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. … But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the supply of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special internal atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.”

When Osama bin Laden’s 19 minions slammed those hijacked airliners into those buildings on September 11, 2001, they gave the U.S. military-industrial complex a precious gift that has kept on giving. They not only provided a so-called “existential threat” to replace the one that had been cruelly snatched from them a decade earlier when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, they created an incident that could be used to set up the entire repressive apparatus Orwell had conjured up for his fictitious “Oceania,” and in a way through which the government could tell the people they were doing it to preserve democracy instead of destroy it.

Under the lash of the 9/11 trauma, Congress enacted a so-called “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” that has been used by both Presidents Bush and Obama to go to war anywhere in the world and to order the death of any human being based solely on the President’s say-so — including, in Obama’s case, United States citizens. Congress also passed the USA PATRIOT Act, a blatantly unconstitutional piece of legislation that, among other things, essentially turned the U.S. into a police state by giving the federal government unprecedented powers to collect information on us in total secrecy. The courts have joined the abdication of responsibility by refusing even to consider most of the lawsuits that have been brought against these policies, buying the government’s “state secrets” arguments that the actions of the national security state are based on information so secret they can’t even share it with judges to let them evaluate their constitutionality.

More than 3,000 people died on 9/11. So did the whole notion that the United States of America is a democratic country and that the Constitution is anything but window dressing. The National Security Agency’s program of spying on every American who uses a cell phone or the Internet is just the latest indication of how far we have retreated from any idea of “a government of laws, not of men.” Indeed, according to Edward Snowden, your liberties are at the mercy not just of the NSA itself, but of every individual analyst looking over the data the NSA collects: “Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But, I sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a Federal judge, to even the President, if I had a personal e-mail.”

The aftermath of 9/11 has been to turn the U.S. into a federal police state, and if we want to win back our democracy it will take a far more aggressive and broad-based response than we’ve seen the American people willing to make so far.