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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 10/8/13

In The Name Of Making Us "Safe," The NSA Has Shredded Privacy Rights And Now Treats All Citizens As Suspects

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Source: Hightower Lowdown

You're not paranoid -- they really are spying on you

Rube Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the last century, was famous for drawings of what he called "inventions" -- complicated contraptions and convoluted schemes for achieving the simplest of goals. His "Simple Lawn Sprinkler," for example, involves (A) a man on a porch rocking back in his chair on (B) a squeeze bulb that sprays water causing (C) a shirt on a clothesline to shrink, thus pulling (D) a string that (E) tips a shelf, dumping (F) a heavy homemade biscuit down into (G) a butterfly net, causing its (H) rod to lift (I) a hood and expose (J) a mouse, which is chased by (K) a cat strapped to (L) a revolving platform, which turns rapidly as the cat and mouse go in a circle, causing (M) a laughing hyena sitting on the platform to spin around and around, with the hyena's nose tickled at every turn by (N) a feather ball, prompting him to laugh so hard he cries -- and, as the hyena spins, his tears are flung out to water the lawn.

Apparently, Rube was also the designer of the National Security Agency's "Simple Catch-a-Terrorist Program," for only a mind as impish as his could've invented such a preposterous, roundabout spy scheme. Rather than simply targeting terrorists and really homing in on them, NSA is running a labyrinthian, secret, extravagant, unconstitutional, and out-of-control electronic surveillance operation that targets you. Yes, you! And me. And every other American living in our Land of the Free. This agency has redefined citizens as suspects.

Not that NSA officialdom actually thinks that you, Mr. Upright or Ms. Doright, are terrorists or even "persons of interest" -- but, then again, you might be. So, the spook bureaucracy has unilaterally chosen to put its convenience over your constitutional rights. Doing the serious police work to sort out the tiny number of people in our country who are connected in any substantive way to real terrorist threats is too much bother for NSA's techno-warriors, so they've taken the shortcut of dumping all 330 million of us into a digitalized, guilty-until-found-innocent box, keeping an unblinking computer eye on us, and hoping the few bad guys stand out.

They have created an elaborate, electronic Rube-Goldbergish spy matrix that (A) appropriates and agglomerates everyone's "metadata" (a geek term defined as data that provides information about other data), channels it into (B) banks of rapidly spinning supercomputers that (C) analyze your and my terrorist inclinations, based on (D) the phone calls we make and get, (E) emails we send and receive, (F) websites we visit and topics we Google, (G) Facebook friends and pages we like, (H) credit card expenditures and bank transactions we make, and -- most telling of all (I) whether we have or have ever had a laughing hyena in our yard.

The SuperLux

NSA is not just one more entity chipping away at our privacy rights. Its intrusion is huge, both in its unprecedented reach and in its autocratic reordering of our way of life. Our government certainly has the right and duty (just as the governments of other nations) to eavesdrop on those who plot terrorist attacks and pose an actual threat to us. But this is not that. As the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald puts it, NSA "is sweeping up billions and billions of emails and telephone calls every single day from people around the world and in the United States who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism."

By taking advantage of the pervasive fog of fear blanketing our country since 9/11, this secret arm of government has become the SuperLux Vacuum Cleaner of the Total Surveillance Society. Using the infamous PATRIOT Act, some ridiculously permissive rulings by secret courts, cosmic leaps in surveillance technology, and meek political oversight, NSA has rapidly expanded its power over us since 2001. So, now it routinely and massively violates the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, and maybe even the Sixth.

The most telling thing to know about this elephantine spy outfit is that we have known nothing about it! Until June of this year, you and I, the incurious media, and probably 99 percent of Congress had no clue that such a rampaging monster had so stealthily arisen in our midst.

Just as alarming, those who did know (Presidents Bush and Obama and a few top congressional leaders) felt no duty to inform us. In fact, we still wouldn't know about it -- except that several whistleblowers came forward, including one uncommonly bold commoner: Edward Snowden. A 30-year-old computer whiz who worked for an NSA contractor as a systems administrator, he was appalled by what he found the agency doing -- and in June he began blowing one of the loudest whistles ever. Snowden pulled a treasure trove of information from NSA's computers and began releasing those dark secrets to Greenwald and other journalists. Stunning revelations continue to pour out of Snowden's laptop, literally blowing the cover off a security state run amok.

Of course, the security establishment has cravenly tried to deflect attention from his releases by making him the villain. "Traitor!" barked boneheaded House Speaker John Boehner, and Obama piled on as well. But the actual betrayers of our people and values are the Boehners and Obamas of both parties, who secretly created, funded, and continuously expanded this illegal spy machine. Whatever you think of Snowden's tactics, he has performed a profound public service by revealing, as one scribe called it, "an intelligence underworld" that threatens our core liberties.

The whole elephant

Embarrassed and irritated by Snowden's leaks, Obama charged at an Aug. 9 press conference that Snowden was presenting a false picture of NSA by releasing sensational parts of its work piecemeal: "Rather than have a trunk come out here and a leg a come out there," he said, "let's just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they're looking at."

Full disclosure -- terrific! "America is not interested in spying on ordinary people," he assured us. The government, he went on, is not "listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails."

Six days later, a Washington Post headline blared: "NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year." In an internal audit last year of just its DC-area spy centers, the agency itself found 2,776 "incidences" of NSA overstepping its legal authority. As the American Civil Liberties Union noted, surveillance laws themselves "are extraordinarily permissive," so it's doubly troubling that the agency is surging way past what it is already allowed to do. The ACLU adds that these reported incidents are not simply cases of one person's rights being violated -- but thousands of Americans being snared, totally without cause, in NSA's indiscriminate, computer-driven dragnet.

The agency's surveillance net stretches so wide that it is inherently abusive, even though its legal authority to spy on Americans is quite limited. US Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the GOP sponsor of the PATRIOT Act (which NSA cites as its super-vac authority), said in July that Congress intended that it should apply only to cases directly tied to national security investigations. No lawmaker, he said, meant that government snoops should be able to conduct a wholesale grab of Americans' phone, email, and other personal records and then store them in huge databases to be searched at will.

Yet look at what NSA has become:

  • The three billion phone calls made in the US each day are snatched up by the agency, which stores each call's metadata (phone numbers of the parties, date and time, length of call, etc.) for five years.

  • Each day, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and other telecom giants turn over to NSA the metadata on every call they have processed. Each corporation has its own secret NSA code name, including such monikers as Blarney, Lithium, and Stormbrew.

  • Every out-of-country call and email from (or to) a US citizen is grabbed by NSA computers, and agents are authorized to listen to or read any of them. Among the abuses of this power are incidents of agents capturing love notes and sex talk between our troops in Iraq and their spouses back home, and then passing around the juiciest communiques for the amusement of other agency staffers.

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Jim Hightower is an American populist, spreading his message of democratic hope via national radio commentaries, columns, books, his award-winning monthly newsletter (The Hightower Lowdown) and barnstorming tours all across America.

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