Congress takes a bold stand against surveillance abuses

The same legislators who enabled email spying on Americans object when done elsewhere

Topics: China, Washington, D.C.,

Fixating on and condemning abuses of other countries is one of the greatest weapons the U.S. Government wields for distracting attention away from its own transgressions:  like those gossip-obsessed individuals endlessly mucking around in and passing judgment on the personal lives of others as a means of ignoring their own failings:

The San Francisco Chronicle, yesterday:

Few expect Google Inc.’s stare-down with China to usher in a new era of openness across the Asian nation, but some believe — or hope — it could pressure the government to improve relations with foreign technology companies. . . . The Obama administration issued statements of support for Google, and members of Congress are pushing to revive a bill banning U.S. tech companies from working with governments that digitally spy on their citizens.

Thank God for that, because we all know there’s nothing worse than “governments that digitally spy on their citizens,” and there are few things that galvanize our righteous members of Congress more than vast domestic surveillance abuses over the Internet:

New York Times, April 15, 2009:

The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews.

New York Times, June 16, 2009:

The National Security Agency is facing renewed scrutiny over the extent of its domestic surveillance program, with critics in Congress saying its recent intercepts of the private telephone calls and e-mail messages of Americans are broader than previously acknowledged, current and former officials said. . . .

Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation. . . .

Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel … disputed assertions by Justice Department and national security officials that the overcollection was inadvertent. “Some actions are so flagrant that they can’t be accidental,” Mr. Holt said. . . . Because each court order could single out hundreds or even thousands of phone numbers or e-mail addresses, the number of individual communications that were improperly collected could number in the millions, officials said.

But as the U.S. Congress is now making clear, it’s one thing for a government to abuse domestic surveillance powers, but it’s completely intolerable for private telecommunications companies to conspire in that behavior:

ABC News, November 7, 2007:

It would be difficult to say whose e-mail, text messages or Internet phone calls the government is monitoring at any given time, but according to a former AT&T employee, the government has warrantless access to a great deal of Internet traffic should they care to take a peek. . . . [Mark] Klein, who worked for more than 20 years as a technician at AT&T, said that the highly secretive electronics-focused National Security Agency began working with telecom companies to gain wholesale access to vast amounts of data traveling over the Internet.

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Surely, the U.S. Congress that is now putting its foot down on private companies cooperating with such abusive spying elsewhere would react very angrily in the face of revelations that it was being done here.  Actually, in the face of such revelations less than two years ago, they ended up on a very bipartisan basis legalizing the illegal spying program and immunizing the telecoms that enabled it all.  From The New York Sun, July 9, 2008:

Bowing to President Bush’s demands, the Senate approved and sent the White House a bill today to overhaul bitterly disputed rules on secret government eavesdropping and shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits complaining they helped America spy on Americans.

It should go without saying that all of the sponsors of the pending bill to ban American companies from collaborating with domestic Internet spying in foreign countries — the inspirationally-named Global Online Freedom Act of 2009voted in favor of the 2008 bill to legalize what had been the illegal warrantless interception of emails and to immunize telecoms which helped our own government break the law in how it spied on Americans.

 That’s our Government and political class in a nutshell:  vocally condemning other countries for abuses which we ourselves engage in with impunity.  Earlier this year, Business Week described how “Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are making fools of themselves with their war on Nokia Siemens for supplying the Iranian government with equipment that lets authorities monitor wireless phone calls and data transmissions.”  Why, as Business Week described it, must this crusade be the by-product either of “ignorance or hypocrisy”?  Because U.S. law “requires that all wireless carriers provide the technological means for law enforcement authorities to tap wireless accounts” and the Congress has done nothing about mountains of evidence of abuses by the U.S. Government within the U.S.

It goes without saying that countries like China and Iran — along with many of our closest allies — are far more repressive of internal dissent than is the U.S.  But the role of the American Congress is supposed to be to check surveillance abuses by the U.S. Government and to safeguard the privacy of American citizens inside the U.S.  Instead, they do the opposite:  flamboyantly condemn transgressions by other governments (at least the ones we don’t like) while enabling, empowering and protecting our own government officials and private telecoms who illegally spy within our own country.

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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