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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 10/1/19

Edward Snowden: Private Contractors Play Key Role in U.S. Intelligence's "Creeping Authoritarianism"

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So, you were operating, and a report comes across your desk that is actually the unclassified version of that same report. And you discover that it is completely different from what the unclassified version was. And you say in the book and this was about the Stellar Wind, the Stellar Wind project. And you say that the program's very existence was an indication that the agency's mission had been transformed from using technology to defend America to using technology to control it, by redefining citizens' private internet communications as signals intelligence. Could you talk about that some more?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, that's correct. So, for people who are interested in getting the bare facts on this, this is, I think, an especially useful example and a big part of the book. Because it's been published, the classified report, the very classified report, the inspector general's report, into what is effectively the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping program and internet surveillance program, which was not known to the public at the time, even in the wake of the initial reporting has been published in The Washington Post. If you search for "Stellarwind" "stellar" like stars, and "wind" like we all know as one word and "Washington Post," you can find the classified inspector general's report and read it yourself.

And this showed an incredibly detailed, tick-tock history of how it was that, at the direction of the president of the United States, and with the knowledge and awareness of only a few key members in Congress, the work of the United States government and the intelligence agencies was intentionally and knowingly violating the Constitution of the United States on a daily basis. This was a systemic effort that was not a one-off.

What I saw was, this inspector general or, actually, all of the inspector generals of the intelligence community had produced a report on the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping program in the wake of the scandal, when the story first broke in December of 2005, and it led to reforms of law, it led to a ton of panicked congressmen and, of course, the president, who were all implicated in this wrongdoing. And what they were actually doing was trying to paper over all of the laws they had broken, by passing new laws that retroactively made what they did OK. And so, at the very end of this process, they put out an unclassified report.

Now, as almost everyone knows now, thanks to things like the Mueller report and so on, the government will routinely provide classified documents to the public by redacting them. It's the same document, but it's got these blacked-out sections where you can't see this name or this detail or this program, whatever. What struck me so much about the division between the unclassified report and the classified report was they were entirely different documents. And I encourage the audience to query these for yourselves.

And what this meant was the actual truth of what the government was doing was so problematic, that they could not declassify, they could not summarize, they could not redact, without indicating that basically every level of government had been in on the violation of our constitutional rights, and so they created an entirely different document that basically said, "Oh, don't worry about it. Nothing to see here."

And this is the challenge, when we talk about proper channels, when we talk about inspectors generals, when we talk about congressional oversight. These processes only work when the harm that you are reporting, the people who are responsible for it are willing to correct. So, if it's a little bad, maybe it will work. If it involves one person, who the rest of the elite section are willing to sacrifice or, in fact, very much want to get rid of, then, yes, these kind of oversight processes can work. But if what you are reporting is that all of the different branches of government are working in concert to violate the rights of the American people, what do you think they're going to do when that report comes across their desk? They're going to get rid of you. They're going to bury what you have reported. And very possibly, they're going to put you in prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ed, you mentioned earlier the cloud and that you were helping to get some many of the documents of, I think it was, the CIA into a cloud, where any CIA agent anywhere could access those records. But cloud computing is not really in the clouds. It's usually a farm, a data farm, a huge data farm, somewhere in an obscure part of the country. And you mentioned a point in which, I think it was, Amazon got a huge contract from the NSA to build one of these cloud farms. And you note that this is not only a question of creating a permanent record that these government spy agencies are doing, but they're also trying to create a permanent record of everything


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: and not just in the U.S., but around the world. Talk about that.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Right. So, when people hear the word "cloud" today, if they're not technical, we sort of generally have an understanding maybe of what it means, but, as you say, it's sort of abstract. "Cloud" simply means other people's computers. And the Amazon cloud contract that you're talking about, I actually describe in the book. I was directly competing at Dell against Amazon's bid to build a private cloud for the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community.

And this is this new method of handling data, where all of our records, of our lives your pictures, your emails are typically no longer actually held by you. They're held by Google. And you log into your account, to your Gmail or whatever, and Google says, "Oh, here's your emails. You want to look at these?" And then, when you log off, they keep them. The benefit of this is you can log in from another device and see the same emails.

But it also means they can give these emails to anyone that they want. And they have and did and continue to give these to governments, not just our government, but other governments, and, of course, to corporations and advertisers, through different ways. They'll say they don't, and legally, in some ways, they're correct in the strictest sense. But the reality is, the memories that we love the most, the connections that make us who we are, that comprise our families, that form our communities, are controlled by people who do not even see us as customers, because we are not paying them. Governments, advertisers, other groups, those are their customers. We are the product.

And so, yeah, what we saw in this context is the whole internet was moving from this 1990s model of the internet, where everybody had their own computer, we had our own data, we connected things, and we shared things, one to one. We sent a link to this person. We pushed a file to this person. We put something on a floppy disk remember floppy disks? and we gave it to a friend. Instead, now, all of our terminals became phones, right? They became client devices that were dependent on these larger central servers right? data centers. And the only people who ran these data centers, who could control and understand these data centers, were almost a sort of new priesthood, right? These are the only ones who could speak the language of technology, who can control these systems. They became more complex. And we, average people, increasingly became disempowered and dependent on these companies, to the point where we didn't really have an alternative.

This shift in the way our systems work is what is creating, I think, fundamentally, the creeping authoritarianism that we see today. People have all of these arguments about the left and the right. But what we see, sadly, in many parts of government, and not just in the United States, but around the world, in places like the U.K., Poland, Hungary, we see a growing authoritarianism, where the left and the right have sharp disagreements on a few particular points, typically about social policy, but, broadly, they're actually gravitating on the north-south part of the political axis, not left or right, but towards authoritarianism rather than the libertarianism from which this country was born. Rather than a government of enumerated powers, that has very strict limits on what it can and can't do, instead we have governments where they go, "We need to do this for X justification," and so long as the justification is persuasive enough, the public will permit it or, in many cases, support it.

But you have to remember that in this country, there have always been limits on what the government can do, even if they want to, even if there is public support. The reason we have the Constitution is not to protect the majority; it's to protect the minority from the majority. And that is beginning to change. And corporations are very much beginning to act as deputies of government, as they influence or, they hold more influence in society and begin to occupy quasi-governmental roles, such as regulating the things that can and cannot be said on the internet.

AMY GOODMAN: We're spending the hour with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. His new memoir, Permanent Record. Back with him in a minute.

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