Surveillance State evils
"Th[e National Security Agency'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. There would be no place to hide. [If a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A.] could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back."
That dramatic warning comes not from an individual who is typically held up as a symbol of anti-government paranoia. Rather, it was issued by one of the most admired and influential politicians among American liberals in the last several decades: Frank Church of Idaho, the 4-term U.S. Senator who served from 1957 to 1981. He was, among other things, one of the Senate's earliest opponents of the Vietnam War, a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Chairman of the Committee (bearing his name) that in the mid-1970s investigated the widespread surveillance abuses committed under every President since FDR (that was the investigation that led to the enactment of FISA, the criminal law prohibiting the Executive Branch from intercepting the communications of American citizens without first obtaining a warrant from a court: the law which the Bush administration got caught violating and which, in response, was gutted by the Democratic-led Congress in 2008, with the support of then-Senator Obama; the abuses uncovered by the Church Committee also led to the enactment of further criminal prohibitions on the cooperation by America's telecoms in any such illegal government spying, prohibitions that were waived away when the same 2008 Congress retroactively immunized America's telecom giants from having done so).
At the time of the Church Committee, it was the FBI that conducted most domestic surveillance. Since its inception, the NSA was strictly barred from spying on American citizens or on American soil. That prohibition was centrally ingrained in the mindset of the agency. Church issued that above-quoted warning out of fear that, one day, the NSA's massive, unparalleled surveillance capabilities would be directed inward, at the American people. Until the Church Committee's investigation, most Americans, including its highest elected officials, knew almost nothing about the NSA (it was referred to as No Such Agency by its employees). As James Bamford wrote about Church's reaction to his own findings about the NSA's capabilities, "he came away stunned." At the time, Church also said: "I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."
Of course, that bridge has long ago been crossed, without even much discussion, let alone controversy. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, George Bush ordered the NSA to spy on the communications of Americans on American soil, and they've been doing it ever since, with increasing aggression and fewer and fewer constraints. That development is but one arm in the creation of an American Surveillance State that is, literally, ubiquitous -- one that makes it close to impossible for American citizens to communicate or act without detection from the U.S. Government -- a state of affairs Americans have long been taught since childhood is a hallmark of tyranny. Such are the times -- in both America generally and the Democratic Party in particular -- that those who now echo the warnings issued 35 years ago by Sen. Church (when surveillance was much more restrained, legally and technologically) are scorned by all Serious People as radical hysterics.
Yesterday, Democracy Now had an extraordinary program devoted to America's Surveillance State. The show had three guests, each of whose treatment by the U.S. Government reflects how invasive, dangerous and out-of-control America's Surveillance State has become:
William Binney: he worked at the NSA for almost 40 years, and resigned in October, 2001, in protest of the NSA's turn to domestic spying. Binney immediately went to the House Intelligence Committee to warn them of the illegal spying the NSA was doing, and that resulted in nothing. In July, 2007 -- while then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was testifying before the Senate about Bush's warrantless NSA spying program -- Binney's home was invaded by a dozen FBI agents, who pointed guns at him, in an obvious effort to intimidate him out of telling the Senate the falsehoods and omissions in Gonzales' testimony about NSA domestic spying (another NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake, had his home searched several months later, and was subsequently prosecuted by the Obama DOJ -- unsuccessfully -- for his whistleblowing).
Jacob Appelbaum: an Internet security expert and hacker, he is currently at the University of Washington and engaged in some of the world's most important work in the fight for Internet freedom. He's a key member of the Tor Project, which is devoted to enabling people around the world to use the Internet with complete anonymity: so as to thwart government surveillance and to prevent nation-based Internet censorship. In 2010, he was also identified as a spokesman for WikiLeaks. Rolling Stone dubbed him "The Most Dangerous Man in Cyberspace," writing: "In a sense, he's a bizarro version of Mark Zuckerberg: If Facebook's ambition is to "make the world more open and connected,' Appelbaum has dedicated his life to fighting for anonymity and privacy. . . . 'I don't want to live in a world where everyone is watched all the time,' he says. "I want to be left alone as much as possible. I don't want a data trail to tell a story that isn't true'."
For the last two years, Appelbaum has been repeatedly detained and harassed at American airports upon his return to the country, including having his laptops and cellphone seized -- all without a search warrant, of course -- and never returned. The U.S. Government has issued secret orders to Internet providers demanding they provide information about his email communications and social networking activities. He's never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime.
Laura Poitras: she is the filmmaker about whom I wrote two weeks ago. After producing an Oscar-nominated film on the American occupation of Iraq, followed by a documentary about U.S. treatment of Islamic radicals in Yemen, she has been detained, searched, and interrogated every time she has returned to the U.S. She, too, has had her laptop and cell phone seized without a search warrant, and her reporters' notes repeatedly copied. This harassment has intensified as she works on her latest film about America's Surveillance State and the war on whistleblowers, which includes -- among other things -- interviews with NSA whistleblowers such as Binney and Drake.
So just look at what happens to people in the U.S. if they challenge government actions in any meaningful way -- if they engage in any meaningful dissent. We love to tell ourselves that there are robust political freedoms and a thriving free political press in the U.S. because you're allowed to have an MSNBC show or blog in order to proclaim every day how awesome and magnanimous the President of the United States is and how terrible his GOP political adversaries are -- how brave, cutting and edgy! -- or to go on Fox News and do the opposite. But people who are engaged in actual dissent, outside the tiny and narrow permissible boundaries of pom-pom waving for one of the two political parties -- those who are focused on the truly significant acts which the government and its owners are doing in secret -- are subjected to this type of intimidation, threats, surveillance, and climate of fear, all without a whiff of illegal conduct (as even The New York Times" most celebrated investigative reporter, James Risen, will tell you).
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