A new book, as well as the first account written by a participant, remind us that, in the world of the national security state, when it comes to pure and simple illegality in the monitoring of, spying on, and surveillance of American citizens, there really is nothing new under the sun. In a late-night break-in and theft in March 1971, eight antiwar activists -- the Edward Snowdens of their moment -- made off with the files of an obscure FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. These proved to contain documents incriminating the Bureau for operations designed to breed paranoia in the anti-Vietnam War movement and for what turned out to be illegal spying on Americans.
The activists, who remained anonymous and whom the FBI never found, sent relevant documents to journalists. While some papers returned the documents under FBI pressure, the Washington Post began publishing pieces about them. In this way, in what was then still an all-paper world, a distinctly non-digital, quite illegal break-in, an act of conscience aimed at pulling back the curtain on government illegality, began the unraveling of a massive, secret counterintelligence, or COINTELPRO, operation against Americans. It had targeted both the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and involved the use of agents provocateurs and blackmail, among many other illegal acts. Without that break-in by the Media 8, J. Edgar Hoover's "shadow FBI," a criminal conspiracy at the heart of a developing national security state, might never have been revealed. (The CIA, officially banned from domestic spying on Americans, turned out to be involved in massive surveillance as well.)
As a reporter at the Washington Post, Betty Medsger received some of the stolen documents and helped break the story back in 1971. Now, in her new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, several of those involved in the Media 8 break-in have finally identified themselves. In her personal account in the Guardian, one of the eight, Bonnie Raines, writes this of her modern counterpart: "Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he's sacrificed a lot."
In our own time, despite Snowden, count on one thing: we undoubtedly don't yet know the worst or most illegal aspects of this era of "intelligence." After all, while Snowden "liberated" up to 1.7 million National Security Agency documents (many of them not yet looked at, analyzed, or written about), there have been no similar twenty-first-century break-ins at the FBI, the CIA, or other parts of the American intelligence community (or for that matter at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security). Massive and shocking as the NSA revelations have been, the curtain has only been pulled back on a corner of the new Washington world that we, the people, continue to fund, even if we aren't considered important enough to know anything about it.
In the meantime, the defenders of that world have been out in their legions reassuring us that we need know no more, that it's all for our own good, that NSA surveillance stopped untold terror plots, and that it's -- really and truly! -- not such a big deal. Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren begs to differ and so takes us through the labyrinth of NSA defenses, point by point, showing just what our favorite Constitution-shredders have to say and why it doesn't hold water. Tom
You Can't Opt Out
10 NSA Myths Debunked
By Peter Van Buren
The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding -- quite literally -- Snowden's head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear," all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.
It's time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let's sort them out.
1) NSA surveillance is legal.
True, if perhaps you put "legal" in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.
Laws, manipulated for terrible ends, must be challenged when they come into conflict with the fundamental principles and morals of a free society. Laws created Nelson Mandela, the terrorist (whom the U.S. kept on its terror watch list until 2008), and laws created Nelson Mandela, the president.
There's a catch in the issue of legality and the NSA. Few of us can know just what the law is. What happens to you if you shoplift from a store or murder someone in a bar fight? The consequences of such actions are clearly codified and you can look them up. Is it legal to park over there? The rules are on a sign posted right where you'd like to pull in. If a cop tickets you wrongly, you can go to court and use that sign to defend yourself. Yet almost all of the applicable "law," when it comes to the National Security Agency and its surveillance practices, was secret until Edward Snowden began releasing his documents. Secret interpretations of the shady Patriot Act made in a secret court applied. The fact that an unknown number of legal memos and interpretations of that secret law (themselves still classified) are operative means that we really don't know what is legal anymore.
The panel of experts appointed by President Obama to review the Snowden revelations and the NSA's actions had a peek into the issue of "legality" and promptly raised serious questions -- as did one of the two federal courts that recently ruled on some aspects of the issue. If the Obama administration and the Justice Department really believe that all the NSA's activities will be proven legal in a court of law, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public? After all, if you've done nothing illegal, then there's nothing to hide.
When Amnesty International first tried to bring such a question before the courts, the case was denied because that organization couldn't prove that it had been subject to monitoring -- that was a secret, of course! -- and so was denied standing even to bring the suit. Snowden's revelations seem to have changed all that. The documents made public have given "standing" to a staggering array of individuals, organizations, and countries. For the first time in 12 years, they pave the way for the issue to come to its proper venue in front of the Supremes. Openly. Publicly.
2) If I've done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide. So why should I care about any of this?