By Frank Gormlie
What a dastardly crazy last week and a half it’s been.
Beginning Thursday, June 6th, with the Washington Post and the Guardian in London both running with the explosive news about the National Security Agency surveillance programs, we’ve been hit with daily revelations – that are still continuing every news cycle – that have created quiet a long list of whistle blower-delivered disclosures about what the government and the NSA are and have been doing to us – the American people.
Also on June 6th, the director of national intelligence confirmed the existence of a secret program in which the government has tapped into the central servers of 9 leading internet companies to search for data linked to terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation. During this six year old program – called PRISM – the FBI and NSA searched emails, videos, photographs and other documents involving Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple – but not Twitter – yet.
Over last weekend, we found out that the federal government has amassed a database at least for these last 7 years – since 2006 during the Bush administration – with details on every telephone call made within the U.S. and between this country and phones overseas. The data collected includes the phone numbers, the time, date, duration of the calls and the route the calls take through the vast phone networks.
These revelations follow on the heels of disclosures that the Obama administration had secretly obtained telephone records and emails of reporters.
And everyday it seems, there’s another administration official defending the programs. High level members of Congress – of both houses and of both parties – have come forward to defend the surveillance and spying.
“It’s called protecting America,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California declared. The surveillance is designed she said to ferret out terrorist threats before they happen.
General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, said:
“I believe what we’re doing to protect American citizens is the right thing. We aren’t trying to hide it. We’re trying to protect America.”
On Friday, June 7th, the LA Times came out in an editorial entitled, “Brave new world of snooping”. Current law gives too much leeway to monitor the communications of its citizens it said; this new ‘brave new world’ is something that Americans should find alarming. Americans will be uneasy that info that could shed light on their habits, travels and associations is being warehoused in government computers and mined without their knowledge, the editorial concluded.
At the same time, we are given assurances by our government. “Nobody is listening” Obama said about the millions of calls tracked and stored. He touted the role of Congress and the courts in supervising the programs.
All this metadata is stored by the NSA, and it uses them to detect patterns of calls that are ostensibly used only to track terrorists and their supporters. We are also assured that none of these calls will be used for ordinary criminal cases, just only for counter-terrorism investigations.
Just before he was to come down on the Chinese for hacking and other cyber issues during this summit last weekend with President Xi, President Obama sought to assure Americans that these programs were legally defensible.
He called it a modest encroachment on privacy – that is both lawful and justified. Obama emphasized that no one in government has collected info on individual callers or eavesdropped on conversations without a warrant. He said he welcomed the debate on classified surveillance on this program as well as PRISM – that second program that gathers emails and other digital content. These programs “make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.”
The director of National Intelligence, James R Clapper, called the disclosures “reprehensible”.
The Revelations Continue
Last weekend, we find out that former CIA analyst Edward Snowden had released all the revelations to the Guardian and Washington Post.
On Sunday June 9, Snowden revealed himself by design. He called America’s spying capabilities “horrifying” . The 29-year old former CIA employee revealed himself as the source. Snowden said:
“I do not want to live in a society that does these sort of things.”
By Monday, the 10th, members of Congress said they would take a new look at potential ways to keep the us safe from terror attacks without giving up privacy protections.
“There’s very little trust in the government, and that’s for good reason,” said Rep Adam Schieff (D-Burbank); “We’re our own worst enemy.”
By Tuesday June 11, over 15,000 people had already signed petition demanding Snowden be given “a full, free and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs.” By today, the 15th, nearly 59,000 people had signed it. Snowden said the programs were the “architect of oppression”.
[Sign the Petition in support of Edward Snowden ]
As the cascade of revelations washed over the administration, officials scrambled to head off a nation disgusted with the reports. The president came out and made public assurances. The White House said the program of phone mining had been approved by the special court, the FISA court and had “regular oversight by Congress.”
On Saturday, June 8th Clapper sought to quell the rising crisis and furor over domestic spying: “It continues to be one of our most important tools for the protection of the nation’s security,” he said about the program. Clapper said the program “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other US person or anyone located within the United States.'”
Feinstein and other key lawmakers of Congress joined Obama in defending the secret program, saying it helped avert terrorist attacks. Coming to the program’s defense, Republican representative Mike Rogers of Michigan said: “Within the last few years this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that. It’s important.”
Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) assured us that “It’s since Bush we’ve been doing this. We’re getting better at it.” Both Graham and Feinstein – two Senators who can’t agree on much – came out and publicly called for the prosecution of the leaker – Edward Snowden, calling him “a traitor”.
By Wednesday, June 12, the administration was pushing back even more. The Director of NSA portrayed collection of millions of telephone records each day as a limited program, but NSA only needed a “reasonable suspicion” of a terrorist link to search the vast databank, and not a separate court order.
Gen. Keith Alexander said that the Patriot Act authorizes collection of so-called business records, including calling records, and has helped prevent or disrupt “dozens of terrorist plots”. But he also told the Senate appropriations committee that only “a few” intelligence reports were based on the phone records. “What we’re doing to protect American citizens is the right thing. We aren’t trying to hide it. We’re trying to protect Americans.”
On Thursday June 13, FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared before the House Judiciary Committee and defended the programs by saying that if they had existed before the 9-11 attacks, they might have aided law enforcement officials in the months before the attacks. The US might have been able to track a call made by one of the eventual hijackers in San Diego, Khalid al-Midhar, to an identified safe house in Yemen “if we had the telephone number in Yemen, we would have matched it up to that telephone number in San Diego.”
But John Conyers (D-Mich) – a longtime civil rights activist – questioned whether the the FBI was violating the intent of the federal statutes that allowed the programs to exist. “It seems clear the government activity exceeds the authority this Congress has provided, both in letter and in spirit.” Conyers planned to introduce legislation to impose restrictions and new oversight for the program.
On June 14th, we find more details about how the US government was launching cyber attacks against Chinese computers – the very assault the Obama administration has been accusing the Chinese of doing.
On Friday, the 15th of June, we find out that both Google and Facebook deny that they gave such huge access of their servers to the government; both internet giants are fighting the perception around the world that they will not protect people’s private internet activities. The risks and costs for these Silicon Valley enterprises are staggering: by the end of 2012 Facebook had 12 million users, now it has more than a billion; Google had 91 million searches a day in 2006; in 2012 it was 1.2 trillion. Their reputations are on the line.
Of course, so is America’s, and the government’s.
All these disclosures, revelations and exposures have created a new crisis for President Obama – and a new crisis for the American people as well. Due to the disclosures, the government has confirmed that the operation has been going nonstop since 2006.
Deepening Rife Between the Establishment and the Public
The exposures and the official responses by officialdom now make it clear that the U.S. Establishment wants the American people under surveillance. Yes, indeed, the Establishment supports the surveillance and spying programs that have been uncovered and to a large extent confirmed by the government, programs begun during President Bush’s years and continued under President Obama.
Why and how can we say this?
We can make this statement because the public faces of the Establishment have said so. Those who represent the Establishment, those who are the face of the status quo, are all for the programs, whether they are a Republican or Democrat. And it’s all in the name of national security, of fighting terrorism, of thwarting terrorist attacks.
There is definitely a split among Republicans. Senator Ron Paul – a libertarian – called the program “an astounding assault on the Constitution.”
Lindsay Graham – a GOP Senate leader – responded by dismissing Paul and saying, “I am more threatened by the radical Islamists than I am by the government agencies that are trying to protect us.”
And there’s an even greater split among Democratic Party leaders and progressives, something the national media ignores. Much of Obama’s base is in an uproar; there’s been daily harsh commentary on and from progressive blogs, TV news shows and among many liberal journalists, commentators and pundits.
Within Congress, liberal members have spoken out. “I am barred by Senate rules from commenting on some of the details at this time.” said Sen Ron Wyden D-Ore; “I believe that when law abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call is private information.”
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo) called on lawmakers to reconsider the Patriot Act, and for public hearings on whether the government should be allowed to collect so much data on Americans. “It’s the scale of this [that] really concerns m and that fact that the American public don’t know about it.”
“The Fact that every call I make to may friends, to my family, is noted, where I am, the length of it, the date, that concerns me.” Udall also said he was not convinced that the operation had led to the detection or disruption of any terrorism plots. “It hasn’t been proven that it works.”
“The program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under constant surveillance of government agents,” the ACLU stated.
Rare Bi-Partisanship Support for Surveillance Programs
The rare display of bipartisanship in defense of the surveillance programs and the reaction from the grassroots also puts on display a huge, deep – and deepening rife – between the Establishment and the American citizenry. And in some ironic moment, this rarity can give us a learning moment, a teachable moment, a moment that reveals a gulf of differences between the Establishment and the rest of us, a chasm that is usually hidden.
Whether the revelations are about the “telephony metadata” of all the phone calls by Americans and the filtering of all our internet behavior, the program PRISM, the American establishment wants it, wants to continue it, and will utilize all the means at their disposal to resist any of us trying to get them to stop it all.
And it’s not coincidental that both the grassroots bases of the right and left are outraged by these revelations. People at the bottom of the political – and socio-economic – totem poles understand what’s in their interests. And all this spying, prying, and trashing of the Fourth Amendment is not.
Perhaps this moment is a good example of just how the Establishment works, how it coalesces around issues that support its interests. It’s a good example of how spokespeople for the Establishment – in either major party – come out and defend the status quo. Both Boehner and Feinstein called Snowden a “traitor”, yet they can’t agree on anything else it seems.
Why does the Establishment want these programs? Is it simply an issue of combating terrorism or are there other issues of control in play here. Information, crime, trends and society itself are easier to deal with, control and mitigate when you have all these phone and internet tracking.
By now, we must define “Establishment” – if we are to pin the bogeyman label on it.
The Establishment can be considered the intense and gigantic complex of large corporations, major industries, rich families, government, military, university, media, and all their spokespeople who control and run this society. It’s the “military-industrial-complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about upon his departure from the White House. It includes the “university” , the “multi-national corporations”, Monsanto, Apple Computer, Walmart, the banks, and the extremely wealthy 1% who own most of everything. And it includes all the structures that exist to serve this status quo, from politicians, to pundits to priests ….
This huge, pervasive network of interconnections between the power sources that run this country is labeled “the Establishment”. Call it the Ruling Elite, the Governing Class, the Ruling Class, the Bourgeoisie, … whatever you call it – it’s still the same.
The number one definition at the Urban Dictionary:
A generic word referring to the men upstairs, the ones in smart suits who wear ties. They run corporations and burn down rainforests.
The Establishment is a term used to refer to a visible dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation or organization. The term suggests a closed social group which selects its own members (as opposed to selection by inheritance, merit or election). The term can be used to describe specific entrenched elite structures in specific institutions, but is usually informal in application and is more likely used by the media than by scholars.
And the establishment has now coalesced around this issue; the wagons have been circled, Edward Snowden is a “traitor” and the programs must continue.
Conservative LA Times columnist, Max Boot urged all of us to remain calm. Our leaders are on top of the issue, he said and working on our behalf. “That’s why the leaders of both the House and Senate intelligence committees, Republicans and Democrats alike, have come to the defense of these activities, ” says Boot. Calling the crisis nothing more than a “kerfuffle” he sought to reassure us, that:
“because Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Citibank and other companies know at least as much about us, because they use very similar date-mining programs to track our online movements. They gather that information in order to sell us products, and one one seems to be overlay alarmed. The NSA is gathering that information to keep us safe from terrorist attacksrs. Yet somehow its actions have become a scandal, to use a term now loosely tossed around.”
The real scandal here is that the Guardian and Washington Post are compromising our national security by telling our enemies about our intelligence-gathering capabilities. “
So, there you have it.
The Assurances Fall Flat
Several days into this crisis, President Obama made public assurances – comforting us by describing the phone call thing as legal, that the callers were not identified nor were they listened to.
Obama also sought to assure us by reminding the public that there is “Congressional oversight” and involvement by the courts on all these warrantless searches, all this data mining and collection and storing; all these videos, recordings.
This is the same Congress that couldn’t agree to pass gun restrictions, who ushered in the Sequestration, who disagree over budgets, judge and commissioner appointments, and just about everything else down party lines.
Many members of Congress have actually objected to the insinuations that they have any oversight. Many members don’t know about the programs, those that do have complained that they are kept in the dark. Some in fact have just initated a bill that would force the FISA courts to publish most of their opinions.
Lawmakers who do not serve on intelligence committees said they had no knowledge of the programs.
“Did I know about it? No, I didn’t.” Rep Gerald Connally (D-VA) He is unconvinced by the president’s assurances that surveillance efforts are constrained by congressional oversight and federal courts.
In 2012 Senator Udall wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder about “the dangers of relying on secret interpretations” of the Patriot Act. “We can state with confidence that most of our colleagues in the House and Senate are unfamiliar with these documents, and that many of them would be surprised and angry to learn how the Patriot Act has been interpreted in secret.”
To claim that the courts also oversee these programs is to sell these surveillance projects short. First, the courts – specifically the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) courts were authorized by the Patriot Act – passed again with a bi-partisan majority, are secret; they meet in secret, no one counters the government arguments and their opinions are secret and not generally subject to review. And they are overseeing these spying programs? This secret court operates nothing like the judicial branch that the Constitution says is a check and balance.
The Push Back
Senator Jeff Merkley – a Democrat from Oregon – and 6 other senators introduced a bill in the Senate on June 11th to make the “secret law” of the FISA courts public, and the FISA Court to declassify most of its opinions.
Last December, Merkley had introduced a similar measure requiring the FISA Court to make public the summaries of its opinions on domestic spying activities. The measure did not pass, but afterwards, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Intelligence Committee chairwoman, wrote a letter to the court with Mr. Merkley, Mr. Udall and Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, asking it to provide such summaries.
Also an ACLU suit was begun also on June 11th to open up the surveillance programs.
The President Calls for a Debate
President Obama has called for a debate – this debate – a debate over these surveillance programs.
Yet, we wouldn’t be having this debate if it wasn’t for Edward Snowden and reporters who covered his explosive exposes. We’re having this debate because of the whistleblower. And the government is about to prosecute Snowden.
Obama said it was “healthy for our democracy” to have this debate and open discussion about t he balance between privacy and security. Let’s have it.
How Can Progressives Respond?
It goes without saying that the left and progressives in general need to respond to this crisis pushed on us by the Establishment and the Surveillance Society. Here is a minimum list of how we can respond:
- We need to stay vigilant against threats to our freedoms, liberties and privacy.
- Let’s educate ourselves and others on exactly how the Establishment runs this country.
- We need to maintain an independent political base, that is not directly tied to the president and his mobilizing organizations.
- We need to increase the pressure on the Obama administration and Congress, our local governments about these surveillance issues, the over-reach by government; we need laws to restrict government surveillance and spying;
- Let’s dismantle the Patriot Act;
- Support past, current, and future whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, like Edward Snowden.
- We need a federal shield law for journalists and whistleblowers.
This is not an argument for joining retrograde movements; the Republicans are not better – and there are a lot of good-hearted Democrats and genuine democracy advocates throughout the political parties and government itself. Just look at Bradley Manning and Snowden.
Our analysis that both major political parties have members who represent the Establishment is not an argument for a third party or for the Greens, or an attempt to burn bridges with all Democrats. There are plenty of good Democrats – look at San Diego’s mayor Bob Filner. The Establishment works through both parties.
With these spying programs joined with the development of drones as surveillance tools, we are in a society that is marching – rushing really – toward the “Surveillance Society”; we’re not quite there yet, but unless we as a nation have this discussion and open debate, we are doomed. But we can’t have that debate in the midst of secrecy, for secrecy rigs the debate unfairly.
This teachable moment is also a moment that will decide just who Barack Obama is.
Is this the type of society we want to live in? I think not. We must block or halt this march into Orwell’s future.
Despite what the Establishment wants or thinks. In the end there’s more of us – many more – than there are of them.