[the last portion of this column was cut off at some point after it was originally posted; it has now been restored]
“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).
Whether a country is actually free is determined not by how well-rewarded its convention-affirming media elites are and how ignored its passive citizens are but by how it treats its dissidents, those posing authentic challenges to what the government does. The stories of the three Democracy Now guests — and so many others — provide that answer loudly and clearly.
Beyond the stories of these guests, I want to highlight two particularly significant exchanges from yesterday’s show (and I really urge you to find the time this weekend to watch the whole thing; it’s embedded below or, alternatively, can be viewed here). First is this:
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the differences in the [Bush and Obama] administrations?
WILLIAM BINNEY: Actually, I think the surveillance has increased. In fact, I would suggest that they’ve assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens.
AMY GOODMAN: How many?
WILLIAM BINNEY: Twenty trillion.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re saying that this surveillance has increased? Not only the—
WILLIAM BINNEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —targeting of whistleblowers, like your colleagues, like people like Tom Drake, who are actually indicted under the Obama administration—
WILLIAM BINNEY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —more times—the number of people who have been indicted are more than all presidents combined in the past.
WILLIAM BINNEY: Right. And I think it’s to silence what’s going on. But the point is, the data that’s being assembled is about everybody. And from that data, then they can target anyone they want . . . That, by the way, estimate only was involving phone calls and emails. It didn’t involve any queries on the net or any assembles—other—any financial transactions or credit card stuff, if they’re assembling that. I do not know that, OK.
That sounds like a number so large as to be fantastical, but it’s entirely consistent with what The Washington Post, in its 2010 “Top Secret America” series, reported: “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.” Read that sentence again and I defy anyone to deny that the U.S. has become the type of full-fledged, limitless Surveillance State about which Sen. Church warned.
Note, too, how this weapon has been not just maintained, but — as Binney said — aggressively expanded under President Obama. Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowing has been, in large part, designed to shield from the American public any knowledge of just how invasive this Surveillance State has become. Two Obama-loyal Democratic Senators — Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado — have spent two full years warning that the Obama administration is “interpreting” its spying powers under the Patriot Act in ways so “twisted” and broad that it would shock the American public if it learned of what was being done, and have even been accusing the DOJ and Attorney General Holder of actively misleading the public in material ways about its spying powers (unlike brave whistleblowers who have risked their own interests to bring corruption and illegality to the public’s attention — Binney, Drake, Bradley Manning, etc — Wyden and Udall have failed to tell the public about this illegal spying (even though they could do so on the Senate floor and be immune from prosecution) because they apparently fear losing their precious seat on the Intelligence Committee, but what’s the point of having a seat on the Intelligence Committee if you render yourself completely impotent even when you learn of systematic surveillance lawbreaking?).
None of this should be surprising: Obama — in direct violation of his primary campaign pledge — infamously voted for the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that not only immunized lawbreaking telecoms, but also legalized much of the NSA domestic spying program Bush had ordered in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time, he and his acolytes insisted that Obama was doing so only so that he could win the election and then use his power to fix these spying abuses, yet another Obama-glorifying claim that has turned out to be laughable in its unreliability. The Obama administration also advocated for full-scale renewal of the Patriot Act last year, and it was Harry Reid who attacked Rand Paul for urging reforms to that law by accusing him of helping the Terrorists with his interference.
But whereas massive Surveillance State abuses were once a feigned concern of progressives, they now no longer are. Just last week, The New York Times began an editorial about the proposed massive expansion of Internet spying powers in Britain with this sentence: “The George W. Bush team must be consumed with envy” — because, of course, Barack Obama has no interest in such things.
Similarly, Hilary Bok is a Philosophy Professor at Johns Hopkins who blogged about civil liberties and executive power abuses during the Bush years under the name “Hilzoy.” I have a lot of respect for her; she gave valuable insight into the draft of my first book on Bush’s surveillance abuses. But barely five months into the Obama presidency, she announced that she would no longer blog because she started blogging to combat the “insanity” that prevailed in the U.S. but now, in the wake of Obama’s election, “it seems to me that the madness is over” — even as the out-of-control Surveillance State she spent so much time protesting continues to explode. Along the same lines, let me know if MSNBC ever mentions, let alone denounces, any of these trends or stories of oppression of the type experienced by Binney, Appelbaum and Poitras. That is one major reason why it continues unabated: because the political faction with a history of opposing these abuses — American liberalism, which spearheaded the Church Committee reforms — has largely decided that the Democratic President whom they elected can be trusted with these vast and unaccountable powers or, worse, they just pretend that this isn’t happening.
Then there’s this: Appelbaum describing the various government efforts to intrude into his private discussions and Internet activities, all without a warrant:
JACOB APPELBAUM: But in the period of time since they’ve started detaining me [at airports], around a dozen-plus times. I’ve been detained a number of times. The first time I was actually detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, I was put into a special room, where they frisked me, put me up against the wall. One guy cupped me in a particularly uncomfortable way. Another one held my wrists. They took my cell phones. I’m not really actually able to talk about what happened to those next.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
JACOB APPELBAUM: Because we don’t live in a free country. And if I did, I guess I could tell you about it, right?And they took my laptop, but they gave it back. They were a little surprised it didn’t have a hard drive. I guess that threw them for a loop. And, you know, then they interrogated me, denied me access to a lawyer. And when they did the interrogation, they has a member of the U.S. Army, on American soil. And they refused to let me go. They tried—you know, they tried their usual scare tactics. So they sort of implied that if I didn’t make a deal with them, that I’d be sexually assaulted in prison, you know, which is the thing that they do these days as a method of punitive punishment, and they of course suggested that would happen.
AMY GOODMAN: How did they imply this?
JACOB APPELBAUM: Well, you know, they say, “You know, computer hackers like to think they’re all tough. But really, when it comes down to it, you don’t look like you’re going to do so good in prison.” You know, that kind of stuff.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what was the main thrust of the questions they were asking you?
JACOB APPELBAUM:Well, they wanted to know about my political views. They wanted to know about my work in any capacity as a journalist, actually, the notion that I could be in some way associated with Julian. They wanted, basically, to know any—
AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange.
JACOB APPELBAUM: Julian Assange, the one and only. And they wanted—they wanted, essentially, to ask me questions about the Iraq war, the Afghan war, what I thought politically. They didn’t ask me anything about terrorism. They didn’t ask me anything about smuggling or drugs or any of the customs things that you would expect customs to be doing. They didn’t ask me if I had anything to declare about taxes, for example, or about importing things. They did it purely for political reasons and to intimidate me, denied me a lawyer. They gave me water, but refused me a bathroom, to give you an idea about what they were doing.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to your Twitter account?
JACOB APPELBAUM: Well, the U.S. government, as I learned while I was in Iceland, actually, sent what’s called an administrative subpoena, or a 2703(d) order. And this is, essentially, less than a search warrant, and it asserts that you can get just the metadata and that the third party really doesn’t have a standing to challenge it, although in our case we were very lucky, in that we got to have—Twitter actually did challenge it, which was really wonderful. And we have been fighting this in court.
And without going into too much detail about the current court proceedings, we lost a stay recently, which says that Twitter has to give the data to the government. Twitter did, as I understand it, produce that data, I was told. And that metadata actually paints—you know, metadata and aggregate is content, and it paints a picture. So that’s all the IP addresses I logged in from. It’s all of the, you know, communications that are about my communications, which is Bill’s specialty, and he can, I’m sure, talk about how dangerous that metadata is.
What Appelbaum is referring to is the fact that the Patriot Act has decreed then when the U.S. Government demands information about an individual — all without a search warrant — the party who receives the demand is criminally prohibited from discussing that demand. That’s why Appelbaum can be targeted with such intimidating, constant and chilling invasions without any allegation of wrongdoing: because the powers of the Surveillance State are exercised almost entirely in the dark. That’s what makes it so significant that two Democratic Senators have been warning for two years now that these powers are being exercised far beyond what the statute permits, far beyond what the public can even imagine, and that the Obama DOJ is lying about it.
The domestic NSA-led Surveillance State which Frank Church so stridently warned about has obviously come to fruition. The way to avoid its grip is simply to acquiesce to the nation’s most powerful factions, to obediently remain within the permitted boundaries of political discourse and activism. Accepting that bargain enables one to maintain the delusion of freedom — “he who does not move does not notice his chains,” observed Rosa Luxemburg — but the true measure of political liberty is whether one is free to make a different choice.