John Whitehead's Commentary
Obama, NSA Spying and the Dangers of Secretive, Authoritarian Government
“The perception here is of a United States where security has trumped liberty, intelligence agencies run amok (vacuuming up data of friend and foe alike), and the once-admired “checks and balances” built into American governance and studied by European schoolchildren have become, at best, secret reviews of secret activities where opposing arguments get no hearing.” – New York Times columnist Roger Cohen
Recent reports indicating that President Obama was aware of and personally approved an NSA program that involved spying on the personal communications of various international leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have once again highlighted the deception and intransigence of the Obama administration in dealing with the revelations that the National Security Agency has been acting outside the bounds of the law, sucking up electronic communications the world over.
While this may come as a shock to most Americans, I’ve been writing about the NSA’s illegal surveillance tactics since the 1980s, which features prominently in my new book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. However, this latest development in the spying saga—that the NSA has been aiming its surveillance activities at the citizens of allied countries, including France and Germany—has thrown a kink into the Obama administration’s attempts at maintaining a cozy relationship with its foreign allies.
Specifically, according to comments by an anonymous “high-level” NSA official to a German newspaper, President Barack Obama personally approved spying on the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. These comments come despite claims made by the White House last week that Obama had no idea that the NSA had tapped her phone. The NSA has denied the reports that Obama was personally briefed on the Merkel spying operation in 2010, but did not indicate whether he may have learned about it via other means.
According to a report by German newspaper Der Spiegel, the NSA had been spying on Merkel since 2002, before she was Chancellor and acting as an opposition leader. The NSA had also allegedly been spying on French and German citizens, an accusation which prompted both countries to demand an explanation from the United States about the purpose and reasoning behind the spying programs. The US spying on German communications was apparently conducted from the American embassy in Berlin.
According to another anonymous US official, the United States was engaged in espionage on 35 world leaders, but most of these programs have been terminated or are set to be terminated. This official also claims that Obama was unaware of the program, and that the NSA had chosen not to brief him on all their various spying operations, saying, “These decisions are made at the NSA. The president doesn’t sign off on this stuff.”
Whatever the exact truth of the matter, there are two possible scenarios. Either the President was fully aware of the extent of the NSA’s criminal activities, which violate both domestic and international law, and was willing to go along with them or the NSA has amassed so much power in Washington that it literally operates outside the chain of command and above the rule of law. In either case, we face a tyrannical force the likes of which have never been seen in the United States before.
In just one month (January 2013), the NSA spied on some 125 billion phone calls worldwide, 3 billion of which originated in the United States. In addition to German and French citizens, the NSA has targeted Spain as well, sweeping up some 60 million communications in the span of one month.
Of course, this global surveillance program should come as no surprise. Since September 11, 2001, the United States has spent over $500 billion on an intelligence community that, according to the Washington Post, constitutes an “espionage empire with resources and a reach beyond those of any adversary, sustained even now by spending that rivals or exceeds the levels at the height of the Cold War.” The CIA and NSA have both begun to engage in so-called “offensive cyber operations,” which involves hacking into foreign computer networks in order to either steal information or sabotage the network itself.
In fact, the NSA has been conducting worldwide surveillance for quite some time. Echelon, a global electronic surveillance network that allows security agencies of Great Britain and the United States, as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to collect and exploit intelligence collected worldwide, was developed by the NSA. Created in the heat of the Cold War, Echelon intercepts and analyzes virtually every phone call, fax and email message sent anywhere in the world. It does so by positioning “listening stations” (including land bases, satellites and ships sailing the seven seas) all over the globe to capture data, satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic communications traffic.
Although Echelon was originally established as an international spy system, suspicions arose at the dawn of the new millennium that its intelligence ambitions might have turned inward. A Congressional investigation determined that Echelon had not only turned inward, targeting such peaceful political groups as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and several Christian groups, but had actually broadened the scope of its mission to include political espionage. It also became a means of benefiting big business and advancing personal political agendas. For example, in March 2003, the British Observer asserted that the Bush Administration had used its Echelon satellite station in New Zealand to spy on council members from Angola, Bulgaria, Camaroon, Chile, Guinea and Pakistan in its effort to garner support for the impending war against Iraq.
The other main object of Echelon seems to be corporate espionage. In 1993, President Bill Clinton directed the NSA to use Echelon facilities to spy on Japanese car manufacturers developing zero-emission cars and to pass on critical information to the three largest American car manufacturers, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. In the 1990s, German firm Enercon, a wind generator manufacturer, developed innovative wind related technology. However, by the time it was ready to sell the technology to the US, the US rival company had already patented a similar project. Later, an NSA employee admitted to stealing the technology through phone taps and computer link line spying.
Given the NSA’s history, there is nothing innocent about a worldwide program of surveillance. Rather, this is the dawning of a new era, an expansion of the Cold War mentality of tracking an unknown enemy which only exists in the imagination of those who seek more power. Al-Qaeda’s capability to penetrate the American homeland is nil. The chances of dying in a terrorist attack are miniscule. There is no justification for these programs, which is why they have been conducted and approved in secret. Any public scrutiny would demonstrate their ineffectiveness and uselessness.
Unfortunately, our so-called representatives in Congress are doing very little to combat the menace of unlawful surveillance, going out of their way to justify these programs and give them the trappings of legitimacy. For example, Rep. Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee, made the bizarre claim that the rise of fascism in Europe in the early 20th century could be attributed to the United States failing to spy on its allies: “We said: ‘We’re not going to do any kinds of those things, that would not be appropriate’ Look what happened in the 30s: the rise of fascism, the rise of communism, the rise of imperialism. We didn’t see any of it. And it resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people.”
Battles are being waged between civil liberties-minded representatives and law-and-order types such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who is drafting a bill that would codify the NSA’s program of collecting the metadata of American communications. She supports her position by making nonsensical statements such as, “People believe it’s surveillance, but it’s not.”
Contrary to Feinstein’s claims, the NSA is collecting personal information on every single person in the United States who uses a computer or phone. The NSA is able to crack the security of all major smartphones, including iPhone, Android, and Blackberry devices, which gives agents access to information such as contacts, SMS messages, and location data. The NSA is also suspected to be engaging in so-called “man in the middle” attacks, which involve NSA agents pretending to be legitimate web services (in this case search engine Google) in order to obtain private information. These and other programs, such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE, open our private lives to government agents who are only a computer click away from knowing what we do on a daily basis.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether you want an open, transparent and therefore free government or a closed, secretive, authoritarian regime. For those who claim to want open and free government, it’s time to restore the rightful balance in government and make it clear to our leaders that these spying programs are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Remember, a true patriot is one who upholds the principles upon which his country was founded, not the power of those who have hijacked the nation.