Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rise (and Costs) of the American Surveillance State

The rising costs and scope of today's surveillance state has garnered some much needed attention over the past week, with two quality investigative pieces in the Los Angeles Times, an excellent op-ed by Sarah Jaff on Alternet, and the usual brilliant analysis from's Glenn Greenwald. So, I want to briefly navigate some of these articles (and ling to them of course) for you today because I really think it strikes at the heart of what is a very real crisis in this country: the deterioration of privacy and the evisceration of the bill of rights....all under the FALSE guise of "protecting us from terrorism".

I coined a term for this burgeoning security state (and those that "sell it") two years ago as the "Fear-Industrial-Complex", (i.e. Department of Defense, corporate media, talk radio, security technologies industry, Congress, the White House, “the intelligence community”, pundits, weapons/defense contractors, etc.).

Unfortunately, as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, "Terror hysteria" remains a powerful tool to bludgeon the public with in order to rationalize and defend the continuing assault on privacy and civil liberties. Fear, as we all should be very aware of by this time, as it defines our post 9/11 security state, is quite effective in convincing the population they need protection from next to non-existent threats...even when it means relinquishing core constitutional rights.

To this day, the same interests that took advantage of 9/11 to ram through the Patriot Act are out in force - aided this time by a much more influential and powerful “security industry”. And of course, advancements in security technology may serve certain important purposes in specific situations, but 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".

As I will illustrate today, its not just the loss of privacy that accompanies this surveillance state that is so destructive. In fact, at times of draconian austerity measures being forced on a public already struggling to make ends meet, its the costs of this security state that should also give us pause.

Before I give some of those numbers, we should remember that any meaningful debate over whether we need MORE surveillance and monitoring, be it wiretapping, street cameras, airport body scanners, or internet spying and storage, we might want to ask the question whether such technologies actually make us safer (i.e. are there documented incidences they have led to capturing terrorists plotting against us?)? Two, is there any evidence that they have been abused (or in fact, are they not being used to catch terrorists at all)? Three, is their claimed usefulness somehow jeopardized by the kinds of modest reforms privacy rights groups (and others) advocate? And finally, are we creating dangerous constitutional precedents?

As I have written about numerous times on this blog, there is little to no evidence that the massive expansion of the security state since 9/11 has made us any safer. Yet there’s a long list of incidences of unadulterated government abuse and malpractice for a host of purposes other than fighting terrorism. In other words, the threat this Act, and these particular provisions pose to the basic Constitutional rights of American citizens is not hypothetical, but documented fact.

So let's get to what the Los Angeles Times pieces discovered before we get to some interpretations from Greenwald and Jaff. All I would ask is that while its true, spending "inefficiencies" of this massive security state are important, what's more so is that we must come to realize that its not meant to even fight terrorism... its the security spending and the power it provides the state/corporations itself that is the goal. Terrorism is the marketing ploy to keep this well oiled money and power machine running, and that's all. 

Is Homeland Security spending paying off? A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal and state governments are spending about $75 billion a year on domestic security, setting up sophisticated radio networks, upgrading emergency medical response equipment, installing surveillance cameras and bombproof walls, and outfitting airport screeners to detect an ever-evolving list of mobile explosives. One effect is certain: Homeland Security spending has been a pump-primer for local governments starved by the recession, and has dramatically improved emergency response networks across the country. An entire industry has sprung up to sell an array of products, including high-tech motion sensors and fully outfitted emergency operations trailers. The market is expected to grow to $31 billion by 2014.

The expensive and time-consuming screening now routine for passengers at airport boarding gates has detected plenty of knives, loaded guns and other contraband, but it has never identified a terrorist who was about to board a plane. Only 14 Americans have died in about three dozen instances of Islamic extremist terrorist plots targeted at the U.S. outside war zones since 2001 — most of them involving one or two home-grown plotters. 

The spending has been rife with dubious expenditures, including the $557,400 in rescue and communications gear that went to the 1,500 residents of North Pole, Alaska, and a $750,000 anti-terrorism fence — fashioned with 8-foot-high ram-proof wrought iron reinforced with concrete footers — built around a Veterans Affairs hospital in the pastoral hills outside Asheville, N.C.

But let's get to the second Los Angeles Times piece 

The LA Times reports: 

Advocates say the expanded surveillance has helped eliminate vulnerabilities identified after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some critics, unconvinced, say the snooping undermines privacy and civil liberties and leads inevitably to abuse. They argue that the new systems have weakened security by burying investigators in irrelevant information.

A robust debate on the intelligence gathering has been impossible, for the simple reason that most of the activity is officially secret. In lawsuits alleging improper eavesdropping, the Justice Department has invoked state secrecy to prevent disclosure of classified information and systems.

In May, two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that Americans would be disturbed if they knew about some of the government's data-gathering procedures. But Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said they were prohibited from revealing the facts.

Courts have ruled that the government doesn't need a search warrant, which requires a judge's approval, to obtain records held by "third parties," such as hotels, banks, phone companies or Internet providers.  So the government has used National Security Letters to get the data, issuing 192,500 of the letters between 2003 and 2006, according to an audit by the Justice Department inspector general. The numbers have dropped sharply since then, but the FBI issued 24,287 National Security Letters last year for data on 14,212 Americans. That's up from a few thousand letters a year before 2001.

"It used to be the case that if the government wanted to find out what you read and what you wrote, it would have to get a warrant and search your home," said Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University and the author of numerous books and articles on privacy law.

Now, "it just obtains your Amazon purchase records, your
Facebook posts, your Internet browsing history — without you even knowing." "I think it's a world of difference between what a person decides to post publicly and what the FBI collects about them secretly," said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington-based civil liberties group.

Bush gave the NSA the authority to eavesdrop on Americans communicating with foreigners abroad without first obtaining a FISA warrant, deeming the process too slow. As a U.S. senator, Obama condemned the so-called wireless wiretapping after the New York Times made it public in 2005. But when he ran for president in 2008, Obama voted for legislation that granted retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that had secretly helped the government eavesdrop.

The law also retroactively legalized other forms of surveillance, former intelligence officials say, including "bulk" monitoring that allows the government to intercept all email traffic between America and a range of suspect email addresses in, say,

Privacy advocates say the government should acknowledge how many Americans have had their communications intercepted in recent years. But after Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee requested that information, the Obama administration responded in July that it was "not reasonably possible to identify the number." 

You can read more here.

Now, let's get to some of the analysis from Glenn Greenwald of, then I'll get to Jaffe who makes the case that the surveillance state also serves to protect the interests of the wealthy elite...which is yet another function of the security state.

But I want to focus on some of Greenwald's points, assertions I have made on this blog quite often too...and that's just how LITTLE of a terrorist threat there really is, and just how totally out of whack our fears are with reality itself. Greenwald writes"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It's basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.

Last year, McClatchy characterized this threat in similar terms: "undoubtedly more American citizens died overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism."  The March, 2011, Harper's Index expressed the point this way: "Number of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year: 8 -- Minimum number who died after being struck by lightning: 29."  That's the threat in the name of which a vast domestic Security State is constructed, wars and other attacks are and continue to be launched, and trillions of dollars are transferred to the private security and defense contracting industry at exactly the time that Americans -- even as they face massive wealth inequality -- are told that they must sacrifice basic economic security because of budgetary constraints


...while the Security State has little to do with addressing ostensible Terrorist threats, it has much to do with targeting perceived domestic and political threats, especially threats brought about by social unrest from austerity and the growing wealth gap...the prime aim of the growing Surveillance State is to impose domestic order, preserve prevailing economic prerogatives and stifle dissent and anticipated unrest.


Exaggerating, manipulating and exploiting the Terrorist threat for profit and power has been the biggest scam of the decade; only Wall Street's ability to make the Government prop it up and profit from the crisis it created at the expense of everyone else can compete for that title.  Nothing has altered the mindset of the American citizenry more than a decade's worth of fear-mongering.  So compelling is fear-based propaganda, so beholden are our government institutions to these private Security State factions, and so unaccountable is the power bestowed by these programs, that even a full decade after the only Terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, its growth continues more or less unabated.

Now let's get to the piece by Sarah Jaff entitled "How the Surveillance State Protects the Interests Of the Ultra-Rich", because I think there is NO ISSUE today that shouldn't be viewed through the prism of the class war, namely that of the corporate and wealthy elite against just about everyone else. Now, that's not to say some issues don't involve class, but that's usually because they are being used to DISTRACT us from the class issue, namely the widening gap between the rich and poor.

And in fact, this growing, expensive, and invasive surveillance state is yet another tool in the arsenal of the elites. Jaff writes, "The techniques that were roundly decried by Western leaders when used by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak against his people's peaceful revolution are suddenly embraced when it comes to unrest at home. Not only that, but techniques honed in the “war on terror” are now being turned on anti-austerity protesters, clamping down on discontent that was created in the first place by policies of the state.

Glenn Greenwald noted this connection in a recent piece, writing:

“The last year has seen an incredible amount of social upheaval, not just in the Arab world but increasingly in the West. The Guardian today documented the significant role which poverty and opportunity deprivation played in the British riots. Austerity misery -- coming soon to the U.S. -- has sparked serious upheavals in numerous Western nations. Even if one takes as pessimistic a view as possible of an apathetic, meek, complacent American populace, it's simply inevitable that some similar form of disorder is in the U.S.'s future as well. As but one example, just consider this extraordinary indicia of pervasive American discontent, from a Gallup finding yesterday.”

That Gallup finding was that only 11 percent of Americans are content with the way things are going in the country.

Greenwald's point, that the surveillance state is actually designed to protect the interests of the ruling class, is supported by Mike Konczal's point, in this July piece:

From a series of legal codes favoring creditors, a two-tier justice system that ignore abuses in foreclosures and property law, a system of surveillance dedicated to maximum observation on spending, behavior and ultimate collection of those with debt and beyond, there’s been a wide refocusing of the mechanisms of our society towards the crucial obsession of oligarchs: wealth and income defense. Control over money itself is the last component of oligarchical income defense, and it needs to be as contested as much as we contest all the other mechanisms.”


As a burgeoning international protest movement takes shape, opposing austerity measures, decrying the wealth gap and rising inequality, and in some cases directly attacking the interests of oligarchs, we're likely to see the surveillance state developed for tracking "terrorists" turned on citizen activists peacefully protesting the actions of their government. And as U.S. elections post-Citizens United will be more and more expensive, look for politicians of both parties to enforce these crackdowns.

Despite growing anger at austerity in other countries, those policies have been embraced by both parties here in the States. Groups like US Uncut have stepped into the fray, pointing out the connection between the tax dodging of banks like Bank of America and other corporations and the slashing of the social safety net for everyone else. The new protest movements are led not only by traditional left groups like labor unions, but a generation of young, wired activists using the Internet for innovative protest and revolutionary activism. 

Anger is growing in the US at a stagnant economy, ongoing policies that favor the rich, and little to no help for anyone else. So far we haven't seen the kind of mass protest that's hit Europe, let alone the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but if things don't get any better, the country should prepare for social unrest. And if that happens, expect more peaceful activists to get caught up in the web of the surveillance state.

On a similar note, for what its worth, the ACLU of California has attempting to ascertain from the police when, why, and how they are using mobile phone location data and deploying other surveillance technologies to track the people they are responsible for protecting and serving, the ACLU of California sent requests to more than fifty law enforcement agencies across the state today.  

In addition to the collection of mobile phone location data, the group is asking the same questions about law enforcements’ use of information gathered from social networking sites, book providers, GPS tracking devices, automatic license plate readers, public video surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology.

Police agencies are being asked for information including:
  • Statistics on how agencies are obtaining, using, storing and sharing personal information;
  • The stated purpose for gathering personal information, guidelines on how long the data is kept, when and how it is deleted, and whether privacy safeguards exist;
  • Training curricula, policies or protocol provided to officers to guide them in the use of these powerful new surveillance tools, including the capture of information from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter;
  • Whether police demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant to access mobile phone location data and to collect other detailed personal information, or take a dragnet approach that captures data on individuals who are not suspected of wrongdoing;
  • The effectiveness of the use of digital surveillance in identifying or arresting suspects.
Based on all the information we have to date, these are particularly pertinent questions, and as citizens, our right to get answers to. In a recent op-ed I wrote on how the Patriot Act has been abused since its inception, there is more than ample reason to believe that not only are these increasing surveillance powers ineffective in "preventing terrorism" (which again, is barely a threat), but in fact, AREN'T BEING USED for that purpose in the first place.

In case there is any doubt, let me list some of what I detailed in my article:
  • The FBI admitted in a recent report to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board that it violated the law at least 800 times on national security letters, going well beyond even the loose safeguards in the original provision. According to the report the FBI “may have violated the law or government policy as many as 3,000 times” between 2003 and 2007, according to the Justice Department Inspector General, while collecting bank, phone and credit card records using NSLs.
  • As Adam Sewer of the American Prospect notes: “It's no secret that the FBI's use of NSLs - a surveillance tool that allows the FBI to gather reams of information on Americans from third-party entities (like your bank) without a warrant or without suspecting you of a crime - have resulted in widespread abuses. All that the FBI needs to demand your private information from a third-party entity is an assertion that such information is "relevant" to a national security investigation -- and the NSLs come with an accompanying gag order that's almost impossible to challenge in court.”
  • NSLs were used by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to demand that libraries turn over the names of books that people had checked out. In fact, there were at least 545 libraries that received such demands in the year following passage of the Patriot Act alone. 
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) uncovered "indications that the FBI may have committed upwards of 40,000 possible intelligence violations in the 9 years since 9/11." It said it could find no records of whether anyone was disciplined for the infractions.
  • Under the Bush Administration, the FBI used the Patriot Act to target liberal groups, particularly anti-war, environment, and anti-globalization, during the years between 2001 and 2006 in particular.
  • According to a recent report by the ACLU, there have been 111 incidents of illegal domestic political surveillance since 9/11 in 33 states and the District of Columbia. The report shows that law enforcement and federal officials work closely to monitor the political activity of individuals deemed suspicious, an activity common during the Cold War – including protests, religious activities and other rights protected by the first amendment. The report also noted how the FBI monitors peaceful protest groups and in some cases attempted to prevent protest activities. 
  • According to a July 2009 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, only three of the 763 "sneak-and-peek" requests in fiscal year 2008 involved terrorism cases. Sixty-five percent were drug related.
As I also wrote, and this can be applied to more than just the Patriot Act now, "The Patriot Act was sold as an indispensable weapon in the government’s arsenal to fight and “win” the “War on Terror”. We were assured that the sole purpose of these unprecedented powers granted government were to locate and catch terrorists - not raid the homes of pot dealers and wiretap peace activists. Monitoring political groups and activities deemed “threatening” (i.e. environmentalists, peace activists), expanding the already disastrous and wasteful war on drugs, and spying on journalists isn’t about fighting terrorism, it’s about stifling dissent and consolidating power – at the expense of civil liberties.

How ironic that the very “tool” hailed as our nation’s protector has instead been used to violate the very Constitutional protections we are allegedly defending from “attack” by outside threats. What was promised as a “temporary”, targeted law to keep us safe from terror has morphed into a rewriting of the Bill of Rights.

Indeed...we would do well to stop this runaway surveillance state before its too late to do so....

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