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Peter Van Buren: 10 NSA Myths Debunked

9:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Protest Sign: Thank you Mr. Snowden, you are a fucking HERO

Peter Van Buren busts the government’s NSA propaganda myths.

A new book, as well as the first account written by a participant, remind us that, in the world of the national security state, when it comes to pure and simple illegality in the monitoring of, spying on, and surveillance of American citizens, there really is nothing new under the sun.  In a late-night break-in and theft in March 1971, eight antiwar activists — the Edward Snowdens of their moment — made off with the files of an obscure FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.  These proved to contain documents incriminating the Bureau for operations designed to breed paranoia in the anti-Vietnam War movement and for what turned out to be illegal spying on Americans.

The activists, who remained anonymous and whom the FBI never found, sent relevant documents to journalists.  While some papers returned the documents under FBI pressure, the Washington Post began publishing pieces about them.  In this way, in what was then still an all-paper world, a distinctly non-digital, quite illegal break-in, an act of conscience aimed at pulling back the curtain on government illegality, began the unraveling of a massive, secret counterintelligence, or COINTELPRO, operation against Americans.  It had targeted both the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and involved the use of agents provocateurs and blackmail, among many other illegal acts.  Without that break-in by the Media 8, J. Edgar Hoover’s “shadow FBI,” a criminal conspiracy at the heart of a developing national security state, might never have been revealed.  (The CIA, officially banned from domestic spying on Americans, turned out to be involved in massive surveillance as well.)

As a reporter at the Washington Post, Betty Medsger received some of the stolen documents and helped break the story back in 1971.  Now, in her new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, several of those involved in the Media 8 break-in have finally identified themselves. In her personal account in the Guardian, one of the eight, Bonnie Raines, writes this of her modern counterpart: “Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot.”

In our own time, despite Snowden, count on one thing: we undoubtedly don’t yet know the worst or most illegal aspects of this era of “intelligence.”  After all, while Snowden “liberated” up to 1.7 million National Security Agency documents (many of them not yet looked at, analyzed, or written about), there have been no similar twenty-first-century break-ins at the FBI, the CIA, or other parts of the American intelligence community (or for that matter at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security).  Massive and shocking as the NSA revelations have been, the curtain has only been pulled back on a corner of the new Washington world that we, the people, continue to fund, even if we aren’t considered important enough to know anything about it.

In the meantime, the defenders of that world have been out in their legions reassuring us that we need know no more, that it’s all for our own good, that NSA surveillance stopped untold terror plots, and that it’s — really and truly! — not such a big deal.  Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren begs to differ and so takes us through the labyrinth of NSA defenses, point by point, showing just what our favorite Constitution-shredders have to say and why it doesn’t hold water. Tom

You Can’t Opt Out
10 NSA Myths Debunked
By Peter Van Buren

The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding — quite literally — Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.

It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.

1) NSA surveillance is legal.

True, if perhaps you put “legal” in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.

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A Ripley’s Believe It or Not National Security State

7:17 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt

White House Tilt Shift

What would aliens think of our national security state?

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.  These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list.  Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries — but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie at its heart.  Perhaps reimagining what has developed in these last decades as a faith-based system — a new national religion — would help.  This, at least, is the way I would explain the new Washington to that wayward Martian.

Holy Warriors

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion.  It has its holy orders.  It has its sacred texts (classified).  It has its dogma and its warrior priests.  It has its sanctified promised land, known as “the homeland.”  It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.  It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.  It is Manichaean in its view of the world.  As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

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Calabrese and Harwood, Privacy Down the Drain

6:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

DEA Vehicle

The NSA isn’t the only agency destroying our privacy.

In the U.S. these days, privacy is so been-there-done-that. Just this week, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret outfit that hears only the government side of any argument and has generally been a rubberstamp for surveillance requests, declassified an opinion backing the full-scale collection and retention of the phone records (“metadata”) of American citizens. That staggering act was, the judge claimed, in no way in violation of the Fourth Amendment or of American privacy. She also gave us a little peek at corporate courage in our brave new surveillance world, writing that “no holder of records [i.e., telecommunications company] who has received an order to produce bulk telephony metadata has challenged the legality of such an order.”

That story, like so many others in recent months, arrived thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden about the ever-widening powers of the National Security Agency (NSA), led by a general who, we now know, lives in a world of intergalactic fantasies of power and control out of Star Trek: The Next Generation and once even worked in an Army intelligence war room created by a Hollywood set designer in the style of that show. As Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Harwood indicate today, however, gigantic as the NSA’s intrusions on privacy might be, they are only part of an uncomfortably large story in which many U.S. agencies and outfits feel free to take possession of our lives in ever more technologically advanced and intrusive ways.

Just this week, in fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (for which both Calabrese and Harwood work) released an important new report on the post-9/11 morphing of the FBI into a “secret domestic intelligence agency.” In addition to the subterranean surveillance of protesters and religious groups, the Washington Post offered this summary list of the ways in which, according to that report, the Bureau has expanded in the twenty-first century: “The changes highlighted in the report include the FBI’s racial and ethnic mapping program, which allows the FBI to collect demographic information to map American communities by race and ethnicity; the use of secret National Security Letters, which asked for account information from telecommunications companies, financial institutions, and credit agencies and required no judicial approval; warrantless wiretapping; and the recent revelations about the government’s use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to track all U.S. telephone calls.”

All of this and, as you’ll see in today’s piece, so much more has been done in the name of American “safety,” the mantra with which Washington has funded and built its new version of a global surveillance stateTom

Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone
The NSA Isn’t the Only Government Agency Exploiting Technology to Make Privacy Obsolete
By Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Harwood

For at least the last six years, government agents have been exploiting an AT&T database filled with the records of billions of American phone calls from as far back as 1987. The rationale behind this dragnet intrusion, codenamed Hemisphere, is to find suspicious links between people with “burner” phones (prepaid mobile phones easy to buy, use, and quickly dispose of), which are popular with drug dealers. The secret information gleaned from this relationship with the telecommunications giant has been used to convict Americans of various crimes, all without the defendants or the courts having any idea how the feds stumbled upon them in the first place. The program is so secret, so powerful, and so alarming that agents “are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document,” according to a recently released government PowerPoint slide.

You’re probably assuming that we’re talking about another blanket National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program focused on the communications of innocent Americans, as revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. We could be, but we’re not. We’re talking about a program of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a domestic law enforcement agency. Read the rest of this entry →

Tom Engelhardt, Spying for Us

6:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here. 

I Only Regret That I Have But One Life to Give for My Country: Yours
The Crime of the Century
By Tom Engelhardt

Hey, let’s talk spying!  In Surveillance America, this land of spookery we all now inhabit, what else is there to talk about?

Nathan Hale

What would a Revolutionary War hero & spy think of today’s surveillance state?

Was there anyone growing up like me in the 1950s who didn’t know Revolutionary War hero and spy Nathan Hale’s last words before the British hanged him: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”?  I doubt it. Even today that line, whether historically accurate or not, gives me a chill. Of course, it’s harder these days to imagine a use for such a heroically solitary statement — not in an America in which spying and surveillance are boom businesses, and our latest potential Nathan Hales are tens of thousands of corporately hired and trained private intelligence contractors, who often don’t get closer to the enemy than a computer terminal.

What would Nathan Hale think if you could tell him that the CIA, the preeminent spy agency in the country, has an estimated 20,000 employees (it won’t reveal the exact number, of course); or that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which monitors the nation’s spy satellites, has a cast of 16,000 housed in a post-9/11, almost $2 billion headquarters in Washington’s suburbs; or that our modern Nathan Hales, multiplying like so many jackrabbits, lack the equivalent of a Britain to spy on. In the old-fashioned sense, there really is no longer an enemy on the planet. The modern analog to the British of 1776 would assumedly be … al-Qaeda?

It’s true that powers friendly and less friendly still spy on the U.S.  Who doesn’t remember that ring of suburban-couples-cum-spies the Russians planted here?  It was a sophisticated operation that only lacked access to state secrets of any sort and that the FBI rolled up in 2010. But generally speaking, in a single-superpower world, the U.S., with no obvious enemy, has been building its own system of global spying and surveillance on a scale never before seen in an effort to keep track of just about everyone on the planet (as recently released NSA documents show).  In other words, Washington is now spy central.  It surveils not just potential future enemies, but also its closest allies as if they were enemies.  Increasingly, the structure built to do a significant part of that spying is aimed at Americans, too, and on a scale that is no less breathtaking.

Spies, Traitors, and Defectors in Twenty-First-Century America

Today, for America’s spies, Nathan Hale’s job comes with health and retirement benefits.  Top officials in that world have access to a revolving door into guaranteed lucrative employment at the highest levels of the corporate-surveillance complex and, of course, for the spy in need of escape, a golden parachute.  So when I think about Nathan Hale’s famed line, among those hundreds of thousands of American spies and corporate spylings just two Americans come to mind, both charged and one convicted under the draconian World War I Espionage Act.

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Peter Van Buren, The Manning Trial Began on 9/11

7:11 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Bradley Manning - Caricature

Bradley Manning – Caricature

Close your eyes for a moment, think about recent events, and you could easily believe yourself in a Seinfeldian Bizarro World. Now, open them and, for a second, everything looks almost familiar… and then you notice that a dissident is fleeing a harsh and draconian power, known for its global surveillance practices, use of torture, assassination campaigns, and secret prisons, and has found a haven in a heartless world in… hmmm… Russia. That dissident, of course, is Edward Snowden, just granted a year’s temporary asylum in Russia, a.k.a. the defender of human rights and freedom 2013, and so has been released from a Washington-imposed imprisonment in Moscow’s international air terminal and the threat of far worse.

Now, close your eyes, open them again, and for just a moment, doesn’t the world look a little more orderly?  After all, a draconian imperial power has taken one of its own dissidents, who wanted to reveal the truth about its cruel war practices and global diplomatic maneuverings, thrown him in prison without charges, abused and mistreated him, brought him before a drumhead military court and, on essentially trumped up charges of “espionage,” convicted him of just what its leaders wanted to convict him of.  That power, of course, must be Russia and all’s right with the world… oops, I mean, that’s U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning and the “evil empire” that mistreated him is… gulp… the United States.

Think about it for a moment: if Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a place of asylum for American dissidents and the U.S. is doing a reasonable job of imitating aspects of the old USSR, we are on Bizarro Earth, aren’t we?

Today, former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, considers how America’s distant wars have come home and how, under that pressure, this country is morphing into something unrecognizable.  Worse yet, it’s quite possible that we’re only at the beginning of that transformation.  To give but a small example of what the future might hold, psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay, famous for his work with traumatized Vietnam veterans, suggested in Daedalus in 2011 that no one knows what it means for similarly traumatized employees of our Warrior corporations, the rent-a-gun “veterans” of our recent war zones to come home to no health care and no support system.  And he offered an eerie, if provocative, comparison to the footloose German veterans of World War I who, in the 1920s, joined the Freikorps and played their part in the radicalization and then Nazification of that country.

“I am not saying,” he wrote, “that I know that the Weimar Republic would still exist today, with all that implies about a different course to history, if Germany had had Vet Centers and VA Mental Health Clinics. But historians generally agree that the Freikorps contributed to the weakening of the new German political fabric in the immediate aftermath of World War I.”  His is a chilling reminder that, wherever we are now, it might just be a rest stop on some bizarro road to hell. Tom

Welcome to Post-Constitution America
What If Your Country Begins to Change and No One Notices?
By Peter Van Buren

On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”

Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”

Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.

The Weapons of War Come Home
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Rebecca Solnit, Emerging From Darkness, the Edward Snowden Story

8:21 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Snowden graffiti portrait

“Modern heroes endeavor to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.”

It’s true that, as Glenn Greenwald and others have written, the American media has focused attention on the supposed peccadillos of Edward Snowden so as not to have to spend too much time on the sweeping system of government surveillance he revealed. At least for now, the Obama administration has cornered the document-less whistleblower at Moscow’s international airport, leaving him nowhere on the planet to go, or at least no way to get there. As a result, the media can have a field day writing negative pieces about his relationship to Putin’s Russia.

So Greenwald certainly has a point, and yet it would be a mistake to ignore Snowden’s personal story.  After all, the unending spectacle of a superpower implacably tracking down a single man across the planet has its own educational value.  It’s been a little like watching one of those Transformers movies in which Megatron, the leader of the evil Decepticons, stomps around the globe smashing things, but somehow, time and again, misses his tiny human target.  In this strange drama, in a world in which few eyeball-gluing stories outlast the week in which they were born, almost alone and by a kind of miracle Snowden has managed to keep his story andthe story of the building of the first full-scale global surveillance state going and going.  He seems a little like the Energizer Bunny of whistleblowers.

No matter what’s written about him here in the mainstream, the spectacle of a single remarkably articulate and self-confident individual outwitting the last superpower has been, in its own way, uplifting.  Although the first global polls haven’t come in, I think it’s safe to assume that from Bolivia to Hong Kong, Germany to Japan, Washington is taking a remarkable licking in the global opinion wars.  Even at home, we know that, among the young in particular, opinion seems to be shifting on both Snowden’s acts and the surveillance state whose architecture he revealed.

Given its utter tone-deafness and its flurry of threats against various foreign governments, the downing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane, and ever more ham-handed moves against Snowden himself, Washington is clearly building up a store of global anger and resentment, including over the way it’s scooping up private communications worldwide.  In the end, this twenty-first-century spectacle may truly make a difference. As Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch regular and author of the new book The Faraway Nearby, writes today, it’s been a moving show so far. One man against the machine: if you’ve ever been to the local multiplex, given such a scenario you can’t for a second doubt where global sympathies lie. Tom

Prometheus Among the Cannibals 
A Letter to Edward Snowden
By Rebecca Solnit

Dear Edward Snowden,

Billions of us, from prime ministers to hackers, are watching a live espionage movie in which you are the protagonist and perhaps the sacrifice. Your way forward is clear to no one, least of all, I’m sure, you.

I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank. I imagine Hollywood movie magic in which a young lookalike would swap places with you and let you flee to safety — if there is any safety in this world of extreme rendition and extrajudicial execution by the government that you and I were born under and that you, until recently, served. I fear you may pay, if not with your death, with your life — with a life that can have no conventional outcome anytime soon, if ever. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” you told us, and they are trying to stop you instead.

I am moved by your choice of our future over yours, the world over yourself.  You know what few do nowadays: that the self is not the same as self-interest. You are someone who is smart enough, idealistic enough, bold enough to know that living with yourself in a system of utter corruption would destroy that self as an ideal, as something worth being.  Doing what you’ve done, on the other hand, would give you a self you could live with, even if it gave you nowhere to live or no life. Which is to say, you have become a hero.

Tom Engelhardt, Can Edward Snowden Be Deterred?

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Snowden

Edward Snowden: An unstoppable whistleblower?

It’s hard even to know how to take it in.  I mean, what’s really happening?  An employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency makes off with unknown numbers of files about America’s developing global security state on a thumb drive and four laptop computers, and jumps the nearest plane to Hong Kong.  His goal: to expose a vast surveillance structure built in the shadows in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans.  He leaks some of the documents to a columnist at the British Guardian and to the Washington Post.  The response is unprecedented: an “international manhunt” (or more politely but less accurately, “a diplomatic full court press”) conducted not by Interpol or the United Nations but by the planet’s sole superpower, the very government whose practices the leaker was so intent on exposing.

And that’s just for starters.  Let’s add another factor.  The leaker, a young man with great techno-savvy, lets the world know that he’s picked and chosen among the NSA files in his possession.  He’s releasing only those he thinks the American public needs in order to start a full-scale debate about the unprecedented secret world of surveillance that their taxpayer dollars have created.  In other words, this is no “document dump.”  He wants to spark change without doing harm.

But here’s the kicker: he couldn’t be more aware of previous whistleblower cases, the punitive reaction of his government to them, and the fate that might be his.  As a result, we now know, he has encrypted the full set of files in his possession and left them in one or more safe places for unknown individuals — that is, we don’t know who they are — to access, should he be taken by the U.S.

In other words, from the time Edward Snowden’s first leaked documents came out, it was obvious that he was in control of how much of the NSA’s secret world would be seen.  It would be hard then not to conclude that capturing him, imprisoning him, trying him, and throwing away the key is likely to increase, not decrease, the flow of those documents.  Knowing that, the Obama administration and the representatives of our secret world went after him anyway — after one man on a global scale and in a way that may not have a precedent.  No thought of future embarrassment stopped them, nor, it seems, did they hesitate because of possible resentments engendered by their heavy-handed pressure on numerous foreign governments.

The result has been a global spectacle, as well as a worldwide debate about the spying practices of the U.S. (and its allies).  In these weeks, Washington has proven determined, vengeful, implacable.  It has strong-armed, threatened, and elbowed powers large and small.  It has essentially pledged that the leaker, former Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, will never be safe on this planet in his lifetime. And yet, to mention the obvious, the greatest power on Earth has, as yet, failed to get its man and is losing the public opinion battle globally.

An Asylum-less World

Highlighted in all this has been a curious fact of our twenty-first-century world.  In the Cold War years, asylum was always potentially available.  If you opposed one of the two superpowers or its allies, the other was usually ready to open its arms to you, as the U.S. famously did for what were once called “Soviet dissidents” in great numbers.  The Soviets did the same for Americans, Brits, and others, often secret communists, sometimes actual spies, who opposed the leading capitalist power and its global order.

Today, if you are a twenty-first-century “dissident” and need asylum/protection from the only superpower left, there is essentially none to be had.  Even after three Latin American countries, enraged at Washington’s actions, extended offers of protection to Snowden, these should be treated as a new category of limited asylum.  After all, the greatest power on the planet has, since 9/11, shown itself perfectly willing to do almost anything in pursuit of its definition of “security” or the security of its security system.  Torture, abuse, the setting up of secret prisons or “black sites,” the kidnapping of terrorist suspects (including perfectly innocent people) off the streets of global cities and in the backlands of the planet, as well as their “rendition” to the torture chambers of complicit allied regimes, and the secret surveillance of anyone anywhere would only start a far longer list.

Nothing about the “international manhunt” for Snowden indicates that the Obama administration would be unwilling to send in the CIA or special operations types to “render” him from Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, no matter the cost to hemispheric relations.  Snowden himself brought up this possibility in his first interview with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.  “I could,” he said bluntly, “be rendered by the CIA.” This assumes that he can even make it to a land of exile from somewhere in the bowels of the international terminal of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport without being intercepted by Washington.

It’s true that there remain some modest limits on the actions even of a rogue superpower.  It’s hard to imagine Washington dropping its kidnappers into Russia or China to take Snowden, which is perhaps why it has put such pressure on both countries to turn him in or hustle him along.  With smaller, weaker lands, however, non-nuclear allies or enemies or frenemies, don’t doubt the possibility for a second.

If Edward Snowden is proving one thing, it’s this: in 2013, Planet Earth isn’t big enough to protect the American version of dissidents.”  Instead, it looks ever more like a giant prison with a single implacable policeman, judge, jury, and jailer.

Deterrence Theory the Second Time Around

In the Cold War years, the two nuclear-armed superpowers practiced what was called “deterrence theory,” or more aptly MAD, short for “mutually assured destruction.”  Think of it as the particularly grim underside of what might have been but wasn’t called MAA (mutually assured asylum).  The knowledge that no nuclear first strike by one superpower could succeed in preventing the other from striking back with overwhelming force, destroying them both (and possibly the planet) seemed, however barely, to hold their enmity and weaponry at bay.  It forced them to fight their wars, often by proxy, on the global frontiers of empire.

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Alfred W. McCoy, Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe

6:59 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Nixon's resignation speech

A true history of the surveillance state would stretch back far beyond even Nixon’s spying on domestic “enemies.”

On the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services there is a list of rights belonging to all Americans. Chief among them: Freedom to express yourself. Abdiwali Warsame must have taken them literally. Two days after he became a U.S. citizen, he created a rollicking news and opinion website covering his native Somalia.  It became popular with many Somalis and Somali-Americans, but also attracted attention from other quarters.  As Craig Whitlock recently revealed in the Washington Post, Warsame was, according to public records and interviews, soon “caught up in a shadowy Defense Department counterpropaganda operation.”

Warsame’s website became a clearinghouse for articles from various points of view (including his own fundamentalist Muslim beliefs), but with emphasis on strong opposition to U.S.-backed military interventions in Somalia, and the contention that al-Shabab militants are freedom fighters, not terrorists. This, in turn, attracted the attention of the U.S.-based Navanti Group, which was “working as a subcontractor for the Special Operations Command to help conduct ‘information operations to engage local populations and counter nefarious influences’ in Africa and Europe.”  As part of a sophisticated military effort aimed at manipulating news stories and social media around the world, Navanti compiled a dossier on Warsame, even though the military is legally barred from carrying out psychological operations at home.  (Navanti claimed it believed Warsame was based overseas; Whitlock’s reporting indicates otherwise.)  The military contractor eventually sent a copy of its files to the FBI, whose agents soon showed up on Warsame’s doorstep.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website says Americans are bound by “the shared values of freedom [and] liberty” and that “naturalized citizens are… an important part of our democracy.”  Today, this rings about as true as a thump on the side of an empty dumpster.  Abdiwali Warsame is just one of millions of people — Americans and foreigners — who have found themselves monitored in some way by the U.S. military over the years.

No one knows this long history of shadowy military surveillance better than TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of Policing America’s Empire, among other works.  For decades, McCoy has been shedding light on some of the darkest aspects of government malfeasance from drug trafficking to spying to torture.  Today, he offers a chilling tour of military surveillance efforts from the turn of the twentieth century to a near future even more dystopian than our present — a world in which we’re all liable to end up like Abdiwali Warsame. Nick Turse

Surveillance Blowback
The Making of the U.S. Surveillance State, 1898-2020
By Alfred W. McCoy

The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped.  Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus.  Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.

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Matthew Harwood, Counterterrorism in the Twilight Zone

6:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

They went without saying a word.  In the dead of night, the last U.S. troops slipped out of Iraq and across the Kuwaiti border.  There was no victory parade.  No departure ceremony.  They never said goodbye. They didn’t even cancel scheduled meetings with their Iraqi counterparts. They just up and left, weeks before their departure deadline in December 2010.

The Americans took home their weapons and vehicles, of course.  They took much of their heavy equipment and electronics gear, too.  They also took something far more intimate, something you might assume belonged to the Iraqi people, something you probably never knew existed: “a massive database packed with retinal scans, thumb prints, and other biometric data identifying millions of Iraqis,” as Spencer Ackerman put it when he wrote about those digital records in 2011.

In the years after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the U.S. military collected biometric data on around three million Iraqis.  It’s done the same for millions of Afghans.  And it’s keeping this information in perpetuity.  Back in 2011, a spokesman for the Tampa, Florida-based U.S. Central Command told Ackerman, “We have this information, and rather than cull through it all and say ‘bad guy, good guy, bad guy, good guy,’ it’s better to just keep it.”  Just why may be unclear, but the capture and retention of this data fit a pattern: the U.S. drive to expand its national security state into a global security initiative.

This includes vacuuming up billions of pieces of intelligence from worldwide computer networks (13.5 billion from Pakistan in March of this year alone), spying on European allies, and hacking the computer and telecommunications systems of its largest foreign creditor, among other activities.  The goal is to possess the world’s data, then do who knows what with it.

Muslims using computers in Pakistan or those whose retinas were scanned by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan are not, of course, the only ones to fall under the gaze of U.S. surveillance.  Since 9/11, as Matt Harwood makes clear in his inaugural article for TomDispatch, American Muslims have been disproportionately targeted compared to right-wing Christian groups.  The roots of this discrimination stretch back hundreds of years, beyond the birth of this country, and reveal blind spots and shortcomings that no amount of data, computing power, or cyber-prowess can correct. Nick Turse

Political Violence and Privilege
Why Violent Right-wing Extremism Doesn’t Scare Americans
By Matthew Harwood

The evangelical Christians of Greenville County, South Carolina, are afraid.

There has been talk of informants and undercover agents luring young, conservative evangelicals across the South into sham terrorist plots. The feds and the area’s police want to eliminate a particularly extreme strain of evangelical Christianity opposed to abortion, homosexuality, and secularism, whose adherents sometimes use violent imagery and speech. They fear such extreme talk could convince lone wolves or small groups of Christian extremists to target abortion clinics, gay bars, or shopping malls for attack. As a result, law enforcement has flooded these communities with informants meant to provide an early warning system for any signs of such “radicalization.”

Converts, so important to the evangelical movement, are now looked upon with suspicion — the more fervent, the more suspicious. In local barbecue joints, diners, and watering holes, the proprietors are careful not to let FOX News linger onscreen too long, fearing political discussions that could be misconstrued.  After all, you can never be too sure who’s listening.

Come Sunday, the ministers who once railed against abortion, gay marriage, and Hollywood as sure signs that the U.S. is descending into godlessness will mute their messages. They will peer out at their congregations and fear that some faces aren’t interested in the Gospel, or maybe are a little too interested in every word. The once vibrant political clubs at Bob Jones University have become lifeless as students whisper about informants and fear a few misplaced words could leave them in a government database or worse.

Naturally, none of this is actually happening to evangelical Christians in South Carolina, across the South, or anywhere else. It would never be tolerated. Yet the equivalents of everything cited above did happen in and around the New York metropolitan area — just not to white, conservative, Christian Americans. But replace them with American Muslims in the New York area and you have a perfect fit, as documented by the recent report Mapping Muslims.  And New York is hardly alone.

Since 9/11, American law enforcement has taken a disproportionate interest in American Muslims across the country, seeing a whole community as a national security threat, particularly in California and New York City. But here’s the thing: the facts that have been piling up ever since that date don’t support such suspicion. Not at all.

The numbers couldn’t be clearer: right-wing extremists have committed far more acts of political violence since 1990 than American Muslims. That law enforcement across the country hasn’t felt similarly compelled to infiltrate and watch over conservative Christian communities in the hopes of disrupting violent right-wing extremism confirms what American Muslims know in their bones: to be different is to be suspect.

Conducting Suspicionless Surveillance

In the aftermath of 9/11, law enforcement has infiltrated Muslim American communities and spied on them in ways that would have outraged Americans, had such tactics been used against Christian communities after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, or after any of the other hate crimes or anti-abortion-based acts of violence committed since then by right-wing extremists.

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Nick Turse, The Snags, Snares, and Snafus of Covering the U.S. Military

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The 30-year-old history of U.S. foreign policy: now, there’s a dynamite issue!  Explosive, in fact.  Far too dangerous, it turns out, for Americans to be informed about or have access to basic documents about — so you might conclude from a recent report at Steven Aftergood’s website Secrecy News.

U.S. Africa Command C4ISR Senior Leaders Conference, Vicenza, Italy, February 2011

U.S. Africa Command C4ISR Senior Leaders Conference, Vicenza, Italy, February 2011

According to him, “A 1991 statute mandated that the State Department publish the documentary record of U.S. foreign policy (known as Foreign Relations of the United States, or FRUS) no later than 30 years after the events described.”  They were years behind when President Obama, still in his sunshine mode, hit the Oval Office and ordered State “to complete the processing of the backlog of 25-year-old records awaiting declassification by the end of December 2013.”

Didn’t happen, of course.  And that, it turns out, is the least of it.  A State Department historical advisory committee (HAC), a “panel of distinguished historians,” has just weighed in with its own fears that “a substantial percentage of those records that have been reviewed by the NDC [National Declassification Center] have not been cleared for release to the public.  In the opinion of the HAC, the relatively high number of reviewed documents that remain withheld from researchers and citizens raises fundamental questions about the declassification guidelines.”  The historians wonder, in fact, whether the majority of the FRUS volumes will ever see the light of day.

History, too, may need its Edward Snowden, a rogue historian with access to those State documents and the urge to travel to Hong Kong or tour the bowels of Moscow’s international airport terminal.  If no such historian appears, then Americans curious about the documentary history of our past may get another 30 years of the good old runaround — and even then it’ll be nothing compared to what TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, received from the U.S. military. Tom

The Classic Military Runaround
Your Tax Dollars at Work Keeping You in the Dark
By Nick Turse

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of U.S. personnel — the military refuses to say how many — stationed in the ochre-tinted country of Qatar.  Out in the searing heat of the desert, they fly fighter jets or fix them.  They equip and arm troops headed to war.  Some work in a high-tech command-and-control center overseeing U.S. air operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East.  Yet I found myself sitting in a hotel room in Doha, Qatar’s capital, about 30 miles east of al-Udeid Air Base, the main U.S. installation in the country, unable to see, let alone talk, to any of them.

In mid-May, weeks before my arrival in Qatar, I sent a request to the public affairs office at the base to arrange a visit with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, the unit that, according to the military, carries out a “criti­cal combat mission that spans nearly 6,000 miles from the Horn of Africa to Northern Afghanistan.”  Or at least I tried to.  Day or night, weekday or weekend, the website refused to deliver my message.  Finally, I dug up an alternate email address and sent in my request.  Days passed with no word, without even an acknowledgement.  I followed up yet again and finally received a reply — and then it began.

The initial response came on May 28th from the Media Operations Chief at Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs.  She told me that I needed to contact the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing’s Public Affairs liaison, Captain Angela Webb, directly.  So I repeatedly wrote to Captain Webb.  No response.  On June 10th, I received an email from Susan Harrington.  She was, she told me, “taking over” for Captain Webb.  Unfortunately, she added, it was now far too close to my arrival in Qatar to arrange a visit.  “Due to time constraints,” she wrote me, “I do not think it will be possible to support this request since we are likely already within that 30 day window.”

Don’t think I was surprised.  By now, I’m used to it.  Whether I’m trying to figure out what the U.S. military is doing in Latin America or Africa, Afghanistan or Qatar, the response is remarkably uniform  – obstruction and obfuscation, hurdles and hindrances.  In short, the good old-fashioned military runaround.  I had hoped to take a walk around al-Udeid Air Base, perhaps get a glimpse of the jumbotron-sized screens and rows of computers in its Combined Air and Space Operations Center.  I wanted to learn how the drawdown in Afghanistan was affecting life on the base.

Instead, I ended up sitting in the climate-controlled comfort of my hotel room, staring at a cloudless sky, typing these words behind double-paned glass that shielded me from the 106 degree heat outside.  For my trouble, on my return to the United States, I was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York by agents of the Department of Homeland Security.  Their question for me: Was I planning to fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

Base Desires in Africa

If you are an American citizen, you’re really not supposed to know about operations at al-Udeid Air Base.  The men and women there on your dime can’t even “mention the base name or host nation name in any unsecured communications.”  Instead, they’re instructed to say that they are at an “undisclosed location in Southwest Asia” instead of “the Deid,” as they call it.

It isn’t the only base that the Pentagon wants to keep in the shadows.  You’re also not supposed to know how many bases the U.S. military currently has in Africa.  I learned that the hard way.  As a start, let me say that, officially speaking, there is only a single U.S. facility on the entire continent that the military formally calls a “base”: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a tiny nation in the Horn of Africa.  U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is adamant about this and takes great pains to emphasize it.  Internally, however, they do admit that they also have forward operating sites (aka “enduring locations”), contingency security locations (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations (which are used only during ongoing operations).  But don’t try to get an official list of these or even a simple count — unless you’re ready for the old-fashioned runaround.

In May 2012, I made the mistake of requesting a list of all facilities used by the U.S. military in Africa broken down by country.  Nicole Dalrymple of AFRICOM’s Public Affairs Office told me the command would look into it and would be in touch.  I never heard from her again.  In June, Pat Barnes, AFRICOM’s Public Affairs liaison at the Pentagon, shot down my request, admitting only that the U.S. military had a “a small and temporary presence of personnel” at “several locations in Africa.”  Due to “force protection” issues, he assured me, he could not tell me “where our folks are located and what facilities they use.”

That July, with sparing assistance from AFRICOM, I published an article on “Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon’s ‘New Spice Route’ in Africa,” in which I attempted to shed light on a growing U.S. military presence on that continent.  This included a previously ignored logistics network set up to service U.S. military operations, with critical nodes in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia.   I also drew attention to posts, airports, and other facilities used by Americans in Arba Minch in Ethiopia, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.
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