John Whitehead's Commentary
America’s New Normal: Mass Surveillance, Secret Courts and Death to Whistleblowers
“The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.” – New York Times editorial board
“Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten – and they’re talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.” – Edward Snowden, alleged source of NSA leaks
There is a deep and abiding sense of unease permeating American society. From the IRS targeting politically conservative groups to the Department of Justice targeting journalists for surveillance, from the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) is tracking the telephone calls of most Americans to the public spectacle of whistleblower Bradley Manning’s trial, in recent weeks there has been no shortage of evidence that the new “normal” in the United States is not friendly to freedom.
The America we learned about in school, the one celebrated in songs and poems, the one to which our ancestors flocked in hopes of starting a new life based upon promises of wealth and liberty, is getting harder to find with every passing day. As I document in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (available at Amazon.com), the American ideal of freedom and civic involvement is being replaced by a technocratic nightmare in which government bureaucrats and their allies in the corporate sector rig the rules of society in order to protect the power and privilege of a select few politicians and businessmen. All the while, the majority of the American people are kept in check via debt, imprisonment, and a vast surveillance network which keeps us monitored, controlled and marching in lock step with the government’s dictates.
If any of this sounds fantastical, it’s only because people haven’t been paying close enough attention. Why, in the past week alone, the government has doubled down on its attacks on individual liberty, government transparency, the rule of law, and basic human decency.
On Wednesday, June 5, it was revealed that the NSA has been systematically collecting information on all telephone calls placed in the United States via the Verizon network. Based upon a top-secret order handed down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) in April 2013, Verizon has been forced to hand over its records to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis.” While the government insists that the content of telephone conversations are not recorded, they acknowledge that telephone numbers, location data, call duration, and other unique identifiers are sent to the NSA for analysis. The NSA collects information on about 3 billion phone calls per day.
Immediately following the revelation of the secret court order allowing the NSA to record the telephone activities of Verizon customers, The Washington Post released a top-secret document outlining a project code-named PRISM, which involves the NSA and FBI “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.” These companies include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.
PRISM was born at the tail end of President Bush’s disastrous program of warrantless surveillance. It depends in part on legislation passed by Congress in 2007 and 2008, the Protect America Act and FISA Amendments Act, which provide immunity to private companies that voluntarily cooperate with government efforts to collect private data on users. Government officials are increasingly relying upon PRISM for data collection as the program has become the “most prolific contributor to the President’s Daily Brief” and nearly one in seven intelligence reports rely primarily on information extracted via the program.
While shocking to some, these revelations are par for the course for our out-of-control government. Relying on secret orders handed down from government officials and the courts and emboldened by members of Congress with little concern for protecting the rights of the citizenry, government agents are now able to flout all safeguards to privacy while still claiming that they are technically acting within the bounds of the law.
This is no trifling matter. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) have warned that Americans are the subject of a surveillance program that knows no bounds. As Udall has warned, “there is nothing to prohibit the intelligence community from searching through a pile of communications, which may have been incidentally or accidentally collected without a warrant, to deliberately search for the phone calls or e-mails of specific Americans.” For his part, Wyden has asked NSA staff to disclose the number of Americans whose communications have been collected, but NSA officials continue to stonewall, even going so far as to suggest that estimating the number of Americans whose communications have been collected would violate their privacy rights.
In full damage control mode, the government wants us to believe that the surveillance is primarily directed at communications coming from foreign sources and that “reasonable procedures [are] in place to minimize collection of ‘U.S. persons’ data without a warrant.” However, as we are learning, the government rarely tells the truth.
In typical fashion, intelligence officials spent the week attacking journalists for reporting on the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calling the leaks “reprehensible” and vowing to prosecute whomever chose to leak the information. On Sunday, former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden came forward as the source of the NSA leaks. Speaking from Hong Kong, Snowden insisted that the information needed to be seen by the American public, in part to “send a message to government that people will not be intimidated.”
Snowden’s actions speak to the need for greater citizen action and transparency in government, two qualities sorely lacking in America today. Typical of Beltway politics, however, rather than holding the government accountable for its systematic and illegal surveillance of American citizens, they’re looking to shoot the messenger. Indeed, the heads of both the House and Senate Intelligence committees, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) have already come out in favor of Snowden’s prosecution.
This is par for the course for the Obama administration, which has relentlessly pursued whistleblowers intent on exposing government crimes. Just ask Bradley Manning, whose court martial is underway. The government plans to call over 140 witnesses to the stand in an attempt to prove that Manning knowingly “aided the enemy” when he released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables outlining various government and military abuses to Wikileaks.
If the government’s case succeeds, not only will Manning face life imprisonment, but whistleblowers and journalists alike who dare to hold a mirror to the bloated face of American government will find themselves targeted for censure and prosecution by government agents. Yet as veteran journalist Walter Lippmann once declared, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”
Frankly, we should all be doing our part to shame this particular devil.