POSTED ON JUNE 26, 2013:
Stars, Stripes and Surveillance
Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian says "a lot more significant revelations" about America's colossal Orwellian surveillance state are coming down the pike -- courtesy of the thousands of pages of classified documents he obtained from Edward Snowden, the heroic former CIA contractor. That should be fun.
In the meantime, we've got a pair of doozies to digest: Verizon's decision to turn over everything about every phone call (except the sound) to the NSA, and the PRISM program, under which the biggest Internet companies let the NSA read our emails, see our photos, even watch our Skype chats.
Establishment politicians and their media mouthpieces are spinning faster than an NSA server at a data farm, doing everything they can to obfuscate in the hope that we'll forget this whole thing and climb back into our pods in The Matrix.
So let's get some clarity on what's really going on with 10 things you probably don't know about the NSA scandals.
1. PRISM, not Verizon, is the bigger story. Government-aligned mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and NPR focus more on Verizon because it's less indefensible. "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama says. PRISM, they keep saying, is targeted at "foreigners," so Americans shouldn't be angry about it. But...
2. PRISM really is directed at Americans. "Unlike the call data collection program, this program focuses on mining the content of online communication, not just the metadata about them, and is potentially a much greater privacy intrusion," notes Popular Mechanics. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress that the NSA does not collect "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." As The New York Times said in an uncharacteristically bold post, this is a lie. Here's what's behind the Rumsfeldian logic of what Clapper describes as his "least most untruthful" testimony: "What I was thinking of," explains Clapper, "is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library. To me the collection of U.S. persons' data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it." In other words, the NSA collects the search histories, emails, file transfer records and actual live chats of every American.
3. President Obama should be impeached over this. Richard Nixon was. Or would have been, if he hadn't resigned. Obama, his top officials and his political surrogates have repeatedly and knowingly lied to us when they said the NSA didn't "routinely sweep up information about millions of Americans."
4. PRISM and other NSA spy programs are not approved by courts or by Congress. White House defenders say the surveillance -- which is, remember, a comprehensive vacuuming up of the entire Internet, and of every phone call ever made -- has been approved by the legislative and judicial branches, so there's nothing to worry about. But that isn't true. The "FISA court" is so secret that, until last week, no one had ever seen a document issued by it. It's not a real court. It's a useless rubber stamp panel that literally approves every surveillance request the government asks for. In 2012, that's 1856 requests and 1856 approvals. Very few members of Congress were aware of the Verizon or PRISM programs before reading about them in the media.
5. There is no evidence that NSA spying keeps America safe. And so what if it did? According to government officials, PRISM saved the New York City subways from being bombed in 2009. Actually, the alleged would-be terrorist was caught by old-fashioned detective work, not data-mining. There is zero evidence that the NSA has saved a single American from being blown up. But so what if it did? In recent years, between 15 and 17 Americans a year died worldwide from terrorist attacks. You're as likely to be crushed to death by your television set.
6. This is not a post-9/11 thing. We're being told that PRISM and the latest Patriot Act-approved surveillance state excesses date back to post-9/11 "make us safe at any cost" paranoia. In fact, the NSA has been way up in your business long before that. Back in December 1998, the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur revealed the existence of a covert partnership between the NSA and 26 U.S. allies. "The power of the network, codenamed ECHELON, is astounding," the BBC reported in 1999. "Every international telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission can be listened to by powerful computers capable of voice recognition. They home in on a long list of key words, or patterns of messages. They are looking for evidence of international crime, like terrorism ... the system is so widespread all sorts of private communications, often of a sensitive commercial nature, are hoovered up and analyzed." ECHELON dates back to the 1980s. PRISM picks up where ECHELON left off, adding the Internet to its bag of tricks.
7. Edward Snowden expects to be extradited. U.S. state media wonders aloud, "puzzled" at whistleblower Snowden's decision to go to Hong Kong, which routinely extradites criminal suspects to the United States. But Snowden's explanation is crystal clear. All you have to do is listen. "People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions," he told a local newspaper. "I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality." (Editor's note: Rall's column was written before news that Snowden was in Russia with plans to leave that country for another destination.)
8. Caught being evil, Google and other tech companies are scared shitless. And they should be. Consumers and businesses know now that when Big Brother comes calling, Big Tech doesn't protect their customers' privacy by calling their lawyers and fighting back. This could hurt their bottom lines. "Other countries will start routing around the U.S. information economy by developing, or even mandating, their own competing services," speculates Popular Mechanics. Europe, worried about the U.S. exploiting the NSA for industrial espionage, began working on work-around systems that avoid U.S. Internet concerns.
9. 56 percent of Americans trust the government's PRISM program, which the government repeatedly lied about. What people don't know should worry them. You're not a terrorist. You don't hang out with them. So why worry? Because the data collected by the NSA isn't likely to stay locked up in Utah forever. Data wants to be free -- and hackers have already proven they can access the NSA. Some want to sell it to private concerns. Oh, and don't forget: governments change. Nixon abused the IRS and FBI to attack political opponents. Innocuous census data that collected religious affiliations was used by the Nazis to round up Jews when they came to power.
10. In the long run, the end of privacy will liberate us. Everyone (who isn't boring) has a dirty secret. The way things are going, all those secrets will be as out as Dan Savage -- and just as happy and self-assured. Blackmail -- the nobody-talks-about-real-reason-PRISM-is-creepy -- only works if most dirty secrets are hard to come by. But if everyone's got a nude photo online, if everyone's sexual deviations are searchable and indexed, the power of shame goes away as quickly as it does at a nudist colony. By the time the surveillance state plays out, we may look back at 2013 as the year when America began to move past Puritanism.
If we're not in a gulag.
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