The surveillance state in the United States has only grown in America since the September 11th attacks. It has increasingly been used to spy and intrude on the lives of journalists and activists. And, during a Democracy Now! special, a full hour was spent delving into the National Security Agency’s evolution into an entity that illegally collects and sifts through private emails, cell phone calls and possibly Internet searches and other personal data of Americans. The special also looked closely at the stories of two individuals that have been targeted by the Homeland Security Department—journalist Laura Poitras, who has directed documentaries on the Iraq War and Yemen, and computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum, who once served as a stand-in for Julian Assange at a hackers conference.
NSA whistleblower William Binney, in his first television interview since he resigned from the NSA, explains that the fact a telecommunications company, AT&T, was now providing approximately 320 million records—long distance data from citizens’ billing records—to the government led him to leave the agency. This was a violation of the Constitution, the pen register law, the Stored Communications Act, the Electronic Privacy Act, the Intelligence Acts of 1947 & 1978 and other federal laws governing telecommunications.
Binney talks about going to the Intelligence Committee to raise concern before he resigned. Porter Goss, who was chairman of the committee at the time, essentially shrugged off an effort to look into what the NSA was doing. He thought any questions should be taken to Michael Hayden, then-head of the NSA. It was the Intelligence Committee’s job to “do the oversight on all this domestic spying.” The Committee was setup to provide “oversight over the intelligence community to make sure they didn’t monitor US citizens.” It was setup in the “fallout of the Church Committee back in the 70s.” But, nothing was really being done about the illegal operations of the NSA.
And then, on July 26, 2007, about twelve FBI agents raided his home with their guns drawn. Binney was in the shower. His son answered the door. They pushed past him and, when they found him in the bathroom, pointed a gun at his head to make sure he was “duly intimidated.” Diane Roark, Kirk Wiebe and Ed Loomis were also raided that same day too. This was intimidation and retribution for filing a Defense Department Inspector General complaint against the NSA.
Poitras, whose story recently earned great attention after Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald reported on a recent incident she had, describes how she has been stopped at the border at least forty times since 2006. Then she goes into the incident at Newark Airport that was the focus of Greenwald’s post.
I was met by two agents at Newark. One of them is Agent Wassum. And I—when they met me, I took out my pen and paper to note their names and the time and—because I’ve always taken notes, so I have a record of the questions that I’m asked and how long I’m detained for, what’s the focus of the interrogation, what they are doing to me. And on this occasion, I took out my pen, and I was ordered to put away my pen. And I didn’t, and I continued to take notes. And I was ordered again to put away the pen, and I didn’t. And then he threatened to handcuff me for not putting away my pen. And at that point, I put away my pen and then walked to Immigration and took out my pen again to take notes, was ordered again to put away my pen, and then was taken into secondary screening. And I asked to speak to a supervisor, explained I was a journalist, explained that legal counsel has told me that I should be taking notes of my detention and interrogation. And then I was told that I couldn’t take notes, that I was free to take notes after I was finished being questioned.
At least one agent suggested, as agents stood around her armed with weapons, that the pen was a “weapon.” She kept having to put the pen away but repeatedly pulled it back out. She also asserted her rights not to answer questions and protect details on the work that she does because she is a journalist. The agents did not like that.
Appelbaum told his story, a very familiar one for anyone who has been following the US crackdown on WikiLeaks. As he says, he began to be targeted the summer of 2010 after he filled in for Assange:
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.
Host Amy Goodman asks why he cannot talk about it. He says, “Because we don’t live in a free country.” If we did, he could talk about it.
…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.
In all this, they never ask about terrorism, smuggling, taxes, drugs, etc, which is what they are supposed to do when they detain someone. They asked about political views, Julian Assange, what he thought about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, etc.
Appelbaum also got into how the US government has used an “administrative subpoena” to get data from his Twitter account. This was challenged by Twitter but he and two others, Rop Gonggrijp and Birgitta Jonsdottir, who also have connections to WikiLeaks, lost in court. And, Twitter gave up the data, which shows what IP addresses he logged in from and other metadata.
In the final part of the show, both Appelbaum and Binney make two points that clearly show how President Barack Obama has only let the surveillance state continue to expand and intrude into the privacy of Americans. Binney contends that, compared to Bush, ”the surveillance has increased.” He suggests the government under Obama has “assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about US citizens with other US citizens.” They’ve assembled data “about everybody” and, from that data, they have targeted anybody they want.
The problem is clear: with this amount of information, it is possible to fabricate charges against virtually any person and then indict that person. Binney suggests this is what the government tried to do to him, but he was ready with a countersuit so the government backed off.
A clip of Gen. Keith Alexander, who is now the head of the NSA, was shown. The guests discuss whether Alexander is more powerful than Obama and Appelbaum says yes:
…If he controls the information that arrives on Obama’s desk, and Obama makes decisions based on the things on his desk, what decisions can he make, if—except the decisions presented to him by the people he trusts? And when the people he trusts are the military, the military makes the decisions, then the civilian government is not actually in power.
By all accounts, it appears Obama has let the surveillance state become even more powerful. This is why the NSA can get away with ”building the largest spy center in the country in Bluffdale, Utah,” a center that will “contain near-bottomless databases.”
Obama did nothing to head this off when he began his term as president. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called attention to his support of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), which legalizes warrantless wiretapping. He has had no problem with retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies. He voted for this immunity in the FAA in 2008, when he was running for president. And, he has had no interest in looking back to prosecute Bush administration officials for the crimes they committed by spying on Americans.
The power to engage in suspicionless searches and seizures has been embraced. Border agents, as of July 2010, had used the power “thousands of times,” according to the ACLU, and had copied electronic records—emails, address books, photos and videos. They did this to Bradley Manning Support Network co-founder David House and the ACLU and House are now (so far) successfully mounting a challenge to this practice.
The surveillance state has become so pervasive and violations of privacy and legal restrictions have become so permissible that law enforcement engages in location tracking of Americans’ cell phones and more and more public and private entities are seeking authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones for purposes that are almost certain to involve violating someone’s civil liberties. The New York Police Department engages in surveillance that amounts to racial profiling of Muslims (operations which the White House put its stamp of approval on this afternoon).
It becomes tiresome to repeat, but it cannot be said enough. There is not much outrage from liberals or progressives on this. If they are upset, they have chosen to be silent and complicit. They have accepted that nothing can be done because Obama supports the illegal and intrusive expansions of the surveillance state in the same manner that a GOP president would. So, they find it really doesn’t matter if they make this an issue. Or they really have no problem with Obama engaging in all this surveillance and any rage they had under Bush was purely partisan.
All the same, the national security state expansions that have become further entrenched as bipartisan consensus just makes Americans more and more apathetic and complacent. The creation of an Orwellian state accelerates and become more and more a reality, but Americans don’t realize what is happening or simply do not find the development to be that troublesome.