In a post earlier this month I argued the following three theses:
1. The revelations by Edward Snowden published in the Guardian and elsewhere imply that the National Security Agency records virtually every electronic communication of persons in the US. This mass surveillance is to be opposed.
2. Neither Snowden’s personal characteristics or motivation nor those of the journalists that have published his material are relevant to the issue stated in Thesis 1.
3. Theories that Snowden is some sort of fake and that his revelations are meant to divert our attention from other matters are to be rejected.
Here I will argue a fourth thesis:
4. The official position that the purpose of the surveillance noted in Thesis 1 is to combat terrorism is false, and should be exposed as such.
Of course, as soon as the surveillance became known in early June officials of the intelligence agencies and of the congressional committees that nominally oversee them rushed to cry terrorism. For example, as has been widely reported, the chief of the NSA itself, General Keith Alexander, asserted to a congressional committee that “over 50 terrorists plots” have been disrupted by the surveillance programs since 9/11.
A small number of individual cases have been mentioned, most prominently that of Najibullah Zazi, who was caught in 2009 before executing a plan to set off explosives in the New York City subway system. As has also been widely reported, according to all three of Alexander, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers, and the Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Diane Feinstein, the NSA email monitoring program PRISM provided a crucial step in identifying the plot.
The problem is that these claims range from the greatly exaggerated to the utterly false. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who have access to classified information, have said in opposition to the “50 plots” claim that they have seen nothing in the area of disrupting terrorism that could not have been provided by normal inelligence methods. The Zazi case claim is refuted in the Guardian, and more thoroughly in alternative media such as willyloman. What was actually identified at Zazi’s trial as the crucial link in the case was British intelligence, not PRISM, passing on a key email address to their US counterparts.
Actually, most of the plots that have been disrupted have been those the FBI itself initiated by recruiting some foolish Islamist-oriented young man, supplying him with fake explosives, and arresting him to great fanfare when he throws the switch.
In the meantime, what is really telling is that the NSA surveillance did not prevent a number of actual terrorist acts since 9/11 (a speaker at the July 4 Restore the Fourth rally in Washington read a list of about ten of them), of which the most well known is the twin bombings at the Boston marathon on April 15 of this year. It occurred even though the local DHS-initiated “Fusion Center” had reported a week earlier that the area where the explosions would occur would be vulnerable.
(I hasten to add that in citing the Boston example I do NOT mean to identify with a certain sentiment that it could have been averted if only the FBI had kept tabs on Tamerlan Tsarnaev after a 2011 interview with him. Although it is popularly assumed that the Tsarnaev brothers carried out the bombings, no one has actually shown that they did. I only mean that the NSA surveillance programs failed to intercept whoever did carry out the attack.)
Some might say that these failures only show that the programs have been less efficient than their defenders have claimed. But let us recall that government representatives such as General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, denied that the massive surveillance even existed until it was no longer possible to do so. If they lied about that, why should we believe them when they say that the purpose of the surveillance is to combat terrorism?
We should not. The NSA’s track record on the issue it says it is about is too weak to believe that that is the actual issue. The purpose of the surveillance must be something else.
What might that purpose be? Well, we don’t know because it’s a secret. However, we might obtain a clue by examining what some other agencies nominally concerned with national security have been doing. One of these agencies is the FBI and another is the DHS. By means of FOIA requests, the Partnership For Civil Justice Fund was able to obtain two troves of documents relevant to the question, one in December 2012 and the other in April 2013, each one running over 250 pages. The first set showed that the FBI had been treating the 2011-2012 Occupy Wall Street movement in particular as a potential terrorist threat in spite of recognizing its profession of non-violence. The second set shows how the DHS coordinated surveillance activity with respect to Occupy and other peaceful protests in a number of cities.
And that might be only the tip of the iceberg. An FDL post on the NSA a couple of days ago, by joe shikspack, included a number of links near its end to documentation of surveillance or outright harassment of groups ranging from groups like Greenpeace to a couple selling clothes with socialist slogans affixed, by agencies ranging from the FBI to the Pentagon.
In short, virtually every other government agency has been monitoring progressive activists. Are we to believe that the NSA is exempt from this phenomenon? Probably not.
In any case, the agency’s true purpose cannot be to combat terrorism, or it would have done a better job at that. And to concede to it that it fights terrorism while trying to scale back its massive surveillance is to accept the pernicious idea that there is a zero-sum game between security and freedom, so that one must sacrifice some of one to ensure that we have a decent measure of the other. Or “the pendulum has swung too far toward security and we should swing it the other way a bit.”
No, it is time to call out the officials who tell us that the surveillance is necessary to combat terrorism; it is time to proclaim that they are liars, pure and simple.