Under increasing pressure and scrutiny from civil rights groups, public polls — and even their own imperialist allies — the National Security Agency, which has been carrying out massive programs of domestic spying, is beginning to show serious cracks in its armor of secrecy and criminality.
On Jan. 23, a special “independent” agency within the White House, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, released a devastating critique of the NSA telephone metadata surveillance programs which systematically scoop up hundreds of millions of emails and store them, along with their contents. According to the 238-page report, the NSA program is unconstitutional and illegal, and should be shut down.
The action of the PCLOB happened not because this agency is really concerned about human rights.
Rather, it was the firestorm of criticism that has followed the revelations of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the vast scope of spying by the agency. This firestorm has forced the PCLOB to act. Proof? The PCLOB, although established in 2004, never held a substantive hearing until late in 2013. (McClatchy DC, Nov. 14)
How did the Obama administration react? It tried to lessen the PCLOB report’s impact by announcing some “reforms” just days before its release. These “reforms” introduced what were called “safeguards,” but President Barack Obama pointedly defended the legality of the program and kept it in operation.
Obama’s ‘reforms’ won’t help
Meanwhile, a new USA Today/Pew Research Center Poll has found that most people in the U.S. now disapprove of the NSA’s sweeping collection of phone metadata. Most say there aren’t adequate limits in place to what the government can collect. By 73 percent to 21 percent, those who paid attention to Obama’s speech say his proposals won’t make much difference in protecting people’s privacy. (USA Today, Jan. 20)
Unlike other courageous whistleblowers such as Pvt. Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), who were thrown into solitary confinement and tortured, Snowden was able to escape and has received temporary asylum in the Russian Federation. This has allowed him to continually release explosive information about the extent of U.S. spying on its own citizens and even some of its imperialist allies. He also can speak to the media worldwide and comment on the intelligence agencies’ impact on U.S. society.
On Jan. 23, Snowden answered reporters and other concerned people via Twitter about his own situation and the extent of illegal spying in the U.S.
“The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day. This is done not because it’s necessary — after all, these programs are unprecedented in U.S. history, and were begun in response to a threat that kills fewer Americans every year than bathtub falls and police officers — but because new technologies make it easy and cheap.
“I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record. Particularly when we now have courts, reports from the federal government and even statements from Congress making it clear these programs haven’t made us any more safe, we need to push back.” (freesnowden.is, Jan. 23)
Snowden also slammed the egregious abuses of the NSA and referred to the PCLOB report which had come out the same day:
“When even the federal government says the NSA violated the Constitution at least 120 million times under a single program, but failed to discover even a single ‘plot,’ it’s time to end ‘bulk collection,’ which is a euphemism for mass surveillance.”
A sordid history
The developments within the NSA which have been exposed by Snowden are only the latest in a long history of such activities both within the United States and abroad.
Many people are aware of the Cointelpro program of the FBI, which conducted not only illegal spying and dirty tricks, but outright assassinations against members of the Black Panther Party, individuals such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and groups and individuals opposing the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s.
Less well-known are the activities carried out by such groups as the CIA and the NSA. According to U.S. law, the operations of these groups are supposed to be confined to overseas enemies.
In 1967, pressed by the Vietnam War and rebellions in many U.S cities, President Lyndon Johnson unleashed the CIA on his internal enemies. “In a blatant violation of his powers under law, the director of central intelligence became a part-time secret police chief. The CIA undertook a domestic surveillance operation, code-named Chaos. It went on for almost seven years.” (Tim Weiner, “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” p.285 )
According to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a report to President Gerald Ford, “the CIA … spied on the left, wiretapped newspaper reporters, and placed them under surveillance, conducted illegal searches, and opened uncounted sacks of mail.” (Weiner, p. 337)
According to one history of the CIA, Kissinger “did not dare put in writing the contents of the ‘horrors book,’” which included documents about the many assassinations carried out by the CIA over many decades.
Lest anyone think that these outrages are vestiges of the past, the Obama administration has not only asserted its right to assassinate U.S. citizens in theory, but has exercised it in practice. In September 2011, the U.S. military killed U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen, along with U.S. citizen Samir Khan, and then, in circumstances that are still unexplained, two weeks later killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman with a separate drone strike in Yemen. (The Guardian, Feb. 5, 2013)
According to the legal brief defending these actions put out by the U.S. Justice Department, all the evidence against a victim cannot only be collected in secret, it remains forever secret and is not subject to any judicial oversight.
The long history of U.S. imperialism’s criminal spying and even murder may be nefarious, but it is not invulnerable, thanks to the courageous actions by individuals such as Manning and Snowden. Most important is the outrage and fightback of the masses of people both inside and outside the boundaries of the U.S.