John Whitehead's Commentary
The NSA: ‘The Abyss from Which There Is No Return’
“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 N.S.A. could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”—Senator Frank Church (1975)
We now find ourselves operating in a strange paradigm where the government not only views the citizenry as suspects but treats them as suspects, as well. Thus, the news that the National Security Agency (NSA) is routinely operating outside of the law and overstepping its legal authority by carrying out surveillance on American citizens is not really much of a surprise. This is what happens when you give the government broad powers and allow government agencies to routinely sidestep the Constitution.
Indeed, as I document in my book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, these newly revealed privacy violations by the NSA are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider that the government’s Utah Data Center (UDC), the central hub of the NSA’s vast spying infrastructure, will be a clearinghouse and a depository for every imaginable kind of information—whether innocent or not, private or public—including communications, transactions and the like. In fact, anything and everything you’ve ever said or done, from the trivial to the damning—phone calls, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, Google searches, emails, bookstore and grocery purchases, bank statements, commuter toll records, etc.—will be tracked, collected, catalogued and analyzed by the UDC’s supercomputers and teams of government agents.
By sifting through the detritus of your once-private life, the government will come to its own conclusions about who you are, where you fit in, and how best to deal with you should the need arise. Indeed, we are all becoming data collected in government files. Whether or not the surveillance is undertaken for “innocent” reasons, surveillance of all citizens, even the innocent sort, gradually poisons the soul of a nation. Surveillance limits personal options—denies freedom of choice—and increases the powers of those who are in a position to enjoy the fruits of this activity.
If this is the new “normal” in the United States, it is not friendly to freedom. Frankly, we are long past the point where we should be merely alarmed. These are no longer experiments on our freedoms. These are acts of aggression.
Senator Frank Church (D-Ida.), who served as the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence that investigated the National Security Agency in the 1970s, understood only too well the dangers inherent in allowing the government to overstep its authority in the name of national security. Church recognized that such surveillance powers “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.”
Noting that the NSA could enable a dictator “to impose total tyranny” upon an utterly defenseless American public, Church declared that he did not “want to see this country ever go across the bridge” of constitutional protection, congressional oversight and popular demand for privacy. He avowed that “we,” implicating both Congress and its constituency in this duty, “must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
Unfortunately, we have long since crossed over into that abyss, first under George W. Bush, who, among other things, authorized the NSA to listen in on the domestic phone calls of American citizens in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and now under President Obama, whose administration has done more to undermine the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of privacy and bodily integrity than any prior administration. Incredibly, many of those who were the most vocal in criticizing Bush for attempting to sidestep the Constitution have gone curiously silent in the face of Obama’s repeated violations.
Whether he intended it or not, it well may be that Obama, moving into the home stretch and looking to establish a lasting “legacy” to characterize his time in office, is remembered as the president who put the final chains in place to imprison us in an electronic concentration camp from which there is no escape. Yet none of this could have been possible without the NSA, which is able to operate outside the constitutional system of checks and balances because Congress has never passed a law defining its responsibilities and obligations.
The constitutional accountability clause found in Article 1, section 9, clause 7 of the Constitution demands that government agencies function within the bounds of the Constitution. It does so by empowering the people’s representatives in Congress to know what governmental agencies are actually doing by way of an accounting of their spending and also requiring full disclosure of their activities. However, because agencies such as the NSA operate with “black ops” (or secret) budgets, they are not accountable to Congress.
In his book Body of Secrets, the second installment of the most extensively researched inquiry into the NSA, author James Bamford describes the NSA as “a strange and invisible city unlike any on earth” that lies beyond a specially constructed and perpetually guarded exit ramp off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. “It contains what is probably the largest body of secrets ever created.”
Bamford’s use of the word “probably” is significant since the size of the NSA’s staff, budget and buildings is kept secret from the public. Intelligence experts estimate that the agency employs around 38,000 people, with a starting salary of $50,000 for its entry-level mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers. Its role in the intelligence enterprise and its massive budget dwarf those of its better-known counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The NSA’s website provides its own benchmarks:
Neither the number of employees nor the size of the Agency’s budget can be publicly disclosed. However, if the NSA/CSS were considered a corporation in terms of dollars spent, floor space occupied, and personnel employed, it would rank in the top 10 percent of the Fortune 500 companies.
If the NSA’s size seems daunting, its scope is disconcerting, especially as it pertains to surveillance activities domestically. The first inkling of this came in December 2005 when the New York Times reported that President Bush had secretly authorized the NSA to monitor international phone calls and email messages initiated by individuals (including American citizens) in the United States. Bush signed the executive order in 2002, under the pretext of needing to act quickly and secretly to detect communication among terrorists and their contacts and to quell future attacks in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
The New York Times story forced President Bush to admit that he had secretly instructed the NSA to wiretap Americans’ domestic communications with international parties without seeking a FISA warrant or congressional approval. The New York Times had already sat on its story for a full year due to White House pressure not to publish its findings. It would be another six months before USA Today delivered the second and most significant piece of the puzzle, namely that the NSA had been secretly collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans who used the national “private” networks AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.
It would be another seven years before Americans were given undeniable proof—thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden—that the NSA had not only broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times every year but was actively working to flout attempts at oversight and accountability, aided and abetted in this subterfuge by the Obama administration.
Then again, all Snowden really did was confirm what we already suspected was happening. We already knew the NSA was technologically capable of spying on us. We also knew that the agency had, since the 1960s, routinely spied on various political groups and dissidents.
So if we already knew that the government was spying on us, what’s the big deal? And more to the point, as I often hear many Americans ask, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you care?
The big deal is simply this: once you allow the government to start breaking the law, no matter how seemingly justifiable the reason, you relinquish the contract between you and the government which establishes that the government works for and obeys you, the citizen—the employer—the master. And once the government starts operating outside the law, answerable to no one but itself, there’s no way to rein it back in, short of revolution.
As for those who are not worried about the government filming you when you drive, listening to your phone calls, using satellites to track your movements and drones to further spy on you, you’d better start worrying. At a time when the average American breaks at least three laws a day without knowing it thanks to the glut of laws being added to the books every year, there’s a pretty good chance that if the government chose to target you for breaking the law, they’d be able to come up with something without much effort.
Then again, for those who insist they’re not doing anything wrong, per se, perhaps they should be. Because if you’re not doing anything wrong, it just might mean that you’re not doing anything at all, which is how we got into this mess in the first place.