The government's one-way mirror

The government knows more and more about you, while you know less and less about it

Published December 20, 2010 11:21AM (EST)

(updated below)

One of the hallmarks of an authoritarian government is its fixation on hiding everything it does behind a wall of secrecy while simultaneously monitoring, invading and collecting files on everything its citizenry does.  Based on the Francis Bacon aphorism that "knowledge is power," this is the extreme imbalance that renders the ruling class omnipotent and citizens powerless.

In The Washington Post today, Dana Priest and William Arkin continue their "Top Secret America" series by describing how America's vast and growing Surveillance State now encompasses state and local law enforcement agencies, collecting and storing always-growing amounts of information about even the most innocuous activities undertaken by citizens suspected of no wrongdoing.  As was true of the first several installments of their "Top Secret America," there aren't any particularly new revelations for those paying attention to such matters, but the picture it paints -- and the fact that it is presented in an establishment organ such as The Washington Post -- is nonetheless valuable.

Today, the Post reporters document how surveillance and enforcement methods pioneered in America's foreign wars and occupations are being rapidly imported into domestic surveillance (wireless fingerprint scanners, military-grade infrared cameras, biometric face scanners, drones on the border).  In sum:

The special operations units deployed overseas to kill the al-Qaeda leadership drove technological advances that are now expanding in use across the United States. On the front lines, those advances allowed the rapid fusing of biometric identification, captured computer records and cellphone numbers so troops could launch the next surprise raid. Here at home, it's the DHS that is enamored with collecting photos, video images and other personal information about U.S. residents in the hopes of teasing out terrorists.

Meanwhile, the Obama Department of Homeland Security has rapidly expanded the scope and invasiveness of domestic surveillance programs -- justified, needless to say, in the name of Terrorism:

[DHS Secretary Janet] Napolitano has taken her "See Something, Say Something" campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation's capital for "Terror Tips" and to "Report Suspicious Activity."

She recently enlisted the help of Wal-Mart, Amtrak, major sports leagues, hotel chains and metro riders. In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.

"This represents a shift for our country," she told New York City police officers and firefighters on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary this fall. "In a sense, this harkens back to when we drew on the tradition of civil defense and preparedness that predated today's concerns."

The results are predictable.  Huge amounts of post/9-11 anti-Terrorism money flooded state and local agencies that confront virtually no Terrorism threats, and they thus use these funds to purchase technologies -- bought from the private-sector industry that controls and operates government surveillance programs -- for vastly increased monitoring and file-keeping on ordinary citizens suspected of no wrongdoing.  The always-increasing cooperation between federal, state and local agencies -- and among and within federal agencies -- has spawned massive data bases of information containing the activities of millions of American citizens.  "There are 96 million sets of fingerprints" in the FBI's data base, the Post reports.  Moreover, the FBI uses its "suspicious activities record" program (SAR) to collect and store endless amounts of information about innocent Americans:

At the same time that the FBI is expanding its West Virginia database, it is building a vast repository controlled by people who work in a top-secret vault on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington. This one stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. What they have done is appear to be acting suspiciously to a town sheriff, a traffic cop or even a neighbor.

To get a sense for what kind of information ends up being stored -- based on the most innocuous conduct -- read this page from their article describing Suspicious Activity Report No3821.  Even the FBI admits the huge waste all of this is -- "'Ninety-nine percent doesn't pan out or lead to anything' said Richard Lambert Jr., the special agent in charge of the FBI's Knoxville office" -- but, as history conclusively proves, data collected on citizens will be put to some use even if it reveals no criminality.  

To understand the breadth of the Surveillance State, recall this sentence from the original Priest/Arkin article:  "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications."  As Arkin and Priest document today, there are few safeguards on how all this data is used and abused.  Local police departments routinely meet with neoconservative groups insisting that all domestic Muslim communities are a potential threat and must be subjected to intensive surveillance and infiltration.  Groups engaged in plainly legal and protected political dissent have been subjected to these government surveillance programs.  What we have, in sum, is a vast, uncontrolled and increasingly invasive surveillance state that knows and collects more and more information about the activities of more and more citizens.

But what makes all of this particularly ominous is that -- as the WikiLeaks conflict demonstrates -- this all takes place next to an always-expanding wall of secrecy behind which the Government's own conduct is hidden from public view.   Just consider the Government's reaction to the disclosures by WikiLeaks of information which even it -- in moments of candor -- acknowledges have caused no real damage:  disclosed information that, critically, was protected by relatively low-level secrecy designations and (in contrast to the Pentagon Papers) none of which was designated "Top Secret."

It's crystal clear that the Justice Department is engaged in an all-out crusade to figure out how to shut down WikiLeaks and imprison Julian Assange.  It is subjecting Bradley Manning to unbelievably inhumane conditions in order to manipulate him into providing needed testimony to prosecute Assange.  Recall that in 2008 -- long before anyone even knew what WikiLeaks was -- the Pentagon secretly plotted on how to destroy the organization.  On Meet the Press yesterday, Joe Biden was asked whether he agreed more with Mitch McConnell's statement that Assange is a "high-tech terrorist" than with those comparing WikiLeaks to Daniel Ellsberg, and the Vice President replied:  "I would argue that it's closer to being a high tech terrorist. . . ."  "A high-tech terrorist."  And consider this pernicious little essay from Eric Fiterman -- a former FBI special agent and founder of Methodvue, "a consultancy that provides cybersecurity and computer forensics services to the federal government and private businesses" -- that clearly reflects the Government's view of WikiLeaks:

In the WikiLeaks case, a fringe group led primarily by foreign nationals operating abroad is illegally obtaining, reviewing and disseminating American intelligence information with the stated intent of hurting the United States (WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange himself made this declaration). That not only meets the definition of aggressive, hostile and war-like activity, but squarely targets America's diplomatic positions and intelligence interests while inflicting collateral damage against our financial institutions and service providers who cut-off their relationship with WikiLeaks. This, folks, is war.

That's the mindset of the U.S. Government:  everything it does of any significance can and should be shielded from public view; anyone who shines light on what it does is an Enemy who must be destroyed; but nothing you do should be beyond its monitoring and storing eyes.  And what's most remarkable about this -- though, given the full-scale bipartisan consensus over it, not surprising -- is how eagerly submissive much of the citizenry is to this imbalance.  Many Americans plead with their Government in unison:  we demand that you know everything about us but that you keep us ignorant about what you do and punish those who reveal it to us.  Often, this kind of oppressive Surveillance State has to be forcibly imposed on a resistant citizenry, but much of the frightened American citizenry -- led by most transparency-hating media figures -- has been trained with an endless stream of fear-mongering to demand that they be subjected to more and more of it.

Obviously, every state is necessarily authorized to exercise powers that private citizens are barred from exercising themselves (governments can legally put people in cages, but if a private citizen does that, it constitutes felonies:  kidnapping and false imprisonment).  But the imbalance has become so extreme -- the Government now watches much of the citizenry behind a fully opaque one-way mirror -- that the dangers should be obvious.  And this is all supposed to be the other way around:  it's government officials who are supposed to operate out in the open, while ordinary citizens are entitled to privacy.  Yet we've reversed that dynamic almost completely.  And even with 9/11 now 9 years behind us, the trends continue only in one direction.  WikiLeaks is one of the very few entities successfully subverting this scheme, which is why -- from the view of the Government and its enablers -- it must be stopped at all costs.


UPDATE:  Two related points:

(1) Joe Biden not only voted for the Iraq War, but was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2002 as the Senate authorized that attack, one which resulted in the deaths of well over 100,000 innocent human beings and which was launched under the strategic banner of "Shock and Awe," designed explicitly to terrorize Iraqis out of resisting through the use of a massive display of urban devastation.  Julian Assange has never authorized any violence, never killed anyone, never advocated killing anyone, and never threatened anyone's death.   Yet the former can accuse the latter of being close to a "high-tech terrorist" without many people batting an eye -- illustrating, yet again, what a meaningless and manipulated term "Terrorism" is; to the extent it means anything, its definition is this: "those who impede or defy American will with any degree of efficacy."

(2) Of all the surveillance state abuses, one of the most egregious has to be the Government's warrantless, oversight-less seizure of the laptops and other electronic equipment of American citizens at the border, whereby they not only store the contents of those devices but sometimes keep the seized items indefinitely.   That practice is becoming increasingly common, aimed at people who have done nothing more than dissent from government policy; I intend to have more on that soon.  If American citizens don't object to the permanent seizure and copying of their laptops and cellphones without any warrants or judicial oversight, what would they ever object to?

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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