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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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Peter Van Buren: 1984 Was an Instruction Manual

7:41 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.

1984 Cover

An instruction manual?

Once upon a time, you might have said that someone “disappeared.”  But in the 1970s in Argentina, Chile, and elsewhere, that verb grew eerily more active in its passive form.  He or she no longer “disappeared,” but “was disappeared” — up to 30,000 Argentineans by their own military in the course of an internal struggle that came to be known as “the dirty war.”  Those gone were the “desaparecidos.

There is something so deeply, morally repugnant about disappearing another human being, no matter how or where or why it’s done, that it’s hard to express.  Yet in twenty-first century America, the possibilities for disappearing people in new and inventive ways may be migrating online, as former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren suggests in his latest post. Tom

Welcome to the Memory Hole
Disappearing Edward Snowden
By Peter Van Buren

What if Edward Snowden was made to disappear? No, I’m not suggesting some future CIA rendition effort or a who-killed-Snowden conspiracy theory of a disappearance, but a more ominous kind.

What if everything a whistleblower had ever exposed could simply be made to go away? What if every National Security Agency (NSA) document Snowden released, every interview he gave, every documented trace of a national security state careening out of control could be made to disappear in real-time? What if the very posting of such revelations could be turned into a fruitless, record-less endeavor?

Am I suggesting the plot for a novel by some twenty-first century George Orwell? Hardly. As we edge toward a fully digital world, such things may soon be possible, not in science fiction but in our world — and at the push of a button. In fact, the earliest prototypes of a new kind of “disappearance” are already being tested. We are closer to a shocking, dystopian reality that might once have been the stuff of futuristic novels than we imagine. Welcome to the memory hole.

Even if some future government stepped over one of the last remaining red lines in our world and simply assassinated whistleblowers as they surfaced, others would always emerge. Back in 1948, in his eerie novel 1984, however, Orwell suggested a far more diabolical solution to the problem. He conjured up a technological device for the world of Big Brother that he called “the memory hole.” In his dark future, armies of bureaucrats, working in what he sardonically dubbed the Ministry of Truth, spent their lives erasing or altering documents, newspapers, books, and the like in order to create an acceptable version of history. When a person fell out of favor, the Ministry of Truth sent him and all the documentation relating to him down the memory hole. Every story or report in which his life was in any way noted or recorded would be edited to eradicate all traces of him.

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Col. Manners Explains It All

8:18 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.

Soldier drinking tea

Etiquette for warfare and occupation with Col. Manners

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: News about the first original Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story, continues to spread!  The Nation magazine has just published a particularly moving excerpt from it: "The Colonel, the Soldier, and the Caregiver: How the War Changed Charlie."  The book itself is a remarkable act of witness and a unique accounting of the true costs of war, up close and personal.  I urge you to pick up a copy.  And while we’re at it, on our return from Thanksgiving, we’re bringing back our good friend “Colonel Manners” to offer another TomDispatch-style satiric take on Washington and war. Tom]

The American Way of Manners
Col. Manners Answers Your Questions on the Etiquette of War, Nuclear Threats, and Surveillance
By Colonel Manners (with a helping hand from Tom Engelhardt)

[Editor’s Note: Many publications have advice columnists, but none has our old friend Colonel Manners (ret.), whose experience in military and surveillance matters is evident from his impressive CV (unfortunately, a classified document). His assignment: to answer questions from Americans puzzled by the abstruse intricacies of the American way of war and by the etiquette, manners, and language of the arcane national security world of Washington. Here is a sampling of his recent correspondence.]

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m a 17-year-old high school student with an interest in American records.  After college, I’m hoping to land a job with Guinness World Records.  So here’s my question: I notice that news reports regularly refer to the Afghan War as the “longest in American history.”  How is that possible?  The war began in October 2001 and it’s now December 2013.  Counting on my fingers, I get 12 years.  The Vietnam War began in 1961 and didn’t end until 1975 (with those famous images of helicopters going over the side of an aircraft carrier).  That’s 14 years by my count.  I’m proud of American records of every sort, but this doesn’t seem like one.  What am I doing wrong?

Proud in Toledo

Dear Proud,

You have a lot to be proud of and, as far as I can tell, you have just the right number of fingers.  It’s true that, historically, we’ve been numero uno among record-breaking countries.  Still, sometimes we get a little overeager.  This is one of those cases.  Clearly, those claiming the much desired “longest” title for Afghanistan are cheating by counting the Vietnam War as starting in 1964 with Congress’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or 1965 when the first official U.S. combat troops entered that country, not in 1961, when significant numbers of armed “advisors” initially arrived.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Boo!

8:07 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.

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: While she was in this country, Ann Jones received a remarkable amount of attention for her new Dispatch book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story, including appearances on Democracy Now! and Huffington Post Live.  Excerpts from the book appeared at Alternet, Truthout, and this site -- and there’s much more to come, as I’ll note above future TD pieces.  In the meantime, a small reminder: please help support our new publishing imprint by picking up a copy of this first original offering from what we hope will be a powerful series over the years.  Believe me, selling this volume truly matters.  (It’s also a powerful, stunningly written account of the cost of war, up close and personal.)  If you are an Amazon customer, click here, and buy a copy, we get a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you.  If not, make your local independent bookstore stock it!  Many thanks -- especially to those of you who contributed to this site in return for signed copies of They Were Soldiers.  Tom]

Scared to Death
My Safety ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Security
By Tom Engelhardt

From the time I was little, I went to the movies.  They were my escape, with one exception from which I invariably had to escape.  I couldn’t sit through any movie where something or someone threatened to jump out at me with the intent to harm.  In such situations, I was incapable of enjoying being scared and there seemed to be no remedy for it.  When Jaws came out in 1975, I decided that, at age 31, having avoided such movies for years, I was old enough to take it.  One tag line in ads for that film was: “Don’t go in the water.”  Of the millions who watched Jaws and outlasted the voracious great white shark until the lights came back on, I was that rarity: I didn’t. I really couldn’t go back in the ocean — not for several years.

I don’t want you to think for a second that this represents some kind of elevated moral position on violence or horror; it’s a visceral reaction. I actually wanted to see the baby monster in Alien burst out of that human stomach. I just knew I couldn’t take it. In all my years of viewing (and avoidance), only once did I find a solution to the problem.  In the early 1990s, a period when I wrote on children’s culture, Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park sparked a dinosaur fad.  I had been a dino-nerd of the 1950s and so promised Harper’s Magazine a piece on the craze and the then-being-remodeled dino-wing of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. (Don’t ask me why that essay never appeared. I took scads of notes, interviewed copious scientists at the museum, spent time alone with an Allosaurus skull, did just about everything a writer should do to produce such a piece — except write it. Call it my one memorable case of writer’s block.)

My problem was never scaring myself to death on the page. I read Crichton’s novel without a blink.  The question was how to see it when, in 1993, it arrived onscreen.  My solution was to let my kids go first, then take them back with me.  That way, my son could lean over and whisper, “Dad, in maybe 30 seconds the Velociraptor is going to leap out of the grass.”  My heart would already be pounding, my eyes half shut, but somehow, cued that way, I became a Crichton vet.

Of course, gazillions of movie viewers have seen similar films with the usual array of sharks, dinosaurs, anacondas, axe murderers, mutants, zombies, vampires, aliens, or serial killers, and done so with remarkable pleasure.  They didn’t bolt.  They didn’t imagine having heart attacks on the spot.  They didn’t find it unbearable.  In some way, they liked it, ensuring that such films remain pots of gold for Hollywood to this day.  Which means that they — you — are an alien race to me.

The Sharks, Aliens, and Snakes of Our World

This came to mind recently because I started wondering why, when we step out of those movie theaters, our American world doesn’t scare us more.  Why doesn’t it make more of us want to jump out of our skins?  These days, our screen lives seem an apocalyptic tinge to them, with all those zombie war movies and the like.  I’m curious, though: Does what should be deeply disturbing, even apocalyptically terrifying, in the present moment strike many of us as the equivalent of so many movie-made terrors — shivers and fears produced in a world so far beyond us that we can do nothing about them?

I’m not talking, of course, about the things that reach directly for your throat and, in their immediacy, scare the hell out of you — not the sharks who took millions of homes in the foreclosure crisis or the aliens who ate so many jobs in recent years or even the snakes who snatched food stamps from needy Americans.  It’s the overarching dystopian picture I’m wondering about.  The question is: Are most Americans still in that movie house just waiting for the lights to come back on?

I mean, we’re living in a country that my parents would barely recognize.  It has a frozen, riven, shutdown-driven Congress, professionally gerrymandered into incumbency, endlessly lobbied, and seemingly incapable of actually governing.  It has a leader whose presidency appears to be imploding before our eyes and whose single accomplishment (according to most pundits), like the website that goes with it, has been unraveling as we watch.  Its 1% elections, with their multi-billion dollar campaign seasons and staggering infusions of money from the upper reaches of wealth and corporate life, are less and less anybody’s definition of “democratic.”

And while Washington fiddles, inequality is on the rise, with so much money floating around in the 1% world that millions of dollars are left over to drive the prices of pieces of art into the stratosphere, even as poverty grows and the army of the poor multiplies.  And don’t forget that the national infrastructure — all those highways, bridges, sewer systems, and tunnels that were once the unspoken pride of the country — is visibly fraying.

Up-Armoring America

Meanwhile, to the tune of a trillion dollars or more a year, our national treasure has been squandered on the maintenance of a war state, the garrisoning of the planet, and the eternal upgrading of “homeland security.”  Think about it: so far in the twenty-first century, the U.S. is the only nation to invade a country not on its border. In fact, it invaded two such countries, launching failed wars in which, when all the costs are in, trillions of dollars will have gone down the drain and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, as well as thousands of Americans, will have died.  This country has also led the way in creating the rules of the road for global drone assassination campaigns (no small thing now that up to 87 countries are into drone technology); it has turned significant parts of the planet into free-fire zones and, whenever it seemed convenient, obliterated the idea that other countries have something called “national sovereignty”; it has built up its Special Operations forces, tens of thousands of highly trained troops that constitute a secret military within the U.S. military, which are now operational in more than 100 countries and sent into action whenever the White House desires, again with little regard for the sovereignty of other states; it has launched the first set of cyber wars in history (against Iran and its nuclear program), has specialized in kidnapping terror suspects off city streets and in rural backlands globally, and has a near-monopolistic grip on the world arms trade (a 78% market share according to the latest figures available); its military expenditures are greater than the next 13 nations combined; and it continues to build military bases across the planet in a historically unprecedented way.

In the twenty-first century, the power to make war has gravitated ever more decisively into the White House, where the president has a private air force of drones, and two private armies of his own — those special operations types and CIA paramilitaries — to order into battle just about anywhere on the planet.  Meanwhile, the real power center in Washington has increasingly come to be located in the national security state (and the allied corporate “complexes” linked to it by that famed “revolving door” somewhere in the nation’s capital).  That state within a state has gone through boom times even as many Americans busted.  It has experienced a multi-billion-dollar construction bonanza, including the raising of elaborate new headquarters, scores of building complexes, massive storage facilities, and the like, while the private housing market went to hell.  With its share of that trillion-dollar national security budget, its many agencies and outfits have been bolstered even as the general economy descended into a seemingly permanent slump.

As everyone is now aware, the security state’s intelligence wing has embedded eyes and ears almost everywhere, online and off, here and around the world.  The NSA, the CIA, and other agencies are scooping up just about every imaginable form of human communication, no matter where or in what form it takes place.  In the process, American intelligence has “weaponized” the Internet and functionally banished the idea of privacy to some other planet.

Meanwhile, the “Defense” Department has grown ever larger as Washington morphed into a war capital for an unending planetary conflict originally labeled the Global War on Terror.  In these years, the “all-volunteer” military has been transformed into something like a foreign legion, another 1% separated from the rest of society. At the same time, the American way of war has been turned into a profit center for a range of warrior corporations and rent-a-gun outfits that enter combat zones with the military, building bases, delivering the mail, and providing food and guard services, among other things.

Domestically, the U.S. has grown more militarized as “security” concerns have been woven into every form of travel, terror fears and alerts have become part and parcel of daily life, and everything around us has up-armored.  Police forces across the land, heavily invested in highly militarized SWAT teams, have donned more military-style uniforms, and acquired armored cars, tanks, MRAPS, drones, helicopters, drone submarines, and other military-style weaponry (often surplus equipment donated by the Pentagon).  Even campus cops have up-armored.

In a parallel development, Americans have themselves become more heavily armed and in a more military style.  Among the 300,000,000 firearms of all sorts estimated to be floating around the U.S., there are now reportedly three to four million AR-15 military-style assault rifles.  And with all of this has gone a certain unhinged quality, both for those SWAT teams that seem to have a nasty habit of breaking into homes armed to the teeth and wounding or killing people accused of nonviolent crimes, and for ordinary citizens who have made random or mass killings regular news events.

On August 1, 1966, a former Marine sniper took to the 28th floor of a tower on the campus of the University of Texas with an M-1 carbine and an automatic shotgun, killing 17, while wounding 32.  It was an act that staggered the American imagination, shook the media, led to a commission being formed, and put those SWAT teams in our future.  But no one then could have guessed how, from Columbine high school (13 dead, 24 wounded) and Virginia Tech university (32 dead, 17 wounded) to Sandy Hook Elementary School (26 dead, 20 of them children), the unhinged of our heavily armed nation would make slaughters, as well as random killings even by children, all-too-common in schools, workplaces, movie theaters, supermarket parking lots, airports, houses of worship, navy yards, and so on.

And don’t even get me started on imprisonment, a category in which we qualify as the world’s leader with 2.2 million people behind bars, a 500% increase over the last three decades, or the rise of the punitive spirit in this country.  That would include the handcuffing of remarkably young children at their schools for minor infractions and a fierce government war on whistleblowers — those, that is, who want to tell us something about what’s going on inside the increasingly secret state that runs our American world and that, in 2011, considered 92 million of the documents it generated so potentially dangerous to outside eyes that it classified them.

A Nameless State (of Mind)

Still, don’t call this America a “police state,” not given what that came to mean in the previous century, nor a “totalitarian” state, given what that meant back then.  The truth is that we have no appropriate name, label, or descriptive term for ourselves.  Consider that a small sign of just how little we’ve come to grips with what we’re becoming.  But you don’t really need a name, do you, not if you’re living it?  However nameless it may be, tell me the truth: Doesn’t the direction we’re heading in leave you with the urge to jump out of your skin?

And by the way, what I’ve been describing so far isn’t the apocalyptic part of the story, just the everyday framework for American life in 2013.  For your basic apocalypse, you need to turn to a subject that, on the whole, doesn’t much interest Washington or the mainstream media.  I’m talking, of course, about climate change or what the nightly news loves to call “extreme weather,” a subject we generally prefer to put on the back burner while we’re hailing the “good news” that the U.S. may prove to be the Saudi Arabia of the twenty-first century — that is, hopped up on fossil fuels for the next 50 years; or that green energy really isn’t worth an Apollo-style program of investment and R&D; or that Arctic waters should be opened to drilling; or that it’s reasonable to bury on the inside pages of the paper with confusing headlines the latest figures on the record levels of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere and the way the use of coal, the dirtiest of the major fossil fuels, is actually expanding globally; or…  but you get the idea.  Rising sea levels (see ya, Florida; so long, Boston), spreading disease, intense droughts, wild floods, extreme storms, record fire seasons — I mean, you already know the tune.

You still wanna be scared?  Imagine that someone offered you a wager, and let’s be conservative here: continue on your present path and there will be a 10%-20% chance that this planet becomes virtually uninhabitable a century or two from now.  Not bad odds, right?  Still, I think just about anyone would admit that only a maniac would take such a bet, no matter the odds.  Actually, let me amend that: only a maniac or the people who run the planet’s major energy companies, and the governments (our own included) that help fund and advance their activities, and those governments like Russia and Saudi Arabia that are essentially giant energy companies.

Because, hey, realistically speaking, that’s the bet that all of us on planet Earth have taken on.

And just in case you were wondering whether you were still at the movies, you’re not, and the lights aren’t coming back on either.

Now, if that isn’t scary, what is?

Boo!

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt: A Surveillance State Scorecard

8:07 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.

NSA Logo

Tom Engelhardt analyzes weeks of NSA revelations.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: As many of you know, I recently went out to Santa Fe for an event organized by the Lannan Foundation.  There, I introduced a talk by, and then had an on-stage conversation with, Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, which we recently featured at this site. I’ve called him our “first blowback reporter.” He’s also that rare creature, a superb extemporaneous speaker. It occurred to me that TD readers might enjoy seeing the evening and getting a little glimpse into Scahill’s world. Click here for my introduction and his talk. Click here for my onstage interview with him in which, among other things, he discusses his new media project with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Tom]

Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence
In a World Without Privacy, There Are No Exemptions for Our Spies
By Tom Engelhardt

Given how similar they sound and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the other, confusing omniscience (having total knowledge) with omnipotence (having total power) is easy enough.  It’s a reasonable supposition that, before the Snowden revelations hit, America’s spymasters had made just that mistake. If the drip-drip-drip of Snowden’s mother of all leaks — which began in May and clearly won’t stop for months to come — has taught us anything, however, it should be this: omniscience is not omnipotence. At least on the global political scene today, they may bear remarkably little relation to each other. In fact, at the moment Washington seems to be operating in a world in which the more you know about the secret lives of others, the less powerful you turn out to be.

Let’s begin by positing this:  There’s never been anything quite like it.  The slow-tease pulling back of the National Security Agency curtain to reveal the skeletal surveillance structure embedded in our planet (what cheekbones!) has been an epochal event.  It’s minimally the political spectacle of 2013, and maybe 2014, too. It’s made a mockery of the 24/7 news cycle and the urge of the media to leave the last big deal for the next big deal as quickly as possible.

It’s visibly changed attitudes around the world toward the U.S. — strikingly for the worse, even if this hasn’t fully sunk in here yet.  Domestically, the inability to put the issue to sleep or tuck it away somewhere or even outlast it has left the Obama administration, Congress, and the intelligence community increasingly at one another’s throats.  And somewhere in a system made for leaks, there are young techies inside a surveillance machine so viscerally appalling, so like the worst sci-fi scenarios they read while growing up, that — no matter the penalties — one of them, two of them, many of them are likely to become the next Edward Snowden(s).

So where to start, almost half a year into an unfolding crisis of surveillance that shows no signs of ending?  If you think of this as a scorecard, then the place to begin is, of course, with the line-up, which means starting with omniscience.  After all, that’s the NSA’s genuine success story — and what kid doesn’t enjoy hearing about the (not so) little engine that could?

Omniscience

Conceptually speaking, we’ve never seen anything like the National Security Agency’s urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet — to keep track of humanity, all of humanity, from its major leaders to obscure figures in the backlands of the planet.  And the fact is that, within the scope of what might be technologically feasible in our era, they seem not to have missed an opportunity.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Advice from the Colonel

6:27 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 Etiquette of War and Surveillance
Letters to Colonel Manners (Ret.)
By Tom Engelhardt

[Editor’s Note: In the sequester and government-shutdown era, the classic military newspaper Stars and Stripes is facing some of the problems of its civilian brethren and so downsizing its print edition. Among the features to go: Dear Abby. As it happens, TomDispatch is ready to step into the breach.  We’ve called on an old and knowledgeable friend, Colonel Manners (ret.), whose experience in military and surveillance matters is evident from his impressive CV (unfortunately, a classified document). His assignment: to answer letters from Americans puzzled by the etiquette, manners, and language of the arcane national security world of Washington. Here is a first sampling from a column that, in syndication, could go global.]

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m an embattled newspaper editor.  Recently, I read a New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta that included this disturbing passage about the New York Times: “In early August, the Times was working on a story about an intercepted terror threat when James R. Clapper, the administration’s director of intelligence, asked the paper’s Washington bureau to withhold certain details. Clapper warned that, if the full version were made public, the Times ‘would have blood on our hands.’” The Times withheld those details.  However, with so many classified documents pouring out of Washington and the possibility that some might come into the possession of my paper, I worry about finding blood on my hands, too.  On a personal note, I’m extremely squeamish.  In college, I had to leave my biology class when the professor showed a film on Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system.  While watching Grey’s Anatomy, I have to close my eyes whenever surgery comes on screen.  I grow faint if I get a paper cut.  Any suggestions?

Stressed and Bloody Anxious in Chicago

Dear Stressed and Bloody Anxious,

I see your problem.  Fortunately, I can assure you that it’s all in your head.  To understand why, you need to grasp a distinction that’s clear in Washington, but might be less so in Chicago.  When a government official suggests that an outsider might have “blood” on his or her hands — as happened repeatedly, for instance, during the Bradley Manning imbroglio – they are talking about prospective blood, future blood.  Negative reactions to blood, according to scientific studies, are due, in part, to its alarming red color.  Future blood, being metaphorical, is not red.  If it gets on your hands, you will not actually “see” it.

In Washington, this is similarly true of past blood.  Take National Intelligence Director Clapper.  From 2001-2006, he was the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence, before being nominated in the Obama years to head the office of national intelligence.  In other words, he has served in Washington throughout the Iraq and Afghan Wars, as well as the Global War on Terror.  Like many Washington officials, military and civilian, who supported the American global mission in those years, he might be said to have some responsibility for any number of deaths and so to have “blood on his hands.”  Think of the almost 4,500 Americans who died in Iraq or the nearly 2,300 who have, thus far, died in Afghanistan, or the tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who died in those years.

Now, here’s the point: Washington is not disturbed by such blood.  The reason is simple.  It, too, can’t be seen.  I’ve met Clapper and I can assure you that, when he shakes your hand, there is not the slightest trace of a reddish tint anywhere on it.  (He’s got an impressively firm grip, by the way!)  This, I hope, will lighten your unnecessarily grim mood.  Like so many other stalwarts in our national security universe, Clapper is a model.  He is unfazed, and his “blood” is far more real than the highly speculative and metaphorical blood that might someday be on your hands for a killing related to the release of a classified document.  Note that, despite the appearance of startling numbers of such documents in recent years, there is no record of prospective blood actually being spilled.

Yours truly,
Col. Manners (ret.)  

***

Dear Col. Manners,

As the owner of a furniture store in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’ve been worried about our competitors, especially IKEA, getting a step on us.  So here’s what I want to know: recently, speaking of Iran, President Obama said that he was keeping “all options on the table,” adding that “we will do anything to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”  I’ve noticed that this phrase has, since 9/11, grown ever more popular in Washington.  I was wondering about that table everyone is talking about.  Given that it seems to be reserved for major weapons systems of various sorts and nothing else (at least nothing else is ever mentioned), who manufactures such a table?  Can I order it somewhere?  Does it really exist or is it just an image meant to stand in for a future military assault on Iran (or wherever)?  Would it be too big to fit in my store?  I’m most appreciative for any information you could give me on the subject. 

Tabled in Kalamazoo

Dear Tabled in Kalamazoo,

That table is quite real.  I saw one once.  I obviously can’t say where, though it held a set of bunker-busting missiles.  I should add that it is not a table in the normal sense — i.e., one of those four-legged, flat-topped structures we tend to place in our dining rooms or kitchens.  Again, I can say no more.  Rest assured, however, that when the president says “all options are on the table,” he means it.  And you are quite accurate in pointing out that on such tables “all” the options are indeed military.  Though always referred to in the singular, in reality, there are a number of such tables for each country mentioned; the Syrian ones, for example, hold Tomahawk missiles and B-2 bombers; the Iranian ones, those bunker-busters, among other major weapons systems.

I don’t know if you noticed, but on the night before the recent government shutdown, the Pentagon went on a buying spree, dumping $5 billion into the accounts of major weapons makers (and others).  According to someone I trust in Washington, the intelligence community similarly dipped into its black budget accounts and bought a number of things, including at least three back-up “option tables” at a cost of millions of dollars.  (Again, I can’t tell you exactly how much.)  Unfortunately, you cannot purchase such products for your store.  The good news is that neither can IKEA.

Sincerely,
Col. Manners (ret.)

***

Dear Col. Manners,

I have to ask for your discretion, for reasons that will quickly become apparent.  There are 12 documented cases in which a National Security Agency employee used NSA surveillance programs to hack into a partner’s, lover’s, or romantic interest’s email or listen in on his or her phone calls.  And this is generally considered just “the tip of the iceberg.”  I am a civilian employee of the NSA.  Consider me the unlucky thirteenth case.  I know that such acts are sardonically known as LoveINT, but in my case that wasn’t it.  As I’ve told my former partner, I just wanted to know if she and a friend of ours were planning a surprise birthday party for me.  (I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to be caught off-guard.)

The Agency took no action against me, but my partner has never forgiven me.  (She’s now living with our former mutual friend.)  She still insists that I should apologize. I consider this irrational.  I say that no harm was done.  I’ve pointed out to her that the NSA hacked into the emails and phone calls of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, and the president of the United States has refused to apologize.  His only response was to launch a many months-long “broad review” of NSA practices.  (Believe me, there’s nothing to investigate.  We did it.)  As far as I can see, there’s an equivalency in the two cases: like my partner, Rousseff responded in an overly emotional way, calling off a long planned trip to Washington and later denouncing the U.S. at the United Nations.  Here’s my question: if the president doesn’t have to apologize, why should I?  Who’s in the right here?  Please settle this dispute for me.

Unlucky 13

Dear Unlucky 13,

I’m afraid that the rules of etiquette are different in the two cases you cite.  While I regret to tell you this, you are in the wrong and should apologize.  In our personal lives, it is important to say we’re sorry to those we treat badly, and hacking into your partner’s email is, by definition, bad manners. 

Similarly, on a global scale, if, say, the Argentinean government had hacked into President Rousseff’s email, an apology would indeed be in order.  It’s clearly not a good neighborly thing to do.  But I hardly need to add the obvious: the United States is not a normal nation.  It’s the planet’s sole superpower.  It goes by a different rulebook, which it writes itself, and that is as it should be.  So if we Americans have been playing by house rules in the case of the NSA and Rousseff, then what is there to apologize for?

It’s common knowledge that an American president does not apologize for the acts of his hackers or his soldiers or his spies or his officials or his drones.  In addition, it’s obvious that such an apology would be impractical and set this country on the road to hell.  After all, once a president stopped playing by the superpower rulebook and started apologizing, just consider the Pandora’s box he would open (without a hint of hope at the bottom).  If we were a normal nation, there would be a vast list of things he would have to apologize for, including, just in the last decade, kidnappings, torture, abuse, murder, imprisonment in black sites, assassination, and so on and so forth.

So, Unlucky 13, swallow your bad luck and say you’re sorry, but don’t ask the president to do the same.

Confidentially yours,
Col. Manners (ret.)

***

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m a housewife in Tulsa and I had a question for you about the president’s plan for a Syrian intervention.  I know that, in the end, it didn’t happen, and I hope you won’t think it’s frivolous of me to bring it up a month later, but I simply couldn’t get it out of my mind.  Here’s what I’ve been wondering about: Why is it called “humanitarian intervention” when the president’s (and Pentagon’s) plan, as best I understood it, was to loose Tomahawk missiles and bombers on Damascus?  I don’t see anything “human” or “humanitarian” in that.  And here’s another related question: why are such strikes always referred to as “surgical” and “precise” when, as far as I can tell, they invariably kill civilians?

Oklahoma Gal

Dear Oklahoma Gal,

Nothing frivolous about your thinking!  Let me start with that “surgically precise.”  The answer is: American weapons makers are the best in the world and so all of our latest weapons are indeed surgical and precise in their impact.  Keep in mind, however, that, as studies have shown, “surgically precise” is a term with significant latitude.  Consider, for instance, that, according to a report published in the Archives of Surgery, in a six-and-a-half-year period, Colorado doctors operated on the wrong patient at least 25 times, and another 107 times on the wrong body part.  So, surgically precise — yes, indeed!

As for that term “humanitarian intervention,” as you probably know, the Supreme Court long ago turned the corporation into a “person” for matters of law.  The Pentagon has functionally done the same thing for weapons like the Tomahawk missile for matters of war.  That transformation may not have the force of law, but it does have force, so to speak.  Because the Tomahawk is an American missile (produced by the Raytheon corporation, a genuine American outfit), and because, by definition, what we Americans do always comes from the best of intentions and an essential goodness of heart, because, that is, we are as exceptional, as one of a kind, in war as in peace, a missile attack on Syria (or elsewhere) would, by definition, be both “human” and “humanitarian” — and to complete the phrase in question, no one could deny that, had it happened, it would also have been an “intervention.”  After all, Washington’s record on interventions speaks for itself.  No country in memory has been as prolific an interventionist as the U.S.A. — and it’s a record, like all records, worth taking some pride in.

Yours definitionally,
Col. Manners (ret.)

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Pratap Chatterjee: Big Bro Wants You

6:36 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.

Smartphone

NSA: Thanks for building our database.

Sometimes, the world sends you back to school. These last months have offered us a crash course — call it Surveillance 101 — in how Washington, enveloped in a penumbra of extreme secrecy, went to work creating a global surveillance state on a scale almost beyond the imagination. It was certainly beyond the imaginations, not to say the technological capabilities, of the grim totalitarian states of the previous century, whose efforts were overwhelmingly focused on surveiling and locking down their own citizens, not those outside their borders.

In this schooling process, an unknown 29-year-old, hired by a private contractor to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a global figure and most recently a nominee for the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov prize, that continent’s leading human rights award — and a rare European slap in the face to Washington. In the process, a journalist (Glenn Greenwald), a filmmaker (Laura Poitras), and the British Guardian, along with a host of bit players, created a global drama out of the documents Edward Snowden had liberated from the NSA’s secret universe. From Brazil to India, Belgium to China, the man chased implacably across the globe by the Obama administration has opened a genuine debate on the far-reaching nature of surveillance in our world and seems to be changing the mood of the planet.

Every few days now, yet more stories wash out of the crevasses of that secret world. Last week, there was the dramatic tale of Lavabit, a small email encryption site; a court made documents on the case public and so ungagged the owner, who had closed his own business rather than turn over the encryption keys to the kingdom to the government. Then there was Tor, a “tool designed to protect online anonymity” that most people (myself included) will never have heard of, but that the NSA targeted and attacked. And don’t forget that critique by the New York Times public editor: she took out after a front-page story in her own paper that accepted the unverified word of anonymous U.S. government sources on the significance of a piece the McClatchy news service had written about American “communications intercepts” of the online messages of al-Qaeda honchos.

And yet for all that we now know, and all that has been released but we have yet to absorb, it’s clear that we’re nowhere near fathoming the depths of the U.S. surveillance phenomenon. As Corpwatch’s Pratap Chatterjee shows today, for example, we still know remarkably little about the private surveillance outfits that are providing the NSA and other government agencies with the ability to know us far too well. Tom

The Data Hackers
Mining Your Information for Big Brother
By Pratap Chatterjee

Big Bro is watching you. Inside your mobile phone and hidden behind your web browser are little known software products marketed by contractors to the government that can follow you around anywhere. No longer the wide-eyed fantasies of conspiracy theorists, these technologies are routinely installed in all of our data devices by companies that sell them to Washington for a profit.

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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, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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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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