Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald gave a talk at the Socialism 2012 conference in Chicago where he described how central it was to activism and movements like the Occupy movement to challenge the surveillance state in America. Any attempts to meaningfully challenge state or corporate power, he declared, run up against the surveillance state because it is designed to impede, deter and chill action. Understanding how it operates and “how to challenge it and undermine it and subvert it really is an absolute prerequisite to any sort of meaningful activism.”

Reminding audience members of the history of abuse of eavesdropping powers, he cited Democratic Senator Frank Church, who led the Church Committee that tried to rein in the government which was engaged in this radical abuse of power. He found every single president, whether Democratic or Republican, had systematically abused eavesdropping powers. And he warned about the National Security Agency at the heart of this abuse in the Church Committee report:

The 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 NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.

Greenwald makes clear this scenario Church warned about has come to be. The condition he has warned about, of the NSA apparatus being directed inward, has “come to pass.” Beginning in 2001, the NSA was secretly ordered to spy on American citizens. (Additionally, as Greenwald points out, no US senators these days would talk about the national security state in this manner and suggests it could get out of control and lead to “total tyranny.”)

The surveillance state has only grown under President Barack Obama. Greenwald outlined some statistics on surveillance in the US. He mentioned William Binney, a former employee of the NSA and whistleblower who was targeted by the federal government for trying to call attention to spying abuses. He said on “Democracy Now!” 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. And what he said about these statistics is that what is remarkable is that despite how “incredibly ubiquitous”  and “menacing” it happens to be, the American people really know very little about it.

Historically, the NSA was not something that was not supposed to be talked about by people in the government. That history continues today because the public knows very little about the surveillance state, including “who runs it, how it is operated, who it is directed at and who makes those decisions.” For example, Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, two Democratic senators, are engaged in a Sisyphean effort to force the NSA to reveal how many Americans are actually being spied upon currently. They both serve on the intelligence committee in the Senate and have said they don’t know basic details on NSA eavesdropping and they have communicated that the government is relying on secret interpretations of the Patriot Act to justify invading Americans’ privacy.

Udall and Wyden sent a letter asking how many Americans have had their email communications read or their phone calls listened to by the NSA. They replied that they could not tell the senators because it would violate the privacy of Americans. Now, this is plainly laughable and, in fact, the entire room at Greenwald’s talk laughed hysterically when they heard this; Greenwald read the exact text of this response so he could clearly establish he was not making this newspeak up.

As Greenwald continued, he expanded the discussion into how private companies are working in concert with the federal government. He characterized this coopeation as “a full-scale merger between the federal government and industry” where the two are “equally important parts” of the surveillance state. To illustrate this he shared an example where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced a ban on BlackBerry devices in their countries because they could not intercept communications. The US government, along with US media, were condemning this move saying they were engaged in oppression that could not be tolerated; and yet six weeks later, according to the New York Times, the Obama administration was pushing legislation to require “all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct ‘peer to peer’ messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.”

This legislation was born out of the mindset that motivated Saudi Arabian government officials and UAE government officials to ban BlackBerry technology. And this mindset, Greenwald says is, “There can be no human interaction, especially no human communication not just from foreign nationals and between foreign nationals but by American citizens on American soil that is beyond the reach of the US government.” That is why the surveillance state has become so ubiquitous and ever-expanding.

Additionally, Greenwald contends that what makes this even more pernicious is that as the government has expanded its ability to know everything American citizens are doing, it has simultaneously erected a wall of secrecy around it so citizens know very little about what they are doing to “preserve” or “protect” so-called national security. He mentioned WikiLeaks and what was disclosed and how it revealed the scale of over-classification of information by the US government. In theory, there should be transparency for the government and individuals are supposed to live in a “sphere of privacy.” That has been completely reversed as a result of the surveillance state.

Here is why this is so incredibly disturbing and problematic. :

You can just look at the famous aphorism typically attributed to Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power.” If I am able to know everything about you, what you do, what you think, what you fear, where you go, what are your aspirations are, the bad things you do, the bad things you think about and you know nothing about me, I have immense leverage over you in all kinds of ways. I can think about how to control you. I can blackmail you. I can figure out what your weaknesses are. I can manipulate you in all sorts of ways.

Finally, in the last part of his talk Greenwald makes a key point that cannot be understated, which is that the psyche of Americans who claim they have nothing to hide so they really don’t need to fear spying powers being abused can be difficult to argue against but must be challenged. It must be argued against because it “absolutely matters that privacy is being invaded.”

One, as Greenwald states, “any kind of social movement needs to be able to organize in private away from the targets of the organization.” If the government is able to learn what we speak about, who we are speaking to, and what is being planned, it makes any sort of organizing or activism difficult. Secondly, it is, “In the private realm, exclusively, where things like dissent and creativity and challenges to orthodoxy reside. It is only when you know you can explore without external judgment or you can experiment without eyes being cast upon you is the opportunity for creating new paths possible.”

Greenwald did not mention this example in his talk, but immediately what came to mind while listening to this talk was the example of Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who currently faces a twenty-year ban against film making for creating “propaganda” against the Iranian government. He made a documentary film called This is Not a Film. He had it smuggled out of Iran. He describes a film he had planned to make but cannot now. It presents a powerful portrait of what it is like to become an enemy of the state, and obviously, he is not defying his ban and actually making movies because of surveillance the state could use against him to put him in jail. This is what the ever-expanding US surveillance state could do to more and more people.

Greenwald closed by declaring how important it is to educate yourself about how to engage in activism beyond the prying eye of government. He says he supports subverting the surveillance state’s “forcible radical transparency,” which is why he enthusiastically supports Anonymous and WikiLeaks and wants holes to be blown in the wall of secrecy. He endorsed the use of technology that protects the identity of users. And, he added, there are no more important fronts of battle than combating the surveillance state.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4