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 Salon.com'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Pakistan.
You can read more here.
Now, let's get to some of the analysis from Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, 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.
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
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.
- 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.
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.