Thursday, June 13, 2013
Anti-democratic feedback: The permanent war economy and Obama’s spying
In his recent praiseworthy speech on the anti-democratic consequences of permanent war, Obama invoked James Madison: no country which engages in perpetual war can remain free.
"For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home. Our servicemembers and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf. Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation — and world — that we leave to our children.
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that 'No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'"
This is a good thought. It is what I emphasize as anti-democratic feedback of global politics in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, international politics driven by domestic politics, a standard reactionary thing done by American Presidents in the context of trying to be reelected by appearing "tough" and "rallying people around the flag."
Think of LBJ escalating the Vietnam war not because he thought the US could win – he didn’t; Johnson just didn’t want to be perceived by voters as the President who lost a war, but even this hope was frustrated. See his comments to Richard Russell in the "Fog of War". Or consider George H.W. Bush’s Christmas wars.
But Obama’s actions shockingly belie his words. For he has strengthened the NSA spying implemented under Bush to track the communications of all Americans. Ironically, Obama's own policy incarnates the enmity to freedom he warned about in his speech.
Spying on everyone, if managed effectively (it is very hard to manage all the NSA information effectively, easier to use it to intimidate than to track down terrorists), has some promise of heading off another September 11th. It was, seemingly and in this respect, vital to Obama’s remaining President.
But Presidents can be tyrants. The mandate of some or even the whole of Congress can be for injustice, not for the rule of law (consider the Fugitive Slave Law or the Indian Removal Act or Article 1, section 2 of the constitution which makes slaves 3/5th of a man to expand the vote of their masters). A President, with Congressional acquiescence or approval, can squelch the rule of law (note: there has been nothing like a rule of law for black people through most of American history including now – see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; at best, the rule of law is a frail and partial thing...). Spying on all Americans violates basic liberties – the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures and the basic right of each individual to privacy; it suffocates the First Amendment on freedom of speech since reporters cannot keep sources confidential even briefly and are themselves subject to persecution.
Obama thus accomplishes his private purposes – being seen as strong against terror to get reelected – by doing grave damage to the public goods which he defended in campaigning against Bush and has often times praised. Since he is a constitutional lawyer and marvelously eloquent, he can at times name aptly the very things he has betrayed. Thanks to Edward Snowden, he now appears to have done so in his speech on the dangers of the permanent war economy.
Edward Snowden, the young man who believes in freedom more than he values his job or his freedom – the CIA-associated or dominating Booz Hamilton fired him – or even his marriage, said rightly of Obama’s policy below:
"'I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions,'" but "'I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.'"
Snowden names the executive powers of the Imperial Presidency, celebrated by Leo Strauss (as an authoritarian, at one point, pro-Hitler - see here and here) and the neo-cons and developed further by Obama, which are and are meant by the former to be, tyrannical. Snowden speaks too easily of their "irresistibility"; he has just contributed a Thoreauvian act of resistance to them.
But his naming of the crimes of so-called "laws" kept secret from the American people is vital (as Kant says, it is characteristic of law that it be public...; the US constitution bars ex post facto laws, i.e. laws which cannot be publicly known since they are enacted after the fact of the supposed "violation"...) as is his indictment of unequal pardons (2.3 million people in jail, 25% of the world's prisoners, and Obama's guarding of Bush, Cheney et al from investigation even for the crimes of torture, murder and aggression).
David Sirota below identifies the easy arrogance of the government. Government has access to everyone’s information; we have no access, save for Snowden’s or Bradley Manning’s courage and civil disobedience, to vital information about government criminality.
Perhaps the government, as Brecht once said, is trying to dissolve the freedom of the American people and “elect” a new one. This is the government of Barack Obama, not just the hollow "W."
This is the Obama who praised whistleblowers in his campaign, the Obama who tried to shut Guantanamo and has renewed his pledge to do so. As Glenn Greenwald aptly puts it - see below:
“In 2008, candidate Obama decreed that ‘often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out,’ and he hailed whistleblowing as: ‘acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.’
The current incarnation of Obama prosecutes those same whistleblowers at double the number of all previous presidents combined, and spent the campaign season boasting about it.”
Apparently the CIA considered taking out Snowden and Glenn Greenwald who interviewed him.
As swiftly as Obama and the elite let Bush, Cheney, my student Condi, Rumsfeld and many other Torquemadas walk, as Sirota points out, so they are quick to prosecute whisteblowers. Obama has punished only whisteblowers, not those who tortured, aggressed, or brought down the American economy.
Whisteblowers often name government crimes. This is a service to democracy and decency. They are the heroes in the government.
In a tyranny, whistleblowers are punished and only criminals and "Orwellian buffoons" like Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California and an avid advocate of government crimes, puff themselves up and walk free.
The Bill of Rights protects individual freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government – the Fourth Amendment – and hence a sphere of individual privacy. These are now internationally recognized as basic human rights.
As Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden repeatedly hinted, the Obama domestic spying – “PRISM” – eliminates this.
The aim is to have utter allegiance to a non-transparent government – Obama alleged himself to be the man for transparency, but his government is the opposite – and to corrupt firms, the terrorism industry (that terrorists due to the damage to American liberty that these profiteers do needs to be shown), such as Booz Allen Hamilton.
In addition, the government will probably try to prosecute Glenn Greenwald, Evan McCaskill and Linda Poitras of the Guardian for interviewing Edward Snowden. Now this is protected freedom of speech. It is the First Amendment, the first of the Bill of Rights.
The Obama administration is currently its enemy. As it persecutes Bradley Manning (Obama also had him tortured, backing down only after protest at a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco) and hunts Julian Assange, so it will go after Snowden and Greenwald and Poitras. The affront to the Bill of Rights, the opposing of those who blow the whistle on criminality to protect crimes, the criminal enactment of punishment for what are not crimes but public services, are hallmarks of the Obama adminstration.
How did Obama, who has real insights into the dangers of authoritarianism and expressed the criticisms often very ably in his campaign and even restricts some aspects of US government criminality, has yet to bomb Iran despite heavy pressure during the last campaign, and is trying to steer away from permanent war and its tyrannical domestic consequences, end up authorizing so extreme an illegal and immoral program of government spying?
How come this startling illustration of Barack's own warning that the war economy leads even Barack Obama to authoritarianism?
First, there is a trillion dollar war complex – one which includes all these companies like Blackwarter/Xe and Booz Hamilton subcontracted by the government for “soldiers”/mercenaries and "intelligence." It is a military/industrial/Congressional (Dianne Feinstein, Lindsay Graham, John McCain)/media/”intelligence”/foreign militaries dependent on the US for “aid” and equipment/think tank-academic complex. This complex exerts immense pressure against decency even on the unusual American President somewhat inclined towards it.
To prove he was “tougher” on national security issues than Republicans (not hard - since aggressing against the wrong country, Iraq, after 9/11 revealed Republicans as blowhards for the war complex), Obama also sought to get reelected by using drones – a weapon which has targeted largely civilians. Now, the US has gathered better intelligence under Obama and rightly taken out Bin Laden. Nonetheless just consider the idea of “signature strikes” – taking out young men in the “vicinity of terrorists” and counting them, with the odious John Brennan, Barack's confidante, as themselves terrorists. See here.
This is intimidation for intimidation’s sake, not hunting or fighting terrorists. Worse yet, as Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni former student in America who likes the United States, testified before Congress, Al Qaida could gain no following in his village. One day of a drone hovering overhead and a swift American (random) kill and Al Qaida got a following…
See here and here.
So how did this serve Obama’s purposes in being reelected? Even with the secrecy surrounding the program – so much for Obama’s “transparency” – its effects are often negative and horrifying. Do we Americans really, as even Obama suggested in his recent speech, want to be the people who blew up two 16 year olds in Pakistan because one of them attended a conference on how to publicize the horrors of the drones?
In what I call the reactionary two step of ordinary American politics overwhelmed by money, Obama is screamed at from the Right. He was able to outflank the blustering, plastic Romney by being “really tough.” Being a “really tough” American President means, historically, butchering a lot of innocent people (think about the genocide against indigenous people since the inception of the Republic and you will get a strong feeling about this).
America is supposedly the land of “Manifest Destiny”; speaking often idly of freedom, its Presidents killers who carried this out.
Obama has aimed so far merely to be a better President than Bush. He is. But he has also done some horrific things – with drones, though he is now reconsidering this – and with spying on Americans which only the courage of Snowden and Greenwald and those of us who will fight for the First and Fourth Amendments, for freedom of the press, for whisteblowing against government criminality and corruption, for an individual right to privacy, can stop.
My friend Michael Schwartz, a wonderful sociologist st SUNY Stonybrook, cooperated in inventing several of the techniques to identify influential capitalists now being used to track people by the government (to perhaps identify terrorists but often to zero in on people to persecute – i.e likely leakers…)
Here is Mike’s apt note:
“This is real. Have to admit that I was involved developing these techniques. We used them to identify the key financial institutions among corporations and the most important members of the capitalist class. Now, the NSA is using them to target “high value terrorists” based on cell phone data and other information about who interacts with who.
Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations
The 29-year-old source behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA's history explains his motives, his uncertain future and why he never intended on hiding in the shadows
• Q&A with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: 'I do not expect to see home again'
Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong
The Guardian, Sunday 9 June 2013
Link to video: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: 'I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things'
The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell.
The Guardian, after several days of interviews, is revealing his identity at his request. From the moment he decided to disclose numerous top-secret documents to the public, he was determined not to opt for the protection of anonymity. "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he said.
Snowden will go down in history as one of America's most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning. He is responsible for handing over material from one of the world's most secretive organisations – the NSA.
In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided, he wrote: "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," but "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."
Despite his determination to be publicly unveiled, he repeatedly insisted that he wants to avoid the media spotlight. "I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing."
He does not fear the consequences of going public, he said, only that doing so will distract attention from the issues raised by his disclosures. "I know the media likes to personalise political debates, and I know the government will demonise me."
Despite these fears, he remained hopeful his outing will not divert attention from the substance of his disclosures. "I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in." He added: "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."
He has had "a very comfortable life" that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves. "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
'I am not afraid, because this is the choice I've made'
Three weeks ago, Snowden made final preparations that resulted in last week's series of blockbuster news stories. At the NSA office in Hawaii where he was working, he copied the last set of documents he intended to disclose.
He then advised his NSA supervisor that he needed to be away from work for "a couple of weeks" in order to receive treatment for epilepsy, a condition he learned he suffers from after a series of seizures last year.
As he packed his bags, he told his girlfriend that he had to be away for a few weeks, though he said he was vague about the reason. "That is not an uncommon occurrence for someone who has spent the last decade working in the intelligence world."
On May 20, he boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he has remained ever since. He chose the city because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent", and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.
In the three weeks since he arrived, he has been ensconced in a hotel room. "I've left the room maybe a total of three times during my entire stay," he said. It is a plush hotel and, what with eating meals in his room too, he has run up big bills.
He is deeply worried about being spied on. He lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping. He puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.
Though that may sound like paranoia to some, Snowden has good reason for such fears. He worked in the US intelligence world for almost a decade. He knows that the biggest and most secretive surveillance organisation in America, the NSA, along with the most powerful government on the planet, is looking for him.
Since the disclosures began to emerge, he has watched television and monitored the internet, hearing all the threats and vows of prosecution emanating from Washington.
And he knows only too well the sophisticated technology available to them and how easy it will be for them to find him. The NSA police and other law enforcement officers have twice visited his home in Hawaii and already contacted his girlfriend, though he believes that may have been prompted by his absence from work, and not because of suspicions of any connection to the leaks.
"All my options are bad," he said. The US could begin extradition proceedings against him, a potentially problematic, lengthy and unpredictable course for Washington. Or the Chinese government might whisk him away for questioning, viewing him as a useful source of information. Or he might end up being grabbed and bundled into a plane bound for US territory.
"Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets," he said.
"We have got a CIA station just up the road – the consulate here in Hong Kong – and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be."
Having watched the Obama administration prosecute whistleblowers at a historically unprecedented rate, he fully expects the US government to attempt to use all its weight to punish him. "I am not afraid," he said calmly, "because this is the choice I've made."
He predicts the government will launch an investigation and "say I have broken the Espionage Act and helped our enemies, but that can be used against anyone who points out how massive and invasive the system has become".
The only time he became emotional during the many hours of interviews was when he pondered the impact his choices would have on his family, many of whom work for the US government. "The only thing I fear is the harmful effects on my family, who I won't be able to help any more. That's what keeps me up at night," he said, his eyes welling up with tears.
'You can't wait around for someone else to act'
Snowden did not always believe the US government posed a threat to his political values. He was brought up originally in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. His family moved later to Maryland, near the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade.
By his own admission, he was not a stellar student. In order to get the credits necessary to obtain a high school diploma, he attended a community college in Maryland, studying computing, but never completed the coursework. (He later obtained his GED.)
In 2003, he enlisted in the US army and began a training program to join the Special Forces. Invoking the same principles that he now cites to justify his leaks, he said: "I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression".
He recounted how his beliefs about the war's purpose were quickly dispelled. "Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone," he said. After he broke both his legs in a training accident, he was discharged.
After that, he got his first job in an NSA facility, working as a security guard for one of the agency's covert facilities at the University of Maryland. From there, he went to the CIA, where he worked on IT security. His understanding of the internet and his talent for computer programming enabled him to rise fairly quickly for someone who lacked even a high school diploma.
By 2007, the CIA stationed him with diplomatic cover in Geneva, Switzerland. His responsibility for maintaining computer network security meant he had clearance to access a wide array of classified documents.
That access, along with the almost three years he spent around CIA officers, led him to begin seriously questioning the rightness of what he saw.
He described as formative an incident in which he claimed CIA operatives were attempting to recruit a Swiss banker to obtain secret banking information. Snowden said they achieved this by purposely getting the banker drunk and encouraging him to drive home in his car. When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, the undercover agent seeking to befriend him offered to help, and a bond was formed that led to successful recruitment.
"Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world," he says. "I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good."
He said it was during his CIA stint in Geneva that he thought for the first time about exposing government secrets. But, at the time, he chose not to for two reasons.
First, he said: "Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn't feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone". Secondly, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave him hope that there would be real reforms, rendering disclosures unnecessary.
He left the CIA in 2009 in order to take his first job working for a private contractor that assigned him to a functioning NSA facility, stationed on a military base in Japan. It was then, he said, that he "watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in", and as a result, "I got hardened."
The primary lesson from this experience was that "you can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act."
Over the next three years, he learned just how all-consuming the NSA's surveillance activities were, claiming "they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them".
He described how he once viewed the internet as "the most important invention in all of human history". As an adolescent, he spent days at a time "speaking to people with all sorts of views that I would never have encountered on my own".
But he believed that the value of the internet, along with basic privacy, is being rapidly destroyed by ubiquitous surveillance. "I don't see myself as a hero," he said, "because what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."
Once he reached the conclusion that the NSA's surveillance net would soon be irrevocable, he said it was just a matter of time before he chose to act. "What they're doing" poses "an existential threat to democracy", he said.
A matter of principle
As strong as those beliefs are, there still remains the question: why did he do it? Giving up his freedom and a privileged lifestyle? "There are more important things than money. If I were motivated by money, I could have sold these documents to any number of countries and gotten very rich."
For him, it is a matter of principle. "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to," he said.
His allegiance to internet freedom is reflected in the stickers on his laptop: "I support Online Rights: Electronic Frontier Foundation," reads one. Another hails the online organisation offering anonymity, the Tor Project.
Asked by reporters to establish his authenticity to ensure he is not some fantasist, he laid bare, without hesitation, his personal details, from his social security number to his CIA ID and his expired diplomatic passport. There is no shiftiness. Ask him about anything in his personal life and he will answer.
He is quiet, smart, easy-going and self-effacing. A master on computers, he seemed happiest when talking about the technical side of surveillance, at a level of detail comprehensible probably only to fellow communication specialists. But he showed intense passion when talking about the value of privacy and how he felt it was being steadily eroded by the behaviour of the intelligence services.
His manner was calm and relaxed but he has been understandably twitchy since he went into hiding, waiting for the knock on the hotel door. A fire alarm goes off. "That has not happened before," he said, betraying anxiety wondering if was real, a test or a CIA ploy to get him out onto the street.
Strewn about the side of his bed are his suitcase, a plate with the remains of room-service breakfast, and a copy of Angler, the biography of former vice-president Dick Cheney.
Ever since last week's news stories began to appear in the Guardian, Snowden has vigilantly watched TV and read the internet to see the effects of his choices. He seemed satisfied that the debate he longed to provoke was finally taking place.
He lay, propped up against pillows, watching CNN's Wolf Blitzer ask a discussion panel about government intrusion if they had any idea who the leaker was. From 8,000 miles away, the leaker looked on impassively, not even indulging in a wry smile.
Snowden said that he admires both Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private, whose trial coincidentally began the week Snowden's leaks began to make news.
"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."
He purposely chose, he said, to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed.
As for his future, he is vague. He hoped the publicity the leaks have generated will offer him some protection, making it "harder for them to get dirty".
He views his best hope as the possibility of asylum, with Iceland – with its reputation of a champion of internet freedom – at the top of his list. He knows that may prove a wish unfulfilled.
But after the intense political controversy he has already created with just the first week's haul of stories, "I feel satisfied that this was all worth it. I have no regrets."
On whistleblowers and government threats of investigation
No healthy democracy can endure when the most consequential acts of those in power remain secret and unaccountable
guardian.co.uk, Friday 7 June 2013 08.04 EDT
James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, who called the Guardian's revelations 'reprehensible'. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
We followed Wednesday's story about the NSA's bulk telephone record-gathering with one yesterday about the agency's direct access to the servers of the world's largest internet companies. I don't have time at the moment to address all of the fallout because - to borrow someone else's phrase - I'm Looking Forward to future revelations that are coming (and coming shortly), not Looking Backward to ones that have already come.
But I do want to make two points. One is about whistleblowers, and the other is about threats of investigations emanating from Washington:
1) Ever since the Nixon administration broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychoanalyst's office, the tactic of the US government has been to attack and demonize whistleblowers as a means of distracting attention from their own exposed wrongdoing and destroying the credibility of the messenger so that everyone tunes out the message. That attempt will undoubtedly be made here.
I'll say more about all that shortly, but for now: as these whistleblowing acts becoming increasingly demonized ("reprehensible", declared Director of National Intelligence James Clapper yesterday), please just spend a moment considering the options available to someone with access to numerous Top Secret documents.
They could easily enrich themselves by selling those documents for huge sums of money to foreign intelligence services. They could seek to harm the US government by acting at the direction of a foreign adversary and covertly pass those secrets to them. They could gratuitously expose the identity of covert agents.
None of the whistleblowers persecuted by the Obama administration as part of its unprecedented attack on whistleblowers has done any of that: not one of them. Nor have those who are responsible for these current disclosures.
They did not act with any self-interest in mind. The opposite is true: they undertook great personal risk and sacrifice for one overarching reason: to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark. Their objective is to educate, to democratize, to create accountability for those in power.
The people who do this are heroes. They are the embodiment of heroism. They do it knowing exactly what is likely to be done to them by the planet's most powerful government, but they do it regardless. They don't benefit in any way from these acts. I don't want to over-simplify: human beings are complex, and usually act with multiple, mixed motives. But read this outstanding essay on this week's disclosures from The Atlantic's security expert, Bruce Schneier, to understand why these brave acts are so crucial.
Those who step forward to blow these whistles rarely benefit at all. The ones who benefit are you. You discover what you should know but what is hidden from you: namely, the most consequential acts being taken by those with the greatest power, and how those actions are affecting your life, your country and your world.
In 2008, candidate Obama decreed that "often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out," and he hailed whistleblowing as: "acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration."
The current incarnation of Obama prosecutes those same whistlelblowers at double the number of all previous presidents combined, and spent the campaign season boasting about it.
The 2008 version of Obama was right. As the various attacks are inevitably unleashed on the whistleblower(s) here, they deserve the gratitude and - especially - the support of everyone, including media outlets, for the noble acts that they have undertaken for the good of all of us. When it comes to what the Surveillance State is building and doing in the dark, we are much more informed today than we were yesterday, and will be much more informed tomorrow than we are today, thanks to them.
(2) Like puppets reading from a script, various Washington officials almost immediately began spouting all sorts of threats about "investigations" they intend to launch about these disclosures. This has been their playbook for several years now: they want to deter and intimidate anyone and everyone who might shed light on what they're doing with their abusive, manipulative exploitation of the power of law to punish those who bring about transparency.
That isn't going to work. It's beginning completely to backfire on them. It's precisely because such behavior reveals their true character, their propensity to abuse power, that more and more people are determined to bring about accountability and transparency for what they do.
They can threaten to investigate all they want. But as this week makes clear, and will continue to make clear, the ones who will actually be investigated are them.
The way things are supposed to work is that we're supposed to know virtually everything about what they do: that's why they're called public servants. They're supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that's why we're called private individuals.
This dynamic - the hallmark of a healthy and free society - has been radically reversed. Now, they know everything about what we do, and are constantly building systems to know more. Meanwhile, we know less and less about what they do, as they build walls of secrecy behind which they function. That's the imbalance that needs to come to an end. No democracy can be healthy and functional if the most consequential acts of those who wield political power are completely unknown to those to whom they are supposed to be accountable.
There seems to be this mentality in Washington that as soon as they stamp TOP SECRET on something they've done we're all supposed to quiver and allow them to do whatever they want without transparency or accountability under its banner. These endless investigations and prosecutions and threats are designed to bolster that fear-driven dynamic. But it isn't working. It's doing the opposite.
The times in American history when political power was constrained was when they went too far and the system backlashed and imposed limits. That's what happened in the mid-1970s when the excesses of J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon became so extreme that the legitimacy of the political system depended upon it imposing restraints on itself. And that's what is happening now as the government continues on its orgies of whistleblower prosecutions, trying to criminalize journalism, and building a massive surveillance apparatus that destroys privacy, all in the dark. The more they overreact to measures of accountability and transparency - the more they so flagrantly abuse their power of secrecy and investigations and prosecutions - the more quickly that backlash will arrive.
I'm going to go ahead and take the Constitution at its word that we're guaranteed the right of a free press. So, obviously, are other people doing so. And that means that it isn't the people who are being threatened who deserve and will get the investigations, but those issuing the threats who will get that. That's why there's a free press. That's what adversarial journalism means.
Sirota: Permanent Washington's Backlash to Edward Snowden
Jun. 13, 2013 2:54 PM
David Sirota - Opinion
Whether in celebrity culture or in our Facebook-mediated interactions, we live in the age of the human being as a public brand. So there’s nothing surprising about the reaction to this week’s disclosures about the National Security Agency’s unprecedented surveillance program. In our cult-of-personality society, that reaction has been predictably — and unfortunately — focused less on the agency’s possible crimes against the entire country than on Edward Snowden, the government contractor who disclosed the wrongdoing.
Almost universally, the government officials, pundits and reporters who comprise Permanent Washington have derided Snowden and those who helped him disseminate his disclosures. For instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., bashed him for committing “treason” while Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called for the arrest and prosecution of the journalists who broke the NSA snooping story. Likewise, establishment pundits from CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin to the New York Times’ David Brooks loyally defended government’s national security agencies by respectively assaulting Snowden as a “narcissist” and a loser who “could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school.” Meanwhile, plenty of Obama loyalists — many of whom criticized the Bush administration for much less invasive surveillance — took to Twitter to berate Snowden as an attention-seeking traitor.
Though they failed to show that Snowden’s disclosures endanger national security, these attacks do tell an important story — not about the whistleblower, but about America.
First and foremost, the backlash reveals that Permanent Washington doesn’t work for We the People, it works to protect itself. We know this because whereas Snowden is vilified for disclosing information that’s inconvenient to Permanent Washington, those who leak classified information that is advantageous to Permanent Washington are left alone.
Yes — most of those slamming Snowden expressed no outrage when the White House recently leaked Obama-glorifying information about the president’s assassinations of alleged terrorists. Same thing when it came to John Brennan. As Reuters’ Jack Shafer notes, after the president’s counterterrorism adviser leaked administration-defending information about a terrorist attack, “instead of being prosecuted for leaking sensitive, classified intelligence, Brennan was promoted to director of the CIA” — and few of those now complaining about Snowden expressed any outrage.
“The willingness of the government to punish leakers is inversely proportional to the leakers’ rank and status, which is bad news for someone so lacking in those attributes as Edward Snowden,” Shafer correctly concludes.
Of course, Permanent Washington’s self-interested assaults on Snowden will inevitably find some support among the general public. The question is: why?
This gets to the second way that this week’s events expose far more ugly truths about us than about Snowden.
In a democratic society, as Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald put it, “we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what (government officials) do: That’s why they’re called public servants.” That’s why, until given reason not to, we should naturally sympathize with — and support protections for — whistleblowers like Snowden.
But that’s the thing: Our core notions about transparency and self-governance have been under withering assault by Permanent Washington. Over time, that assault has succeeded in convincing many Americans to embrace the authoritarian view that says whistleblowers are a bigger problem than the government crimes they expose.
To understand what’s wrong with that attitude, consider the critics through the prism of history.
Those castigating Snowden probably would have insisted that the biggest crime of the Vietnam War was Daniel Ellsberg publishing the Pentagon Papers. They likely would have also said that the biggest crime of Watergate was Deep Throat blowing the whistle.
It is the same authoritarian argument against Snowden today — and until we wake up to the real agenda at work, Permanent Washington will continue undermining civil liberties and America’s democratic ideals in any way it can.
David Sirota is the best-selling author of the books “Hostile Takeover,” “The Uprising” and “Back to Our Future.” E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.
Series: Glenn Greenwald on security and liberty
NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily
Exclusive: Top secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over all call data shows scale of domestic surveillance under Obama • Read the Verizon court order in full here • Obama administration justifies surveillance
The Guardian, Wednesday 5 June 2013
Under the terms of the order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data and the time and duration of all calls. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.
Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.
The disclosure is likely to reignite longstanding debates in the US over the proper extent of the government's domestic spying powers.
Under the Bush administration, officials in security agencies had disclosed to reporters the large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA, but this is the first time significant and top-secret documents have revealed the continuation of the practice on a massive scale under President Obama.
The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.
The Guardian approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Department of Justice for comment in advance of publication on Wednesday. All declined. The agencies were also offered the opportunity to raise specific security concerns regarding the publication of the court order.
The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI's request for its customers' records, or the court order itself.
"We decline comment," said Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman.
The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compels Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls".
The order directs Verizon to "continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order". It specifies that the records to be produced include "session identifying information", such as "originating and terminating number", the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and "comprehensive communication routing information".
The information is classed as "metadata", or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such "metadata" is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.
While the order itself does not include either the contents of messages or the personal information of the subscriber of any particular cell number, its collection would allow the NSA to build easily a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where, retrospectively.
It is not known whether Verizon is the only cell-phone provider to be targeted with such an order, although previous reporting has suggested the NSA has collected cell records from all major mobile networks. It is also unclear from the leaked document whether the three-month order was a one-off, or the latest in a series of similar orders.
The court order appears to explain the numerous cryptic public warnings by two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, about the scope of the Obama administration's surveillance activities.
For roughly two years, the two Democrats have been stridently advising the public that the US government is relying on "secret legal interpretations" to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be "stunned" to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted.
Because those activities are classified, the senators, both members of the Senate intelligence committee, have been prevented from specifying which domestic surveillance programs they find so alarming. But the information they have been able to disclose in their public warnings perfectly tracks both the specific law cited by the April 25 court order as well as the vast scope of record-gathering it authorized.
Julian Sanchez, a surveillance expert with the Cato Institute, explained: "We've certainly seen the government increasingly strain the bounds of 'relevance' to collect large numbers of records at once — everyone at one or two degrees of separation from a target — but vacuuming all metadata up indiscriminately would be an extraordinary repudiation of any pretence of constraint or particularized suspicion." The April order requested by the FBI and NSA does precisely that.
The law on which the order explicitly relies is the so-called "business records" provision of the Patriot Act, 50 USC section 1861. That is the provision which Wyden and Udall have repeatedly cited when warning the public of what they believe is the Obama administration's extreme interpretation of the law to engage in excessive domestic surveillance.
In a letter to attorney general Eric Holder last year, they argued that "there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows."
"We believe," they wrote, "that most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted" the "business records" provision of the Patriot Act.
Privacy advocates have long warned that allowing the government to collect and store unlimited "metadata" is a highly invasive form of surveillance of citizens' communications activities. Those records enable the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication.
Such metadata is what the US government has long attempted to obtain in order to discover an individual's network of associations and communication patterns. The request for the bulk collection of all Verizon domestic telephone records indicates that the agency is continuing some version of the data-mining program begun by the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack.
The NSA, as part of a program secretly authorized by President Bush on 4 October 2001, implemented a bulk collection program of domestic telephone, internet and email records. A furore erupted in 2006 when USA Today reported that the NSA had "been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth" and was "using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity." Until now, there has been no indication that the Obama administration implemented a similar program.
These recent events reflect how profoundly the NSA's mission has transformed from an agency exclusively devoted to foreign intelligence gathering, into one that focuses increasingly on domestic communications. A 30-year employee of the NSA, William Binney, resigned from the agency shortly after 9/11 in protest at the agency's focus on domestic activities.
In the mid-1970s, Congress, for the first time, investigated the surveillance activities of the US government. Back then, the mandate of the NSA was that it would never direct its surveillance apparatus domestically.
At the conclusion of that investigation, Frank Church, the Democratic senator from Idaho who chaired the investigative committee, warned: "The NSA's capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter."
Additional reporting by Ewen MacAskill and Spencer Ackerman
Boundless Informant: the NSA's secret tool to track global surveillance data
Revealed: The NSA's powerful tool for cataloguing data – including figures on US collection • Boundless Informant: mission outlined in four slides • Read the NSA's frequently asked questions document
Glenn Greenwald nwald and Ewen MacAskill
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 8 June 2013 15.10 EDT
[the program would not reproduce the photo]
The color scheme ranges from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance). Note the '2007' date in the image relates to the document from which the interactive map derives its top secret classification, not to the map itself.
The National Security Agency has developed a powerful tool for recording and analysing where its intelligence comes from, raising questions about its repeated assurances to Congress that it cannot keep track of all the surveillance it performs on American communications.
The Guardian has acquired top-secret documents about the NSA datamining tool, called Boundless Informant, that details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks.
The focus of the internal NSA tool is on counting and categorizing the records of communications, known as metadata, rather than the content of an email or instant message.
The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013. One document says it is designed to give NSA officials answers to questions like, "What type of coverage do we have on country X" in "near real-time by asking the SIGINT [signals intelligence] infrastructure."
An NSA factsheet about the program, acquired by the Guardian, says: "The tool allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collections against that country."
Under the heading "Sample use cases", the factsheet also states the tool shows information including: "How many records (and what type) are collected against a particular country."
A snapshot of the Boundless Informant data, contained in a top secret NSA "global heat map" seen by the Guardian, shows that in March 2013 the agency collected 97bn pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide.
The heat map reveals how much data is being collected from around the world. Note the '2007' date in the image relates to the document from which the interactive map derives its top secret classification, not to the map itself.
Iran was the country where the largest amount of intelligence was gathered, with more than 14bn reports in that period, followed by 13.5bn from Pakistan. Jordan, one of America's closest Arab allies, came third with 12.7bn, Egypt fourth with 7.6bn and India fifth with 6.3bn.
The heatmap gives each nation a color code based on how extensively it is subjected to NSA surveillance. The color scheme ranges from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance).
The disclosure of the internal Boundless Informant system comes amid a struggle between the NSA and its overseers in the Senate over whether it can track the intelligence it collects on American communications. The NSA's position is that it is not technologically feasible to do so.
At a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee In March this year, Democratic senator Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
"No sir," replied Clapper.
Judith Emmel, an NSA spokeswoman, told the Guardian in a response to the latest disclosures: "NSA has consistently reported – including to Congress – that we do not have the ability to determine with certainty the identity or location of all communicants within a given communication. That remains the case."
Other documents seen by the Guardian further demonstrate that the NSA does in fact break down its surveillance intercepts which could allow the agency to determine how many of them are from the US. The level of detail includes individual IP addresses.
IP address is not a perfect proxy for someone's physical location but it is rather close, said Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist with the Speech Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If you don't take steps to hide it, the IP address provided by your internet provider will certainly tell you what country, state and, typically, city you are in," Soghoian said.
That approximation has implications for the ongoing oversight battle between the intelligence agencies and Congress.
On Friday, in his first public response to the Guardian's disclosures this week on NSA surveillance, Barack Obama said that that congressional oversight was the American peoples' best guarantee that they were not being spied on.
"These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress and they are being fully briefed on these programs," he said. Obama also insisted that any surveillance was "very narrowly circumscribed".
Senators have expressed their frustration at the NSA's refusal to supply statistics. In a letter to NSA director General Keith Alexander in October last year, senator Wyden and his Democratic colleague on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Udall, noted that "the intelligence community has stated repeatedly that it is not possible to provide even a rough estimate of how many American communications have been collected under the Fisa Amendments Act, and has even declined to estimate the scale of this collection."
At a congressional hearing in March last year, Alexander denied point-blank that the agency had the figures on how many Americans had their electronic communications collected or reviewed. Asked if he had the capability to get them, Alexander said: "No. No. We do not have the technical insights in the United States." He added that "nor do we do have the equipment in the United States to actually collect that kind of information".
Soon after, the NSA, through the inspector general of the overall US intelligence community, told the senators that making such a determination would jeopardize US intelligence operations – and might itself violate Americans' privacy.
"All that senator Udall and I are asking for is a ballpark estimate of how many Americans have been monitored under this law, and it is disappointing that the inspectors general cannot provide it," Wyden told Wired magazine at the time.
The documents show that the team responsible for Boundless Informant assured its bosses that the tool is on track for upgrades.
The team will "accept user requests for additional functionality or enhancements," according to the FAQ acquired by the Guardian. "Users are also allowed to vote on which functionality or enhancements are most important to them (as well as add comments). The BOUNDLESSINFORMANT team will periodically review all requests and triage according to level of effort (Easy, Medium, Hard) and mission impact (High, Medium, Low)."
Emmel, the NSA spokeswoman, told the Guardian: "Current technology simply does not permit us to positively identify all of the persons or locations associated with a given communication (for example, it may be possible to say with certainty that a communication traversed a particular path within the internet. It is harder to know the ultimate source or destination, or more particularly the identity of the person represented by the TO:, FROM: or CC: field of an e-mail address or the abstraction of an IP address).
"Thus, we apply rigorous training and technological advancements to combine both our automated and manual (human) processes to characterize communications – ensuring protection of the privacy rights of the American people. This is not just our judgment, but that of the relevant inspectors general, who have also reported this."
She added: "The continued publication of these allegations about highly classified issues, and other information taken out of context, makes it impossible to conduct a reasonable discussion on the merits of these programs."
Additional reporting: James Ball in New York and Spencer Ackerman in Washington
NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others