Who can keep up? The revelations -- mainly thanks to the documents Edward Snowden took from the National Security Agency -- are never-ending. Just this week, we learned that GCHQ, the British intelligence agency whose activities are interwoven with the NSA's, used a program called Optic Nerve to intercept and store "the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing" (including Americans). As the Guardian reported, "In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery -- including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications -- from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally." Yahoo is now outraged; the Internet Association, a trade group for the giants of the industry, has condemned the program; and three U.S. senators announced an investigation of possible NSA involvement.
At about the same time, Glenn Greenwald revealed that GCHQ was engaging in "extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction." These included "'false flag operations' (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting "negative information' on various forums." Again, this was evidently happening with the knowledge, if not collusion, of the NSA.
Meanwhile, with Washington entering a self-proclaimed era of "reform" when it comes to spying on Americans, we just got a striking you-can't-win-for-losing Catch-22 message from the front lines of the surveillance wars. Claiming that recent pending lawsuits make it necessary, the Obama administration has requested permission to hang on to phone metadata "on billions of U.S. phone calls indefinitely instead of destroying it after five years." Hmmm... this may be the only example we have of the U.S. intelligence community fighting tooth and nail to stick to the letter of the law.
And mind you, that's just dipping a toe in the positively oceanic global surveillance waters. It's been nine months since the Snowden revelations began and who can keep it all straight? Nonetheless, it's possible to put everything we know so far into a simple message about our American world-in-the-making: the surveillance part of the national security state has, in its own mind, no boundaries at all. As a result, there is no one, nor any part of communications life on this planet, that is out of bounds to our surveillers.
Given what we now know, it's easy to ignore what we don't know about how our government is acting in our name. That's why the figure of the whistleblower -- and the Obama administration's urge to suppress whistleblowing of any sort -- remains so important. How are we ever to know anything about the workings of that secret state of ours if someone doesn't tell us? As a result, TomDispatch remains dedicated to documenting the Obama administration's ongoing war against those who have the urge to bring the secret workings of the national security state to our attention -- especially in cases like Robert MacLean's, where otherwise little notice is paid in the mainstream media. So today, we're publishing a follow-up to our earlier story about MacLean, again by TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren. Himself a State Department whistleblower, Van Buren takes another deep dive into the dark territory he has dubbed post-Constitutional America. Tom
Silencing Whistleblowers Obama-Style
Supreme Court Edition?
By Peter Van Buren
The Obama administration has just opened a new front in its ongoing war on whistleblowers. It's taking its case against one man, former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Air Marshal Robert MacLean, all the way to the Supreme Court. So hold on, because we're going back down the rabbit hole with the Most Transparent Administration ever.- Advertisement -
Despite all the talk by Washington insiders about how whistleblowers like Edward Snowden should work through the system rather than bring their concerns directly into the public sphere, MacLean is living proof of the hell of trying to do so. Through the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to use MacLean's case to further limit what kinds of information can qualify for statutory whistleblowing protections. If the DOJ gets its way, only information that the government thinks is appropriate -- a contradiction in terms when it comes to whistleblowing -- could be revealed. Such a restriction would gut the legal protections of the Whistleblower Protection Act and have a chilling effect on future acts of conscience.
Having lost its case against MacLean in the lower courts, the DOJ is seeking to win in front of the Supreme Court. If heard by the Supremes -- and there's no guarantee of that -- this would represent that body's first federal whistleblower case of the post-9/11 era. And if it were to rule for the government, even more information about an out-of-control executive branch will disappear under the dark umbrella of "national security."
On the other hand, should the court rule against the government, or simply turn down the case, whistleblowers like MacLean will secure a little more protection than they've had so far in the Obama years. Either way, an important message will be sent at a moment when revelations of government wrongdoing have moved from the status of obscure issue to front-page news.
The issues in the MacLean case -- who is entitled to whistleblower protection, what use can be made of retroactive classification to hide previously unclassified information, how many informal classification categories the government can create bureaucratically, and what role the Constitution and the Supreme Court have in all this -- are arcane and complex. But stay with me. Understanding the depths to which the government is willing to sink to punish one man who blew the whistle tells us the world about Washington these days and, as they say, the devil is in the details.- Advertisement -
Robert MacLean, Whistleblower
MacLean's case is simple -- and complicated.
Here's the simple part: MacLean was an air marshal, flying armed aboard American aircraft as the last defense against a terror attack. In July 2003, all air marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the TSA, which oversees the marshals, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to their cell phones cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. Fearing that such cancellations in the midst of a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public, MacLean worked his way through the system. He first brought his concerns to his supervisor and then to the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general. Each responded that nothing could be done.
After hitting a dead end, and hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to change its policy, MacLean talked anonymously to a reporter who broadcast a critical story. After 11 members of Congress pitched in, the TSA reversed itself. A year later, MacLean appeared on TV in disguise to criticize agency dress and boarding policies that he felt made it easier for passengers to recognize marshals who work undercover. (On your next flight keep an eye out for the young man in khakis with a fanny pack and a large watch, often wearing a baseball cap and eyeing boarders from a first class seat.) This time the TSA recognized MacLean's voice and discovered that he had also released the unclassified 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006.