Mass surveillance is a weapon in Obama’s escalating war on dissent

As Bradley Manning’s trial continues (mostly ignored by corporate news outlets), the story of another crucial national security leak has sent shockwaves through the US establishment. Over the course of last week, Glenn Greenwald and other journalists at The Guardian published convincing evidence that the NSA – in direct contradiction to statements by top officials under oath – is engaged in mass wiretapping and surveillance on an astronomical scale, including dragnet surveillance of Americans.

This leak marks the first time that government documents have publicly confirmed the numerous reports (dating back to 2005) of widespread domestic spying by the NSA. It’s also the first time a leaker has disrupted the Obama administration’s routine for whistleblower prosecutions by preemptively claiming responsibility in a series of interviews published by The Guardian. Edward Snowden, as we now know, is an ex-CIA analyst who’d been working under NSA contract for the private company Booz Allen Hamilton. Witnessing firsthand the ongoing expansion of the national security state, Snowden grew so alarmed that he decided to release a carefully selected series of documents to Greenwald. “A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama,” he told Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in Hong Kong, where he’s seeking political asylum. “I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama’s promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.”

Of all the alleged journalists who report on these issues in the US, Greenwald (who lives with his husband in Brazil) was the one Snowden trusted most to do real journalism: that is, not to censor himself under the threat of government retribution. Thanks to Snowden and Greenwald, we now have proof of the following NSA surveillance operations: 

1. The NSA collects the call records of millions of Verizon customers every day, as evidenced by a top-secret FISA court order. The telephone records include information about whom a customer called, from where the call was made, and the length of the conversation.

2. A top-secret program called PRISM gives the NSA “direct access” to the servers of nine internet giants, including Google, Apple, and Facebook. This means the Obama administration does not even have to request information from these internet companies in order to archive and search the electronic communications of users, Americans and non-Americans alike. The Guardian has obtained an internal PowerPoint presentation on the program consisting of 41 slides, of which it has published 4.

3. The NSA can effectively suck up the entire world’s communications under the program dubbed Boundless Informant, a name so apt that it’d be comical were it an invention of Philip K. Dick’s imagination and not an actual US government program. The program doesn’t collect an equivalent amount of data for all countries: Rather, a color-coded map included in The Guardian‘s exposé indicates how much surveillance individual countries are subject to, with Iran the most intensively monitored country.

Fellow NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake has since confirmed that “Snowden saw what I saw”: “The NSA programs that Snowden has revealed are nothing new,” he wrote in The Guardian. “[T]hey date back to the days and weeks after 9/11. I had direct exposure to similar programs, such as Stellar Wind, in 2001.” Stellar Wind, Drake explains, “was a highly secret program that, without warrant or any approval from the Fisa court, gave the NSA access to all phone records from the major telephone companies, including US-to-US calls.”

Both Drake and “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg, widely considered the most important whistleblower in US history, compare the current US intelligence apparatus to that of the notorious Ministry for State Security (“Stasi”) in East Germany. In a piece called “Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America”, Ellsberg writes,

In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material…Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an “executive coup” against the US constitution.

Specifically, regardless of their extremely dubious legality, the NSA programs revealed by the leaked documents unquestionably violate the Fourth Amendment, which I encourage everyone to read. The national security state under Obama – as much as (if not more than) under Bush – violates virtually everyone’s constitutional rights virtually all of the time. This, I think, is the crucial point, which is why I won’t spend time picking apart the various attacks on Snowden and Greenwald by partisan hacks and self-serving authoritarians in the media. Others have already done so. I want to zero in on a question I’ve heard a lot in recent days, not only from professional Obama apologists, but from ordinary people: Even if these practices are unconstitutional – even if they’re illegal – what’s so troubling about the government storing information that you already “choose” to hand over to evil corporations?

This question, as articulated by liberals, seems to assume that the government is mostly benign – especially since a former constitutional lawyer and his party full of hip, reasonable people happen to be in power. Snowden’s own answer is worth quoting in full:

[E]ven if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

It might sound like an obvious point, but apparently, it needs to be made: When the government seizes and codifies authoritarian powers, that enables it to then abuse those powers at any time in the future. When I had the chance to speak with Greenwald at Brooklyn College earlier this year, I asked him why he thinks it is that Americans seem so unwilling to think these and other policies through to their logical conclusions. For one thing, he said, the partisan mentality is so pervasive that all political and ethical questions are reduced to trusting and defending “your guy” and “your team”. For another thing, Americans seem curiously wedded to the belief that some form of fascism or dictatorship might overthrow liberal democracy in other countries, but not in the US. To quote Sinclair Lewis, “It can’t happen here”.

It can happen here. It can get much, much worse, and it’s already begun to. As Mohamad Tabaa points out in an article for Salon, Muslims in the US have already been the victims of mass surveillance since 9/11. Data ranging from emails to library borrowing records aren’t only collected, but used as evidence in court. Entire communities haven’t just been robbed of their privacy; they’ve been criminalized by the very apparatus that claims to keep us safe: “[T]hese powers have since evolved – as was inevitable – well beyond the simplicities of mere surveillance to include deliberate cases of FBI entrapment, which have resulted in innocent people being sentenced to decades in prison.” 

It’s well known that the US government’s COINTELPRO used unconstitutional, sometimes illegal, and ethically repulsive methods to silence radical and progressive voices. Most notoriously, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI hounded Martin Luther King, Jr., using the fruits of their surveillance to blackmail him. When that failed to shut him up, they tried to use what they had to discredit him publicly. A genuine challenge to power may not exist in the US right now, but as poverty and inequality grow, so will resistance to the status quo.

That behind the assault on privacy is really an assault on dissent is apparent from the bipartisan calls, from right-wing Republicans like Peter King and right-wing Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, for the prosecution not only of Snowden, but of Greenwald as well. Greenwald has been a lonely voice of principled opposition to the most shameful policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations, and his readiness to publish these leaks in defiance of the state’s demand for secrecy and obedience has drawn ire from “both sides of the aisle”. Meanwhile, Greenwald has promised that more documents are forthcoming.

For now, it’s likely that retribution will be focused primarily on Snowden. But the Obama administration’s attitude towards journalists who expose its crimes is most clearly illustrated by the case of Abdulelah Haider Shaye. As Jeremy Scahill has documented, Shaye, a Yemeni journalist, dared to report that the US had dropped Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs on one of the poorest villages in the south of Yemen. Shaye revealed that the claims of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government – that it was responsible for the airstrike, and that the target was an Al Qaeda training camp – were patently false. Al Majalah and its inhabitants had been shredded by the US Joint Special Operations Command, which reports directly to the White House. Saleh had Shaye imprisoned and tortured, triggering a huge public outcry. When Saleh considered releasing Shaye, he received a call from President Obama himself, ordering him to keep Shaye in prison indefinitely.

What’s the difference, from Obama’s point of view, between imprisoning Greenwald and imprisoning Shaye? The answer is that Greenwald is a citizen of the US, where the Constitution protects his right to do real journalism and shed light on what the government does in secret. Our civil liberties are inextricably linked to each other. Our right to privacy is essential to our right to voice our opposition and reveal elite wrongdoing. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” – In which authoritarian state is that not the case?


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