Monday, July 19, 2010

America's Secret Government and the Surveillance State

Part 1 of Dana Priest and William Arkin's "Secret America" series in the Washington Post is now up on their site, and let's just say its the kind of way that keeps one up at night.

But even more enlightening than the piece itself is Constitutional Scholar Glenn Greenwald's analysis of it. The general thesis of the article shouldn't necessarily be a surprise to anyone that's been reading this blog, nonetheless it documents in the most detail yet, just how expansive, secret, and all encompassing our secret government has become since 9/11.

I once referred to this expanding surveillance state as something akin to a Fear-Industrial-Complex (i.e. Department of Defense, corporate media, talk radio, security technologies industry, Congress, the White House, “the intelligence community”, weapons/defense contractors, etc.), and I think the description fits. Of course, what the Priest and Arkin article exposes in particularly is the growing size and scope of a secret government that lurks in the shadows, answers to no one, and has a nearly endless supply of funding.

"Terrorist hysteria" has been the rage in this country for 9 solid years now, and we're starting to reap what we've sowed. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of our government wiretapping American citizens without warrants for purposes other than national security would have been revolting. Now its official Government policy – and the telecom companies that participated in these crimes have been given retroactive immunity while continuing to make billions off overcharging the same customers they betrayed.

Nor was it long ago that we would have been rightly outraged by Patriot Act provisions – recently renewed – that allow for broad warrants to be issued by a secretive court for any type of record, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism investigation; or that allow a secret court to issue warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist; and of course, that allow the government to search your home as long as it doesn't tell you it did.

And of course, with advancements in security technologies that may serve certain important purposes in specific situations, more often than not, represent the continuing expansion of Big Brother's ability to monitor and record nearly everything we do - usually under the guise of "keeping us safe".

And before I get to some of Greenwald's brilliant musings on all of this, I just want to make a point I've been making over and over here that bares repeating. We must, as a society, redefine what it means to be "safe" and "secure", and why privacy matters.

For every "liberty" we give up, we should first ask whether in fact we are safer by giving it up at all. But I think it goes deeper than that. I would argue that we need to expand the definition of the word "safe" to include the concept of being "safe" from government surveillance and corporate profiteering.

Are we really made "safer" by being eavesdropped on or digitally strip searched at airports? In fact, there is a substantial amount of evidence – including the case of the “underwear bomber” itself - that suggests our government is gathering TOO MUCH information, and our expanding surveillance state is making us LESS safe, not more.

As Glenn Greenwald noted last year, The problem is never that the U.S. Government lacks sufficient power to engage in surveillance, interceptions, intelligence-gathering and the like. Long before 9/11 -- from the Cold War -- we have vested extraordinarily broad surveillance powers in the U.S. Government to the point that we have turned ourselves into a National Security and Surveillance State. Terrorist attacks do not happen because there are too many restrictions on the government's ability to eavesdrop and intercept communications, or because there are too many safeguards and checks. If anything, the opposite is true: the excesses of the Surveillance State -- and the steady abolition of oversights and limits -- have made detection of plots far less likely. Despite that, we have an insatiable appetite -- especially when we're frightened anew -- to vest more and more unrestricted spying and other powers in our Government, which -- like all governments -- is more than happy to accept it.”

Now to today's article by Greenwald:

Consider this: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." To call that an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State is to understate the case. Equally understated is the observation that we have become a militarized nation living under an omnipotent, self-perpetuating, bankrupting National Security State. Here's but one flavoring anecdote:

Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.

"You can't find a four-star general without a security detail," said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. "Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, 'If he has one, then I have to have one.' It's become a status symbol."

What's most noteworthy about all of this is that the objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this -- National Security -- is not only unfulfilled by "Top Secret America," but actively subverted by it. During the FISA debate of 2008 -- when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA's authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight -- it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe. Thus,
anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most: Staying Safe.

But as I wrote many times back then -- often by interviewing and otherwise citing House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, who has been making this point repeatedly -- the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, the more unsafe we become. That's because the public-private axis that is the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications -- so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale -- that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats. NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as "the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack."


That's really the only relevant question: how much longer will Americans sit by passively and watch as a tiny elite become more bloated, more powerful, greedier, more corrupt and more unaccountable -- as the little economic security, privacy and freedom most citizens possess vanish further still? How long can this be sustained, where more and more money is poured into Endless War, a military that almost spends more than the rest of the world combined, where close to 50% of all U.S. tax revenue goes to military and intelligence spending, where the rich-poor gap grows seemingly without end, and the very people who virtually destroyed the world economy wallow in greater rewards than ever, all while the public infrastructure (both figuratively and literally) crumbles and the ruling class is openly collaborating on a bipartisan, public-private basis even to cut Social Security benefits?

The answer, unfortunately, is probably this: a lot longer. And one primary reason is that our media-shaped political discourse is so alternatively distracted and distorted that even shining light on all of this matters little.


Meanwhile, the Real U.S. Government -- the network of secret public and private organizations which comprise the National Security and Surveillance State -- expands and surveills and pilfers and destroys without much attention and with virtually no real oversight or accountability. It sucks up the vast bulk of national resources and re-directs the rest to those who own and control it. To their immense credit, Dana Priest and William Arkin will spend the week disclosing the details of what they learned over the past two years investigating all of this, but the core concepts have long been glaringly evident. But Sarah Palin's Twitter malapropism from yesterday will almost certainly receive far more attention than anything exposed by the Priest/Arkin investigation. So we'll continue to fixate on the trappings and theater of government while The Real Government churns blissfully in the dark -- bombing and detaining and abducting and spying and even assassinating -- without much bother from anyone.

Read more here.

Here's a few of the findings from the Washington Post piece:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.


Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

This is not exactly President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex," which emerged with the Cold War and centered on building nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union. This is a national security enterprise with a more amorphous mission: defeating transnational violent extremists.

Much of the information about this mission is classified. That is the reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is being spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.

Click here to read the article in its entirety. I'll cover some of the rest of the series too.

So when"redefining what it means to be safe" I would also add this: Are we really safe if we continue to bankrupt our country in the name of war and "national security"? Are we safe in a country that allows 45,000 Americans to die every year because they can't afford health insurance? Are we "safe" when millions of unemployed Americans are having their unemployment checks denied even as we spend more on the military than all other countries in the world combined? Are children "safe" when 1 in 5 go to bed hungry...yet trillions are spent on the military, "intelligence", and wars?

As I have written many times before, if we're truly trying to reduce the threat of terrorism there are DEMONSTRABLY more effective ways than those currently being pursued. A few alternative tactics to consider: stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, torturing and indefinitely jailing their people, and supporting ruthless dictators in their countries and around the world.

While we're at it we should reinstate every gay Arabic translator (which we have a critical shortage of today) expelled from the military due to their sexual preference (in fact all gays that were expelled), and focus our attention on intelligence gathering rather than war making to catch the real extremists that want to do our country harm.

No one is denying that terrorism is a threat, but how does creating more of them make us safer?

An analysis of official data for the government-supported RAND corporation found that the invasion of Iraq caused a "seven-fold increase in jihadism." If you really hate jihadism, perhaps we should figure out what reduces it, rather than engaging in things that increase it.

As Noam Chomsky recently wrote in describing the growing rebellions in Afghanistan:

"People have the odd characteristic of objecting to the slaughter of family members and friends."

He also said

"Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it."

Which leads me to the rights we are giving up here at home. Why should we fall prey to exactly what actual terrorists supposedly want: to cause us fear and terror...enough to give up our own freedoms and way of life. The only forces I see benefitting from this growing secret government is precisely those aspects of our government that shouldn't have more power and the corporate interests that profit off our fear.

Instead of spending one more minute listening to the grumblings of a war criminal like Dick Cheney, let's heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. instead:

"We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others."

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