The skinny on government surveillance of Americans

It’s real, pervasive and intrusive.  Any and everything you produce electronically, digitally or perhaps even analog with crossover to digital equipment is monitored by the government and stored away for future reference.  This can be done without the required governmental judicial oversight and is done, up until now, without your knowledge.  Eugene Robinson weighs in on that here

I don’t believe government officials when they say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs do not invade our privacy. The record suggests that you shouldn’t believe them, either.

It pains me to sound like some Rand Paul acolyte. I promise I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat or scanning the leaden sky for black helicopters. I just wish our government would start treating us like adults — more important, like participants in a democracy — and stop lying. We can handle the truth.

James Clapper
James Clapper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The starkest lie came in March at a Senate intelligence committee hearing, when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper a simple question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Clapper replied, “No, sir.”

As we’ve learned from Edward Snowden, a former analyst for an NSA contractor, Clapper’s answer was patently false. The agency collects metadata — essentially, a detailed log — of many and perhaps all of our domestic phone calls.

Lying to Congress is a serious offense; baseball legend Roger Clemens was tried —and acquitted — on criminal charges for allegedly lying about steroid use at a congressional hearing. The chance that Clapper will face similar peril, however, is approximately zero.

Following Snowden’s revelations, Clapper said that an honest answer to Wyden’s question would have required him to divulge highly classified secrets, so he gave the “least untruthful” answer he could come up with. Clapper apparently believes that “least” is a synonym for “most.”

In a recent letter to the Senate intelligence committee, Clapper said he thought Wyden was asking about the content of domestic communications — which the NSA says it does not collect “wittingly,” for what that’s worth — rather than about the metadata. “Thus, my response was clearly erroneous,” Clapper wrote, “for which I apologize.”

He sounded like the cheating husband, caught in flagrante by his wife, who feigns surprise and says, “What mistress? Oh, you mean that mistress.”

Clapper’s defenders say Wyden unfairly asked a question that he knew the director could not answer. But Wyden says he sent the question to Clapper’s office a day in advance — and gave him the chance to amend his answer afterward.

Also untrue is President Obama’s assertion that the NSA surveillance programs are “transparent.” They are, in fact, completely opaque — or were, until Snowden started leaking the agency’s secrets.

Eric Snowden
Edward Snowden

By what authority does the government collect data on our private communications? We don’t know. More accurately, we’re not permitted to know.

A provision of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to seek warrants “requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”

Seizing records that pertain to an investigation is not the same thing as compiling a comprehensive log of billions of domestic phone calls. How has the law been stretched — I mean, interpreted — to accommodate the NSA’s wish to compile a record of our contacts, associations and movements? The government refuses to tell us.

We know that permission for this surveillance was granted by one or more judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But the court’s proceedings and rulings are secret. We don’t know what argument the government made in seeking permission to conduct this kind of vacuum-cleaner surveillance. We don’t know what the court’s legal reasoning was in granting the authority. We don’t know whether the court considers other laws so elastic.

We do know that the court’s secret hearings are not adversarial, meaning that there is no push-back from advocates of civil liberties. And we know that since its inception the court has approved more than 30,000 government requests for surveillance warrants and refused only 11.

I accept that the administration officials, Justice Department lawyers, federal judges, FBI agents and NSA analysts involved in the phone surveillance and other programs are acting in good faith. The same is true of members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who are supposed to be providing oversight. But honorable intentions are not enough — especially when we know that much of what these honorable officials have told us is false.

The biggest lie of all? That the American people don’t even deserve to be told what their laws mean, much less how those laws are being used.

Congress has abrogated its oversight powers, choosing instead to blame the present Administration which has simply continued the policy of its predecessors.  One of the reasons why the progressive movement was so vigorous in its opposition to the Bush administration’s surveillance measures  ramped up during the fictitious war on terror was because of the common government practice of never relinquishing power of secret enforcement measures once they have been imposed.  We’ve talked about that here and here among other places.  Rather, governments tend to embellish those practices and make it even more difficult to rescind them.  Such is the case now with the Obama administration; he has doubled down on what Bush gave America.  That’s not what you call change, but it’s no different a federal policy than any other president either.  It’s probably accurate to assume that ANY president will take this position of intrusive national spying on American citizens regardless of his/her campaign promises and especially a lame duck president not faced with re-election who can disregard the wishes of the electorate no matter how progressive it may be.  The solution therefore is in oversight and congress members who will take that responsibility seriously.  At the moment there are none like that in Washington.  Fix this America!


Alliances, Coalitions, and the Naivete of Privilege

We live in the United States of America.

The nation that killed protesters at Jackson and Kent State Universities.  The nation that executed Fred Hampton in his bed, without so much as a warrant.  The nation that still, still, still holds Leonard Peltier in prison.  The nation that supported Noriega, the Shah, Trujillo, and dozens of other fascist monsters who did nothing but fuck over their own people and their neighbors.  The nation of Joseph McCarthy and his current-day descendants.  The nation that allows stop-and-frisk.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy. Español: Este persona...
Joseph Raymond McCarthy. 

Before all that:  The nation that enforced Jim Crow laws.  Before that, the nation that built itself on slavery and the slave trade.  And before all of that, the nation that nearly succeeded in the genocide of this continent’s indigenous peoples.

So why are you so surprised that our government is gathering yottabytes of data on our phone calls?

Some of us outgrew this level of shock and outrage in our 20s.  Which in no way means we don’t want to work to repeal the Patriot Act, or fight the current NSA invasion of our private lives.

In the interest of full disclosure, though I’ve stated it elsewhere:  I’m a red-diaper baby raised in a multicultural environment.  My parents were doggedly tracked by Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and his pals.  They were under constant threat, and their careers compromised as a result.

Our phone was tapped.  Our mail was opened.  We were followed by G-men in black suits with white socks.  Our homes were broken into by the same guys.

FBIWhen my brother was able to file for his FBI files under the FOIA, the delivery of the materials filled his sizable living room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling.  We were all in there, sometimes accurately, sometimes with laughable inaccuracy.

During the Vietnam years, I was tear-gassed and beaten with batons by police multiple times.

I’ve worked closely with the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, SDS, and Occupy.

And some of you are angry that we’re not all as up in arms as you about the NSA collecting data?

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Marylan...
Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. 

The shocked reactions to what happened to Occupiers, for example, leaves me astonished.  I was, in truth, equally astonished that police brutality had regressed to 1968, but it wasn’t completely unexpected.  Particularly in NYC, given who the city’s mayor is.  And, of course, the level of weaponry used against citizens has become so much more powerful (and often illegal, even in the hands of the police).  But still — shock?  Really?

Welcome to the world many of us have lived in for decades.

These things have never stopped activists from focusing on the problems.  On assessing them fully.  On finding the most appropriate ways to fight back against the problems.

Those of you angry at some of us because we don’t seem as angry as you have demonstrated what I can only call a naive sense of privilege in your unfettered name-calling, slandering of our good names, and total failure to even ascertain what our views on the subject of NSA data collection are.  Instead you gleefully reply to us with insults and write about us as idiots, ‘bots, blind supporters of the President, and “cheerleaders.”

The essence of community building — and, in fact, the building of any kind of successful movement — is forming alliances and coalitions.

So the question is, where do we go from here?

Do we remain two discrete groups essentially in agreement about the issue but opposed to — and distrusting of — one another’s methods?

Or do we cast that all aside and work together to approach this problem?  Lord knows, there’s a shitload of work to be done on it.

How do we move on from the vast chasm that keeps us from interacting in a productive way?

The truth of the matter is I’m every bit as incensed and disgusted as most of the people on this site.  But no one asks; no one offers a dialogue.  Mostly they just hurl invective because I’m not tearing out my hair or rending my garments.

If the best we can hope for is throwing shit at each other, we’ll implode just as fast as the GOP has.

The key difference seems to be that some of us don’t hate Obama enough.  Those of us who don’t hate Obama don’t hate him because he never presented himself as liberal — always self-identified as moderate.  I didn’t expect miracles.  But what I got were some of the most profound changes in social issue and social justice legislation this country has ever seen.  I got troops pulled out of Iraq and, in progress, out of Afghanistan.  I saw a president who’d inherited more of a shitstorm than any in history make choices based on what was practical and what would be impossible with a completely recalcitrant GOP controlling the House — not to mention a bunch of half-assed Democrats in the Senate.

Divisiveness is what the Right wants.  And divisiveness is what we’re giving them.

There’s practically no one in my life I can’t make peace with, given the opportunity.  There’s not a soul among my friends who is anything less than kind in their intentions or uses meanness as a debating technique.  Life’s too short and too easily poisoned for that.  And that’s a choice I made in the second grade, long before I had a really strong read on the world.

So can we, in the interest of productive political unity, work something out?