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Does Uncle Sam Have a God Complex?

4:39 am in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

As a matter of faith, some people believe that God can see and hear everything. But as a matter of fact, the U.S. government now has the kind of surveillance powers formerly attributed only to a supreme being.

Uncle Sam holding a crystal ball

“He knows if you’ve been bad or good …”

Top “national security” officials in Washington now have the determination and tech prowess to keep tabs on billions of people. No one elected Uncle Sam to play God. But a dire shortage of democratic constraints has enabled the U.S. surveillance state to keep expanding with steely resolve.

By the time Edward Snowden used NSA documents to expose — beyond any doubt — a global surveillance dragnet, the situation had deteriorated so badly because the Bush and Obama administrations were able to dismiss earlier warnings to the public as little more than heresy.

Eight years ago, in the book State of War, New York Times reporter James Risen devoted a chapter to the huge expansion of surveillance. A secret decision by President Bush “has opened up America’s domestic telecommunications network to the NSA in unprecedented and deeply troubling new ways, and represents a radical shift in the accepted policies and practices of the modern U.S. intelligence community,” Risen wrote.

Risen added: “The NSA is now tapping into the heart of the nation’s telephone network through direct access to key telecommunications switches that carry many of America’s daily phone calls and e-mail messages.”

More details on the surveillance state came in 2008 with James Bamford’s book The Shadow Factory, which illuminated the National Security Agency’s program for “eavesdropping on America.” And in August of 2012 — nearly 10 months before Snowden’s revelations began — filmmaker Laura Poitras released a mini-documentary on the New York Times website about the NSA’s mass surveillance program.

All three journalists relied on whistleblowers who balked at the NSA’s virtual mission to see and hear everything. Both books (especially State of War) depended on information from unnamed sources. The short documentary focused on a public whistleblower — former NSA executive William Binney, who continues to speak out.

Testifying to a committee of the German parliament in Berlin two weeks ago, Binney — whose 30 years at the NSA included work as a high-level intelligence official – said that the NSA has a “totalitarian mentality.”

Days later, speaking at a conference in London, Binney explained: “At least 80 percent of fiber-optic cables globally go via the U.S. This is no accident and allows the U.S. to view all communication coming in. At least 80 percent of all audio calls, not just metadata, are recorded and stored in the U.S. The NSA lies about what it stores.”

Since last summer, a backup source of strength for the voices of Binney, Thomas Drake, Kirk Wiebe and other NSA whistleblowers — the fact that Snowden has provided the public with NSA documents — is exactly what has enraged U.S. officials who want to maintain and escalate their surveillance power. Because of those unveiled documents, clarity about what the NSA is really doing has fueled opposition.

NSA surveillance proliferates in a context that goes well beyond spying. The same mentality that claims the right to cross all borders for surveillance — using the latest technologies to snoop on the most intimate communications and private actions of people across the globe — is also insisting on the prerogative to cross borders with the latest technologies to kill.

When a drone or cruise missile implements an assumed right to snuff out a life, without a semblance of due process, the presidential emulation of divine intervention is implicit.

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Why Amazon’s Collaboration with the CIA Is So Ominous — and Vulnerable

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

As the world’s biggest online retailer, Amazon wants a benevolent image to encourage trust from customers. Obtaining vast quantities of their personal information has been central to the firm’s business model. But Amazon is diversifying — and a few months ago the company signed a $600 million contract with the Central Intelligence Agency to provide “cloud computing” services.

The CIA Seal

A collaboration between the CIA and Amazon.com could have far-reaching consequences.

Amazon now has the means, motive and opportunity to provide huge amounts of customer information to its new business partner. An official statement from Amazon headquarters last fall declared: “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA.”

The Central Intelligence Agency has plenty of money to throw around. Thanks to documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the CIA’s annual budget is $14.7 billion; the NSA’s is $10.8 billion.

The founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is bullish on the company’s prospects for building on its initial contract with the CIA. As you might expect from a gung-ho capitalist with about $25 billion in personal wealth, Bezos figures he’s just getting started.

Bezos publicly savors the fact that Amazon has proven its digital prowess — aggregating, safeguarding and analyzing many billions of factoids about human beings — to the satisfaction of the CIA.

The company’s Amazon Web Services division is “the leader in infrastructure cloud computing,” Bezos boasted at a September 2013 meeting with journalists at the Washington Post (shortly after he bought the newspaper). He lauded the high “rate of invention” of Amazon’s technical web team, adding: “Their product offering is far ahead of anyone else.”

Apparently the CIA agrees. The agency gave Amazon the contract for $600 million even though it wasn’t the lowest bid.

Amazon’s trajectory into the CIA’s spooky arms may be a bit more than just corporate eagerness to land a lucrative contract. In late 2010 — amid intense public interest in documents that WikiLeaks was posting to illuminate U.S. actions overseas — Amazon took a notable step. As the Guardian reported at the time, Amazon “pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.”

It didn’t take much for Amazon to cave. “The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off … only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security,” the Guardian noted.

In view of Amazon’s eagerness to dump the WikiLeaks site at the behest of U.S. government officials, what else might the Amazon hierarchy be willing to do? Amazon maintains a humongous trove of detailed information about hundreds of millions of people. Are we to believe that the CIA and other intelligence agencies have no interest in Amazon’s data?

Even at face value, Amazon’s “Privacy Notice” has loopholes big enough to fly a drone through. It says: “We release account and other personal information when we believe release is appropriate to comply with the law; enforce or apply our Conditions of Use and other agreements; or protect the rights, property, or safety of Amazon.com, our users, or others.”

Amazon now averages 162 million unique visitors to its sites every month. Meanwhile, the CIA depends on gathering and analyzing data to serve U.S. military interventions overseas. During the last dozen years, the CIA has conducted ongoing drone strikes and covert lethal missions in many countries. At the same time, U.S. agencies like the CIA and NSA have flattened many previous obstacles to Big Brother behavior.

And now, Amazon is hosting a huge computing cloud for the CIA’s secrets — a digital place where data for mass surveillance and perpetual war are converging.

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Why the Washington Post’s New Ties to the CIA Are So Ominous

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

American journalism has entered highly dangerous terrain.

Washington Post

Why do the Post’s CIA ties matter?

A tip-off is that the Washington Post refuses to face up to a conflict of interest involving Jeff Bezos — who’s now the sole owner of the powerful newspaper at the same time he remains Amazon’s CEO and main stakeholder.

The Post is supposed to expose CIA secrets. But Amazon is under contract to keep them. Amazon has a new $600 million “cloud” computing deal with the CIA.

The situation is unprecedented. But in an email exchange early this month, Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron told me that the newspaper doesn’t need to routinely inform readers of the CIA-Amazon-Bezos ties when reporting on the CIA. He wrote that such in-story acknowledgment would be “far outside the norm of disclosures about potential conflicts of interest at media organizations.”

But there isn’t anything normal about the new situation. As I wrote to Baron, “few journalists could have anticipated ownership of the paper by a multibillionaire whose outside company would be so closely tied to the CIA.”

The Washington Post’s refusal to provide readers with minimal disclosure in coverage of the CIA is important on its own. But it’s also a marker for an ominous pattern — combining denial with accommodation to raw financial and governmental power — a synergy of media leverage, corporate digital muscle and secretive agencies implementing policies of mass surveillance, covert action and ongoing warfare.

Digital prowess at collecting global data and keeping secrets is crucial to the missions of Amazon and the CIA. The two institutions have only begun to explore how to work together more effectively.

For the CIA, the emerging newspaper role of Mr. Amazon is value added to any working relationship with him. The CIA’s zeal to increase its leverage over major American media outlets is longstanding.  

After creation of the CIA in 1947, it enjoyed direct collaboration with many U.S. news organizations. But the agency faced a major challenge in October 1977, when — soon after leaving the Washington Post – famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein provided an extensive expose in Rolling Stone.

Citing CIA documents, Bernstein wrote that during the previous 25 years “more than 400 American journalists … have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency.” He added: “The history of the CIA’s involvement with the American press continues to be shrouded by an official policy of obfuscation and deception.”

Bernstein’s story tarnished the reputations of many journalists and media institutions, including the Washington Post and New York Times. While the CIA’s mission was widely assumed to involve “obfuscation and deception,” the mission of the nation’s finest newspapers was ostensibly the opposite.

During the last few decades, as far as we know, the extent of extreme media cohabitation with the CIA has declined sharply. At the same time, as the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq attests, many prominent U.S. journalists and media outlets have continued to regurgitate, for public consumption, what’s fed to them by the CIA and other official “national security” sources.

The recent purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos has poured some high-finance concrete for a new structural bridge between the media industry and the surveillance/warfare state. The development puts the CIA in closer institutionalized proximity to the Post, arguably the most important political media outlet in the United States.

At this point, about 30,000 people have signed a petition (launched by RootsAction.org) with a minimal request: “The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.” On behalf of the petition’s signers, I’m scheduled to deliver it to the Washington Post headquarters on January 15. The petition is an opening salvo in a long-term battle.

By its own account, Amazon — which has yielded Jeff Bezos personal wealth of around $25 billion so far — is eager to widen its services to the CIA beyond the initial $600 million deal. “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA,” a statement from Amazon said two months ago. As Bezos continues to gain even more wealth from Amazon, how likely is that goal to affect his newspaper’s coverage of the CIA?

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org.

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Open Letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein About the Bill of Rights

10:55 am in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)

Dear Senator Feinstein:

On Thursday, when you responded to news about massive ongoing surveillance of phone records of people in the United States, you slipped past the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. As the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you seem to be in the habit of treating the Bill of Rights as merely advisory.

The Constitution doesn’t get any better than this: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The greatness of the Fourth Amendment explains why so many Americans took it to heart in civics class, and why so many of us treasure it today. But along with other high-ranking members of Congress and the president of the United States, you have continued to chip away at this sacred bedrock of civil liberties.

As The Guardian reported the night before your sudden news conference, the leaked secret court order “shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk—regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”

One of the most chilling parts of that just-revealed Surveillance Court order can be found at the bottom of the first page, where it says “Declassify on: 12 April 2038.”

Apparently you thought—or at least hoped—that we, the people of the United States, wouldn’t find out for 25 years. And the fact that we learned about this extreme violation of our rights in 2013 instead of 2038 seems to bother you a lot.

Rather than call for protection of the Fourth Amendment, you want authorities to catch and punish whoever leaked this secret order. You seem to fear that people can actually discover what their own government is doing to them with vast surveillance.

Meanwhile, the Executive Branch is being run by kindred spirits, as hostile to the First Amendment as to the Fourth. On Thursday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a statement saying the “unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”

That statement from Clapper is utter and complete hogwash. Whoever leaked the four-page Surveillance Court document to Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian deserves a medal and an honorary parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Nation’s Capital. The only “threats” assisted by disclosure of that document are the possibilities of meaningful public discourse and informed consent of the governed.

Let’s be candid about the most clear and present danger to our country’s democratic values. The poisonous danger is spewing from arrogance of power in the highest places. The antidotes depend on transparency of sunlight that only whistleblowers, a free press and an engaged citizenry can bring.

As Greenwald tweeted after your news conference: “The reason there are leakers is precisely because the govt is filled with people like Dianne Feinstein who do horrendous things in secret.” And, he pointed out, “The real story isn’t just the spying itself: it’s that we have this massive, ubiquitous Surveillance State, operating in total secrecy.”

Obviously, you like it that way, and so do most other members of the Senate and House. And so does the president. You’re all playing abhorrent roles, maintaining a destructive siege of precious civil liberties. While building a surveillance state, you are patting citizens on the head and telling them not to worry.

Perhaps you should have a conversation with Al Gore and ask about his statement: “Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” Actually, many millions of Americans understand that the blanket surveillance is obscenely outrageous.

As a constituent, I would like to offer an invitation. A short drive from your mansion overlooking San Francisco Bay, hundreds of us will be meeting June 11 at a public forum on “Disappearing Civil Liberties in the United States.” (You’d be welcome to my time on the panel.) One of the speakers, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, could explain to you how the assaults on civil liberties and the wars you keep supporting go hand in hand, undermining the Constitution and causing untold misery.

Senator Feinstein, your energetic contempt for the Bill of Rights is serving a bipartisan power structure that threatens to crush our democratic possibilities.

A huge number of people in California and around the country will oppose your efforts for the surveillance state at every turn.

Sincerely,

Norman Solomon