Rube Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the last century, was famous for drawings of what he called “inventions” –complicated contraptions and convoluted schemes for achieving the simplest of goals. His “Simple Lawn Sprinkler,” for example, involves (A) a man on a porch rocking back in his chair on (B) a squeeze bulb that sprays water causing (C) a shirt on a clothesline to shrink, thus pulling (D) a string that (E) tips a shelf, dumping (F) a heavy homemade biscuit down into (G) a butterfly net, causing its (H) rod to lift (I) a hood and expose (J) a mouse, which is chased by (K) a cat strapped to (L) a revolving platform, which turns rapidly as the cat and mouse go in a circle, causing (M) a laughing hyena sitting on the platform to spin around and around, with the hyena’s nose tickled at every turn by (N) a feather ball, prompting him to laugh so hard he cries–and, as the hyena spins, his tears are flung out to water the lawn.
Apparently, Rube was also the designer of the National Security Agency’s “Simple Catch-a-Terrorist Program,” for only a mind as impish as his could’ve invented such a preposterous, roundabout spy scheme. Rather than simply targeting terrorists and really homing in on them, NSA is running a labyrinthian, secret, extravagant, unconstitutional, and out-of-control electronic surveillance operation that targets you. Yes, you! And me. And every other American living in our Land of the Free. This agency has redefined citizens as suspects.
Not that NSA officialdom actually thinks that you, Mr. Upright or Ms. Doright, are terrorists or even “persons of interest” –but, then again, you might be. So, the spook bureaucracy has unilaterally chosen to put its convenience over your constitutional rights. Doing the serious police work to sort out the tiny number of people in our country who are connected in any substantive way to real terrorist threats is too much bother for NSA’s techno-warriors, so they’ve taken the shortcut of dumping all 330 million of us into a digitalized, guilty-until-found-innocent box, keeping an unblinking computer eye on us, and hoping the few bad guys stand out.
They have created an elaborate, electronic Rube-Goldbergish spy matrix that (A) appropriates and agglomerates everyone’s “metadata” (a geek term defined as data that provides information about other data), channels it into (B) banks of rapidly spinning supercomputers that (C) analyze your and my terrorist inclinations, based on (D) the phone calls we make and get, (E) emails we send and receive, (F) websites we visit and topics we Google, (G) Facebook friends and pages we like, (H) credit card expenditures and bank transactions we make, and–most telling of all (I) whether we have or have ever had a laughing hyena in our yard.
NSA is not just one more entity chipping away at our privacy rights. Its intrusion is huge, both in its unprecedented reach and in its autocratic reordering of our way of life. Our government certainly has the right and duty (just as the governments of other nations) to eavesdrop on those who plot terrorist attacks and pose an actual threat to us. But this is not that. As the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald puts it, NSA “is sweeping up billions and billions of emails and telephone calls every single day from people around the world and in the United States who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.”
By taking advantage of the pervasive fog of fear blanketing our country since 9/11, this secret arm of government has become the SuperLux Vacuum Cleaner of the Total Surveillance Society. Using the infamous PATRIOT Act, some ridiculously permissive rulings by secret courts, cosmic leaps in surveillance technology, and meek political oversight, NSA has rapidly expanded its power over us since 2001. So, now it routinely and massively violates the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, and maybe even the Sixth.
The most telling thing to know about this elephantine spy outfit is that we have known nothing about it! Until June of this year, you and I, the incurious media, and probably 99 percent of Congress had no clue that such a rampaging monster had so stealthily arisen in our midst.
Just as alarming, those who did know (Presidents Bush and Obama and a few top congressional leaders) felt no duty to inform us. In fact, we still wouldn’t know about it–except that several whistleblowers came forward, including one uncommonly bold commoner: Edward Snowden. A 30-year-old computer whiz who worked for an NSA contractor as a systems administrator, he was appalled by what he found the agency doing–and in June he began blowing one of the loudest whistles ever. Snowden pulled a treasure trove of information from NSA’s computers and began releasing those dark secrets to Greenwald and other journalists. Stunning revelations continue to pour out of Snowden’s laptop, literally blowing the cover off a security state run amok.
Of course, the security establishment has cravenly tried to deflect attention from his releases by making him the villain. “Traitor!” barked boneheaded House Speaker John Boehner, and Obama piled on as well. But the actual betrayers of our people and values are the Boehners and Obamas of both parties, who secretly created, funded, and continuously expanded this illegal spy machine. Whatever you think of Snowden’s tactics, he has performed a profound public service by revealing, as one scribe called it, “an intelligence underworld” that threatens our core liberties.
The whole elephant
Embarrassed and irritated by Snowden’s leaks, Obama charged at an Aug. 9 press conference that Snowden was presenting a false picture of NSA by releasing sensational parts of its work piecemeal: “Rather than have a trunk come out here and a leg a come out there,” he said, “let’s just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they’re looking at.”
Full disclosure–terrific! “America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” he assured us. The government, he went on, is not “listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails.”
Six days later, a Washington Post headline blared: “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year.” In an internal audit last year of just its DC-area spy centers, the agency itself found 2,776 “incidences” of NSA overstepping its legal authority. As the American Civil Liberties Union noted, surveillance laws themselves “are extraordinarily permissive,” so it’s doubly troubling that the agency is surging way past what it is already allowed to do. The ACLU adds that these reported incidents are not simply cases of one person’s rights being violated–but thousands of Americans being snared, totally without cause, in NSA’s indiscriminate, computer-driven dragnet.
The agency’s surveillance net stretches so wide that it is inherently abusive, even though its legal authority to spy on Americans is quite limited. US Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the GOP sponsor of the PATRIOT Act (which NSA cites as its super-vac authority), said in July that Congress intended that it should apply only to cases directly tied to national security investigations. No lawmaker, he said, meant that government snoops should be able to conduct a wholesale grab of Americans’ phone, email, and other personal records and then store them in huge databases to be searched at will.
Yet look at what NSA has become:
- The three billion phone calls made in the US each day are snatched up by the agency, which stores each call’s metadata (phone numbers of the parties, date and time, length of call, etc.) for five years.
- Each day, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and other telecom giants turn over to NSA the metadata on every call they have processed. Each corporation has its own secret NSA code name, including such monikers as Blarney, Lithium, and Stormbrew.
- Every out-of-country call and email from (or to) a US citizen is grabbed by NSA computers, and agents are authorized to listen to or read any of them. Among the abuses of this power are incidents of agents capturing love notes and sex talk between our troops in Iraq and their spouses back home, and then passing around the juiciest communiques for the amusement of other agency staffers.
- The agency searches for and seizes nearly everything we do on the internet. Without bothering with the constitutional nicety of obtaining a warrant, its XKeyscore program scoops up some 40 billion internet records every month and adds them to its digital storehouse, including our emails, Google searches, websites visited, Microsoft Word documents sent, etc. NSA’s annual budget includes a quarter-billion dollars for “corporate-partner access” –i.e., payments to obtain this mass of material from corporate computers.
- Snowden says that in his days as an analyst, he could sit at his computer and tap into any American’s internet activity–even the President’s. A blowhard congress critter called that a ridiculous lie, but with the outing of the XKeyscore program, Snowden was proven right. Indeed, it’s now come out that in 2005 another analyst did tap into ex-President Bill Clinton’s personal email account.
- Asked at a March senate hearing whether his agency collects data “on millions or [even] hundreds of millions of Americans,” NSA director James Clapper said: “No.” He later apologized, claiming he was confused by US Sen. Ron Wyden’s question. But, when asked by Wyden to correct his erroneous answer in the hearing record, Clapper refused.
- The sheer volume of information sucked up by the agency is so large that as of 2008, it maintained 150 data processing sites around the world.
- NSA’s budget is an official secret, but a Snowden document shows that it gets about $11 billion a year in direct appropriations, with more support funneled through the Pentagon and other agencies. Included in its direct appropriation last year: $48 million for a study entitled “Coping with information overload.”
Apparently, though, too much is not enough for this insatiable agency. A Snowden release early last month revealed NSA’s most closely guarded secret, a program code-named “Bullrun.” By spending billions of dollars in the past decade on supercomputer trickery, lawyers, lobbyists, and expert safecrackers from unnamed high-tech corporations, NSA found its way around the encryption codes (i.e., locks) that protect the data in our bank accounts, medical records, email accounts, smartphones, and other deeply personal places we’ve been told are safe from prying eyes. These digitally scrambled codes are what secure the public trust in internet privacy. Yet NSA, using our own tax dollars, has imperiously busted the locks… and found its way around the encryption.
Clapper hails the new “cryptanalytic capabilities” of his agency, saying it can now “exploit internet traffic” by entering at will into everyone’s online communications and transactions. One leading cryptographer says the breakthrough gives to NSA (and spy agencies of other countries) the ability to conduct “instant, total invasion of privacy with limited effort.” He adds that, “This is the golden age of spying.”
NSA’s unbridled spying is exacerbated by official lying. Here are four big ones presently being tossed at us:
1. It’s just metadata. This line is meant to soothe those of us concerned about Big Brother by asserting that the content of calls we make within the US is not listened to or recorded–just phone numbers, date and time, and duration. “Telephony metadata,” they call it–no privacy worries about it.
Wrong, says the ACLU, which has sued to stop NSA from sucking every American’s call into its bottomless computers. The spies have neither cause nor a warrant to seize the records of innocent people, and the “innocuous” info being stored chills our rights to privacy, speech, and association. Why should NSA know that we’ve called a pastor, an ex-lover, a political group, a fortune teller, a bar, etc.? Call patterns reveal our habits and associations.That’s not just metadata. Those are profiles. Pieces of ourselves. Hands off!
2. Lawmakers keep NSA honest. “Every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” Obama fibbed after the agency’s bulk collection of US phone calls was exposed in June. Actually, just a handful (sometimes only two) get substantive briefings, while the rest get NSA talking points. When members of intelligence oversight committees do learn about agency horrors, they are not allowed to discuss them with anyone, even other lawmakers.
Besides, most members are unwilling to challenge the security state for fear of looking soft on terrorists, or of losing campaign donations from NSA’s corporate partners. Last December, the Senate defeated a measure requiring NSA to disclose its domestic spying, and the House killed a July effort to stop the mass collection of our people’s private data.
3. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court keeps NSA legal.First, this thing is a secret court, so who would know? Its 11 members are lifetime federal judges who are handpicked by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for this special surveillance “oversight” duty, and they are not accountable to any elected officials (short of being impeached), much less to the public. The court’s hearings are closed, but its pro-spying decisions are not subject to judicial review, and no one but officials pushing for more spying are allowed to participate, so the privacy view is not even heard.
Thus, of 1,789 requests for electronic snooping submitted to FISC last year, not a single one was rejected. Also, even some of the court’s judges have complained that NSA regularly misrepresents what it is doing — and some have complained in their secret rulings (leaked by Snowden) that NSA is systematically violating the Fourth Amendment. Finally, a common complaint of judges is that, with no investigative power, they have no way to make an independent evaluation of NSA’s requests.
4. Reform is coming! Obama has announced not one or two, but three investigative panels to review NSA’s spy work and make sure it’s on the up-and-up. Panel One is the Privacy and Civil Liberties Review Board, but’s it’s an empty vessel–until January of this year, it had no chairperson, no staff, and has done no work. PCLRB has no authority to compel testimony or subpoena documents, so it’s essentially at the mercy of NSA officials to confess.
Panel Two is the US Senate’s intelligence committee, which says it will do a “sweeping review of surveillance.” But, its two leaders, Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, are NSA sycophants who’ve heretofore failed completely to provide any rigorous oversight of its work. And since Snowden’s stuff hit the fan in June, both have rushed to assail him and rejected suggestions that the agency might be a tiny bit off the constitutional path.
But Panel Three is the President’s main play. He announced the creation of this special “independent group” of “outside experts” in August, tasking it to “tighten a few bolts” so NSA can “maintain the trust of the people.” And who better to foster trust than the outside expert chosen by Obama to oversee this group: James Clapper! Yes, the guy who lied to Congress! Yes, this external review group starts out as thoroughly compromised, since it’s organized by Clapper’s office and will function under his purview.
An un-American America
Like the steady slippage of our democracy into plutocracy, this clandestine slide toward autocracy raises THE BIG QUESTION: What kind of country is America going to be?
The very fine public servant, Russ Feingold, addressed this in October 2001, when he stood tall as the only US Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act. Warning that its anti-democratic provisions would create a nation “where the government is entitled to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications,” Feingold rightly concluded: “That country wouldn’t be America.”
So here we are, having devolved from the founders’ principled insistence on erecting the strongest palisades for the defense of the people’s personal liberties–to now having a secret government inside our borders and inside our lives. Even the code-names of NSA’s array of electronic eyes are almost comically Orwellian: PRISM, Tempora, XKeyscore, and–my favorite–Boundless Informant.
Boundless indeed. But all this, for what? To make you and me safe from terrorists, the hierarchy chants in unison. Constantly pointing to 9/11, the spies and their political henchmen solemnly assert that, hypothetically, bulk surveillance of every American might have, possibly could have, maybe would have stopped that horrific plot. But the phone conversations that mattered in that case were those that did NOT happen–the breakdown in communication between the CIA and the FBI, and between FBI headquarters and its local agents.
When the top brass of US SpyWorld did a dog and pony show for the House intelligence committee on June 18, they claimed that “dozens” of terrorist attacks had been prevented since 9/11 by NSA’s SuperVac programs. Dozens? “More than 50,” clarified NSA’s director. But wait, how many of those were plots for terrorist attacks on our soil? “A little over 10,” he mumbled. That’s it? Years of scooping up ALL metadata on EVERY American to find only 10 plots?
Moreover, he was able to name only four of those 10, and none were serious threats to do major harm to Americans. In fact, one involved a bombing in India, one is a questionable case of $8,500 ostensibly sent to terrorists in Somalia, one was actually uncovered by regular police work, and the fourth was not a plot to attack the US, but to send funds abroad to Al Qaeda. For this we should shred our Bill of Rights?
We can heap plenty of blame for this on Bush-Cheney, but it has been brought to full force by Obama–a constitutional lawyer who pledged in 2008 to reverse the PATRIOT Act’s assault on our civil liberties. Yet he’s doing the opposite, and incredibly, he’s insisting that “the program currently is not being abused.” Worse, he’s become testy about all the questioning of him and NSA. “We’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight,” he said to a reporter on Sept. 13, then expressed exasperation that people don’t have faith in the system: “And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch, but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process, and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”
Well, yes sir, you do have some problems, BIG ones. Obama and the surveillance establishment are proposing a bit more “disclosure” to fix the agency’s PR problem. But that’s just warmed over B.S. We can’t give him–or Congress–a pass on this. It’s too big, too destructive of our values and self respect. NSA’s domestic spy matrix and the PATRIOT Act itself confront us as a multi-eyed, hydra-headed, democracy-devouring monster. Forget disclosure–the monster must be dismantled.