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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/7/13

Why the US government is Spying on Everyone

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The lead paragraph of this morning's NYT (June 7, 2013) states as follows:

"The federal government has been secretly collecting information on foreigners overseas for nearly six years from the nation's largest Internet companies like Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple, in search of national security threats, the director of national intelligence confirmed Thursday night."

The article then proceeds to turn its attention to and spends the rest of the article discussing the simultaneous other revelation that Obama's Administration is also spying on all domestic calls and Internet activity within the U.S.

"[T]he growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, " has clearly been embraced and even expanded under the Obama administration."

Many readers might follow the NYT's lead in neglecting to follow up on the meaning of its first paragraph -- that the U.S. government is scooping up data on foreigners overseas for nearly six years (putting its inception at around 2007) - but let's stay on that one for a few moments here and digest it. The U.S. government is spying on not just all of us here in the U.S., not just all communications between those of us here in the U.S. and anyone outside of the U.S., but the Internet activities of foreigners overseas. It's trying to and or is collecting data on the world, in other words.

If you spend sometime doing research on surveillance and their "war on terror" and if you become familiar with the history of governmental surveillance and the spooks who do it within the inner sanctums of bureaucracies, you learn that the desire to scoop up everything they can, even when they have been strictly prohibited from doing so, let alone provided justifications to do so, as has been the case since the very beginning of Bush's years seven months before 9/11 continuing on through today, then you should not be surprised to find that these practices have been going on. [1]

Like "torture drift" where those torturing a prisoner drift further and further into greater and greater levels of brutality, we could coin a term with respect to surveillance and name it "surveillance drift" -- the taking of more and more information. Not only is this "surveillance drift" the norm among government spooks, but it also conforms to the premise of public order policies, which is the new model for governance: everyone is a suspect.

Under the new paradigm for governance present in capitols across the globe since the 1980s, you no longer have to have committed a crime or even be suspected based on some actual evidence that you have committed a crime, you only have to be alive to be suspected and tracked and have information collected about you. Further, you can be and many people are (see Bradley Manning and the prisoners at Guantanamo for example) tortured and detained and railroaded for crimes that you are suspected that you might do or might have done. This is known as preventive detention in the first case and in the second case punishment for what has not yet been proven that you have done. "First the sentence, then the verdict!" as the Alice in Wonderland's Red Queen famously declared.

In trying to misdirect people who might be outraged about these practices, we have this from James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, cited in the NYT article:

"'It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States,' James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement, describing the law underlying the program. 'Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.'"

Their program of ubiquitous warrantless surveillance "cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen" -- that is supposed to make us feel reassured? "Thank god they're not tracking me intentionally! They're tracking me without specifically targeting me!" Of course the history of government spying shows that they are intentionally tracking some people and groups. But let's set that to the side for the moment and take on his central claim that no one is being intentionally targeted and take it as true. The fact that they are putatively not intentionally targeting anyone means a) that they are gathering data on everyone's relationships to others, their networks and places that they go to physically and virtually, and b) this protocol explicitly overturns the previous rationale for being given permission by the FISA Court to conduct electronic and other snooping such as breaking into people's homes and offices and searching them ("Sneak and Peek"). The standard before under FISA was that government agents had to show the court that they had specific evidence that someone or some people were engaged in criminal and/or possible terrorist activities in order to be given a warrant to carry out snooping on them. According to Clapper's words, intended to reassure the American public, they are gathering data on all of us without any specific reasons for targeting anyone in particular. Clapper's stated rationale is, if anything, worse, not better.

Let's now take the second part of his statement: "Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats." If the U.S. government is collecting data on all of us and on the world, then how much data are they collecting in total? In Globalization and the Demolition of Society I wrote, citing the observations of an intelligence historian named Matthew Aid in a September 31, 2009 NYT article: "the NSA receives four times as much data every day as is held in the Library of Congress. The intelligence community is, in other words, drowning in data."

The question of how much they are gathering in data is relevant here because if you are making absolutely no distinctions between people and organizations that you have reasonable grounds to suspect -- that is, there is some actual reason to suspect that they might be up to something bad, broadly defining might -- and you are gathering up data on everyone, then you are going to be trying to do the equivalent in data terms as vacuuming up the entire matter of the earth in order to extract some gold. Your efforts, in other words, to work with that much data will overwhelm your efforts from the start to keep track of the truly relevant data.

This practice under both Bush and expanded under Obama to gather up everything matches Dick Cheney's infamous statement memorialized in NYT writer Ron Suskind's book about Cheney, "The One Percent Doctrine."

"'If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,' Cheney said. He paused to assess his declaration. 'It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of the evidence,' he added. 'It's about our response.'" (From Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 62.

According to Mr. Cheney, then, what we do is what matters, not whether what we are doing is based upon a reasonable assessment of what it is we face. This is consistent with the "faith-based community" and the postmodernist community that both agree that what matters is not rationally assessing the objective world but deciding how we are subjectively going to act in the world based upon our preferred version of what is real.

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Cal Poly Pomona Sociology Professor. Author of "Globalization and the Demolition of Society," co-editor/author (with Peter Phillips) of "Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney." National Steering Committee Member of the World Can't (more...)
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