“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 2007, with the support of then-Senator Obama; it also led to the enactment of further criminal prohibitions on the cooperation by America’s telecoms in any such illegal spying, prohibitions that were waived away when the same 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 abyss has long ago been crossed over, 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 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 — his 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).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 is a robust 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 — 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).
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 Stonedubbed 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 repeatedlydetained and harrassed 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. Governmet 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.
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). First is this:
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the differences in the administrations?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.
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.
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 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.