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NSA Review Committee: containing entropy

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Last September as the Snowden leaks continued to shed light on the shadowy operations of the NSA Obama pledged to charge a “high-level group of outside experts” to evaluate the NSA’s secret programs. Obama’s committee of outside experts includes Michael Morell (former deputy director of CIA), Richard Clarke (former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism), and Cass Sunstein (Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama), three men who have worked in the highest levels of government and, only in the most double-speaky way, can be referred to as outside experts. Further more, the committee has been under the supervision of The Office of the National Director of Intelligence headed by James Clapper. Months before being charged with overseeing the NSA review committee Clapper got famous for his “unwittingly” remark when categorically denying the existence of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Considering the make-up of the committee and the fact that it has been under the direct supervision of the king of all intelligence/spy agencies it should come as no surprise that this committee of Washington insiders concluded that dismantling the programs would be impossible and has recommended, rather, that changes are made to the way the NSA carries out its spy programs, “though under broad new restraints”. How do you put restraints on a program like XKeyscore, a program that the NSA boasts captures “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”? Do we change “nearly” to “not nearly as much as we captured before Snowden”? Seriously. Does bulk collecting of phone records suddenly become not bulk collecting because the NSA, under new legal restraints imposed by James Clapper and company, limits phone call interceptions to 120 billion calls per month instead of 124.8 billion? The committee’s recommendations, which have still not been officially released to the public because the review itself has been shrouded in secrecy, can be seen as nothing more than an attempt to mollify concerns over surveillance state sprawl and white wash NSA abuses.

For Obama, the important thing is “you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence”. So, like, as your constitutional lawyer President “I’ll be proposing some self-restraint on the N.S.A.”

Telling the public that the NSA can restrain itself is like telling a quantum theorist that entropy is containable.


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December 13, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Legal Opinion Forebodes Limitless Future for Surveillance

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We’ve heard of Doctors Without Borders and Reporters Without Borders. What about Surveillance Without Borders? On Tuesday the FISA Court released the legal opinion explaining why the NSA’s “bulk collection” of phone calls is legal. The telephone data collection program has been stated to exist for the sole purpose of hatching terrorist plots, a point that is reiterated in the opinion. This NSA program also happens to record every phone call made by every American every single second of the day.

Legal scholars and constitutional lawyers are weighing in on the newly released opinion.

In her 29 page opinion, Judge Claire V. Eagan sided with the the Obama Administration’s chief defense of the program. The Administration has been arguing since the Snowden revelations that phone call metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. According to this legal theory phone call metadata, unlike the content of the phone call, is not afforded a reasonable expectation of privacy as it is handled by third parties, the telecommunications companies. Quoting from the Supreme Court decision in Smith v. MaryLand Judge Eagan explains why phone call data doesn’t warrant Fourth Amendment protections: “Telephone users…typically know that they must convey numerical information to the phone company; that the phone company has facilities for recording this information; and that the phone company does record this information for a variety of legitimate business purposes.” Basically the burden falls on the telephone subscriber to (dis)trust the phone company’s handling of their data. Leaks involving Verizon and AT&T’s cooperation with NSA record requests makes this responsibility a bitter pill to swallow.

Judge Eagan affirmed that the government can legally collect all calling records under Patriot Act provision 215. She argued that 215 gives the government legal authority to obtain business records considered “relevant” to investigations. Judge Eagan also noted that members of Congress were given occasion to be notified about how secret interpretations of the Patriot Act were being used to justify the phone call data collecting program prior to their vote reauthorizing the law.

Salon reported that Nate Cardozo – the Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney pressing lawmakers to make the process surrounding national security requests transparent – “said the court order is flawed because it assumes that all lawmakers were given the opportunity to learn the NSA was collecting and storing phone records in bulk.

Alex Abdo writing for the ACLU National Security Project criticized the ruling for providing no limits as to what kinds of pervasive and indiscriminate surveillance could also be upheld as constitutional.

Here’s the key passage from the opinion called into question:

Because known and unknown international terrorist operatives are using telephone communications, and because it is necessary to obtain the bulk collection of a telephone company’s metadata to determine those connections between known and unknown international terrorist operatives as part of authorized investigations, the production of the information sought meets the standard for relevance under 215

Abdo previews three future opinions used to justify secret surveillance programs that we may expect to follow from this logic:

1.)Because known and unknown international terrorist operatives are using email, and because it is necessary to obtain the bulk collection of an email provider’s metadata to determine those connections between known and unknown international terrorist operatives as part of authorized investigations . . . .

2.)Because known and unknown international terrorist operatives are engaging in financial transactions, and because it is necessary to obtain the bulk collection of a financial institution’s transaction history to determine those connections between known and unknown international terrorist operatives as part of authorized investigations . . . .

3.)Because known and unknown international terrorist operatives are using the Internet, and because it is necessary to obtain the bulk collection of an internet provider’s usage history to determine those connections between known and unknown international terrorist operatives as part of authorized investigations . . . .

What’s frightening is that Abdo’s cases aren’t farfetched conjectures. Through PRISM the NSA is already vacuuming up email metadata, email content, live chats and file transfers. The FBI has been using 215 to mine financial transaction records from financial institutions. And XKeyscore is the NSA’s weapon of choice when intercepting “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”.

Once the courts rule that the planet’s most widespread surveillance programs and the laws justifying them constitutional, the government has been given carte blanche to implement radical forms of social control. Legal interpretations like Judge Eagan’s swiftly eliminate constitutional protections from government surveillance. Surveillance was once only legally authorized to be carried out on limited targets who demonstrated probable cause in criminal wrong doing. Now it is implemented in indiscriminate dragnet fashion on millions of unsuspected people and their “tangible things”. Surveillance was once approved in advance by a court on an individual basis. Now it’s approved with a rubber-stamp to conduct blanket record retrievals, sweeping data interceptions and massive eavesdrops.

As public debate about the dangers of Big Brother give way to the spectacle of enforcing international law in Syria (what was last week called war with Syria) the courts continue to embolden The Administration’s consolidation of totalizing surveillance. Legal recourse to curb sprawling surveillance is fading into the realm of non-option.

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September 19, 2013 at 2:10 am

FISA Court: Blurring Lines, Consolidating Tyranny

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Reporting today for the New York Times Charlie Savage describes how Chief Justice Roberts appointments to the FISA court have played a role in creating what critics call the secret“parallel Supreme Court“.

In making assignments to the court, Chief Justice Roberts, more than his predecessors, has chosen judges with conservative and executive branch backgrounds that critics say make the court more likely to defer to government arguments that domestic spying programs are necessary.

Ten of the court’s 11 judges — all assigned by Chief Justice Roberts — were appointed to the bench by Republican presidents; six once worked for the federal government. Since the chief justice began making assignments in 2005, 86 percent of his choices have been Republican appointees, and 50 percent have been former executive branch officials.

As the Obama Administration increases its arsenal of surveillance and secret policing tools it grounds the legality of their use at home and abroad on classified FISA court rulings. Secret rulings have been piling up since the Bush Administration that expand the NSA’s authority to: warrantlessly wiretap phones, collect vast sums of communications data in blanket searches of unspecified targets, justify particular types of surveillance like court ordered handovers of metadata from telecoms and in general broaden the definitions of what constitutes foreign surveillance. These legal rulings are creating a growing body of precedents that legitimate the government’s use of vast spying programs. Without lawyers to challenge FISA court decisions, in the absence of an appeals process and in the shadows of a secret tribunal these judges are defining the sweeping reach of America’s surveillance apparatus and they are doing so shielded from public scrutiny.

The FISA court’s overwhelming majority of Republican and former federal prosecutors makes the complexion of the secret court ideologically uniform. Serving as the sole arbiter on surveillance issues, decisions are being reached without any independent adversarial process to check the powers bestowed to this court. This court is doing more than providing the Obama Administration the legal precedents it requires to carry out its massive surveillance programs. It is forging new relations of power between those with the authority to surveil (the phalanxes of surveillance state officers working both directly for the intelligence and police agencies and as private surveillance subcontractors) and everyone else who will be indiscriminately subjected to surveillance regardless of suspicion of wrong doing. At a time when the FISA court is playing a greater role in both the private lives of Americans and people across the world being secretly surveilled by a foreign government, the extreme bent of the judges to defer decisions on the size and scope of the surveillance state to The Administration is dangerous. The greater role this court has come to play in arbitrating how deeply surveillance will be embedded into human life reflects the power the government has invested it. In turn the FISA court issues secret ruling after secret ruling to bolster The Administration’s power to monitor the lives of its subjects. When courts become tools to legitimate and expand the power of rulers lines are blurred and tyranny consolidated.

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July 26, 2013 at 12:37 pm

The Obama Administration’s handling of Snowden reveals disturbing trends

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Whistleblower Edward Snowden finds himself in a high stakes game of cops and robbers. Snowden is wanted for leaking secret intelligence documents that expose the inner workings of the NSA and the expansion of the surveillance state towards ubiquity. For now Snowden is believed to remain holed up at an airport in Moscow. Meanwhile Congressmen, Senators, and Administration officials aided by the non-adversarial beltway press are screaming traitor and shaping a discourse that discredits him and anyone who stands against the government’s will to try Snowden under the Espionage Act.

Evidence abounds that the United States is working behind the scenes to get its hands on Snowden.

During a press release two weeks ago Obama sought to deflate the significance of Snowden, “I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29 year-old hacker”. Instead The Administration persuaded officials in France and Austria (who at the same time pretend to be in a fury about the US bugging their embassies, information they should be thanking Snowden for divulging) to ground the plane returning President Evo Morales from Moscow due to suspicion that Snowden was aboard flying to Bolivia for asylum. Last week’s scandal has sparked outrage from Bolivians who charge that the US has violated their sovereignty. Other leaders in Latin America have expressed similar indignation also citing that the US’s attempt to intercept Snowden transgresses international agreements that protect asylum seekers.

Commenting on the Obama Administration’s efforts to get Snowden extradited back to the US, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro reminded President Obama of America’s history in refusing extradition requests and harboring terrorists:

Who is the terrorist? A government like us, who seeks to serve the young Snowden, a figure of humanitarian asylum, from persecution by the American empire? Or the United States government, that protects with political asylum Luis Posada Carriles, a confessed convicted murderer and terrorist who is wanted by Venezuela for the bombing of the Cuban plane in 1976?

Carriles was not only protected despite calls for his extradition but employed as a CIA operative to assist paramilitaries against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Examples of the US protecting internationally wanted terrorists are not limited to Carriles. Haiti’s repeated extradition requests of Emmanuel Constant, former leader of CIA funded Front for Advancement and Progress -the dreaded Haitian death squad played an instrumental role overthrowing the popular government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 1991 US backed coup- were denied by the US. Constant was ultimately tried and sentenced at the New York State Supreme Court for charges unrelated to his alleged crimes against humanity, mortgage fraud. Haitians were effectively denied the possibility of ever seeing the serial killer brought to justice in their courts of law. Then there’s Orlando Bosch, another CIA operative believed to have conspired with Carriles in the 1976 Operation Condor plane bombings. Bosch was also granted safe haven in the United States by Bush I after Costa Rica called for Bosch’s extradition to face terrorist charges.

The US has been calling upon countries to deny Snowden asylum. Despite European leaders spectacle of feigned indignation over NSA eavesdropping in European embassies, all European countries where asylum requests were made have rejected them on legal technicalities. A week ago Vice President Joseph Biden phoned Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to make the case that Snowden was wanted in the US for aiding the enemy and that Ecuador should cooperate with the US in its efforts to have Snowded extradited.

In handling the Snowden case, the Obama Administration makes three disturbing trends immediately obvious.

First, in looking back on America’s complicity in protecting internationally wanted terrorists it becomes clear that it is US policy to defy international law where it impedes US interests and constrains US power. Harboring Carriles, Constant and Bosch clearly violates the September, 2001 UN Security Council Resolution 1373 which states that “countries should not give safe haven or any kind of assistance to people involved in present or past terrorist activities”. In the context of America’s involvement in regime change in Latin America protecting these wanted terrorists was important to the US because each one of them played a vital role in covert operations against leftist regimes the US sought to topple. Carrying out secret dirty wars and installing market friendly, pro-Washington dictators was far more aligned with US interests than adhering to international law. Yet when the US is hell-bent on capturing a target they’ve identified as a threat to national security, in the case of Snowden, someone who has leaked information rather than blowing up planes, and murdering multitudes, it demands that other sovereign nations comply with US laws, both those on the books and those drafted in secret.

Second, the US despite misleading the public with claims to the contrary loves leaks. The example Chris Hayes discussed two weeks back where he takes issue with a report by CNN’s Barbara Starr is illustrative. Starr “wrote a report withinformation leaked to her by anonymous administration and intelligence officials that reveal we know terrorists are changing their methods in response to leaks”. In other words, the Obama Administration distinguishes between good leaks and bad leaks. Good leaks are those that make the President and his Administration, well, look good. Leaks like the New York Times story about how America successfully took down Iranian nuclear centrifuges with the Stuxnet worm and how Obama, by virtue of his preternatural ability to determine good from evil had developed a “kill list” to eliminate terrorists both fall into the good leaks category.

Then there are leaks by whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, John Kirakou, Shami K. Leibowitz, Jeffery Sterling, Bradley Manning, Stephen Kim and most recently Edward Snowden who expose the dark infrastructure of power and call upon the government to answer to their frightening revelations. These are the bad leaks and the Administration has made it known that those responsible for revealing how the government operates behind closed doors will be persecuted.

Third, we can see from the condemnations of whistle blowers by public officials circulating throughout mainstream media that the government works in conjunction with a sympathetic “journalism” industry. Talk shows and radio programs provide the mouthpiece for public officials to frame people like Snowden as unpatriotic traitors in an effort to discredit the information they’ve made public. Vitriolic rhetoric is employed for character assassination. Representative Peter King and Senator Dianne Fienstein have all been played their part denouncing Snowden as vile villain in the latest National Security State directed Broadway spectacular. Noam Chomsky has talked about the kind of smear tactics being employed against Snowed. The government uses them as a tool to “deflect attention from power’s real interests and from those who power serves”. In discrediting Snowden, labeling him a spy, a traitor, the Obama Administration strives to control the discourse where it can communicate what kinds of behavior will not be tolerated – those which challenge the government’s authority to erect a ubiquitous surveillance apparatus, carry out extrajudicial killings, and execute undeclared covert wars- and who will be punished without recourse to civilian courts of law.

The US mission to destroy Edward Snowden and anyone else who tries, even thinks of exposing the dark machinations of power by which it seeks total control, reveals that the impious ends towards which the state and corporate entities it has incorporated reach. Consolidating power and protecting those commanding it from scrutiny is the supreme goal of the Administration. That the US is grounding planes of 29 year-old hackers, spying on allied nations to glean positions on trade deals and persecuting whistleblowers with the same fervor with which bad terrorists are terminated and good terrorists protected is suggestive of the classic hericlitean paradox of opposites. What the Obama Administration believes is required to strengthen national security, protect America, is a tightening on all levers of social control. This goes to show just how far the Administration has gone in its lust for domination. It shows how out of control that seems to those questioning living as subjects under its violent power.

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July 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Fusing Surveillance Programs

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As revelations about the NSA’s spying programs continue to surface America’s surveillance state continues to grow from local and state nodes. While a series of leaks by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposed secret NSA programs that intercepted phone records, emails, voice over IP and other forms of electronic communications used by Americans, the NSA is just one of dozens of intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. The surveillance state has an uncanny way of diffusing itself through non-federal channels.

After revelations by the 9/11 Commission that intelligence agencies at different levels were not “connecting the dots by sharing terrorism clues they had in their possession”, the Department of Homeland Security devised a new system to share intelligence between agencies. Fusion Centers were created to allow for the proper transmission of relevant terrorist and criminal information between all levels of intelligence and law enforcement. In effect, intelligence gathered on terrorists and criminals would be shared at the local, state and federal level. What feeds the Fusion Centers is a continual flow of raw information provided by local police departments, state police departments, private security firms and private sector business partners. Raw information includes everything from suspects license plate numbers, cell phone numbers, email addresses, social security numbers and video surveillance footage. The intelligence provided by all entities – local, state, federal and private – is then amalgamated and integrated into a vast database for analysis. According to a report by the US subcommittee last October titled “Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers”, 77 fusion centers were said to have been built between 2003 and 2007. That same report excoriated fusion centers citing financial waste, production of “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence” and severe lack of oversight that compromised constitutionally protected rights of American citizens.

If you flip to the back of yesterday’s Times, on page A-15 you will find an article discussing a lawsuit being brought against John J. Towery, a criminal intelligence analyst who worked with the Washington State Fusion Center to amass dossiers on anti-war protesters before funneling them into a domestic terrorism watchlist. Brendan Maslauskas Dunn, one of the plaintiffs in the case described to the Times in a previous piece how Towery worked undercover to infiltrate activist groups:“John Towery had an intimate knowledge of our personal lives, our relationships, our political beliefs, even actions we were planning…People Were followed. They were routinely harassed, detained and arrested.”

Another suit brought against the Boston Police Department and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) which serves as Massachusetts fusion center by the ACLU reveals that surveillance and intelligence officers have been gathering extensive information on peaceful protesters and political activists in the Boston area. Electronic records known as “intelligence reports” have been on file at BRIC since 2007. Despite department guidelines that require all intelligence that does not pertain to criminal activity to be destroyed in 90 days, BRIC maintained its files on non-criminals for as long as five years. Information on protesters and their activities is being collected by a consortium of local, state and federal officers. While no connection between the protest groups activities and criminal or terrorist conduct has been demonstrated intelligence amasses on dissenters. According to the ACLU report Policing Dissent: “the BRIC files list the non-violent actions of peace groups and activists under the heading “Criminal Act”, with labels such as “Extremists”, “Civil Disturbance” and “Home-Sec Domestic” in reports that track groups and people not engaged in crime but merely exercising their constitutional right to peaceful dissent.”

The problem with fusion centers and the NSA spying programs brought to light over the past several weeks is not that they try to intercept terrorist plots but that the sweeping authority they have been given at the local, state, and federal level to carry out blanket surveillance they ensnare citizens who have not been suspected of any wrong doing. Without vigilant oversight these centers are operating more and more as domestic surveillance entities with vast powers to track political dissidence. Although the NSA spying programs and Fusion Centers have been defended by surveillance state apologists as important tools in preventing terrorist attacks evidence abounds that these tools are being used against the people they are purportedly supposed to protect. Lynn Plante, Brendan Dunn and Jeffrey Berryhill can all attest to this.

Criminalizing assembly, labeling protesters as “domestic terrorists”, recording Americans phone calls and reading their emails, compiling data silos to detect aberrant behavior and implementing programs that require employees to monitor one another, silencing whistle blowers and prosecuting them under the Espionage Act are all part and parcel of a wayward surveillance system that knows no boundaries. The leaks revealing the extent to which the NSA monitors our activities cannot be viewed in isolation. As the NSA intercepts and aggregates staggering amounts of personal information, local authorities, state police, security firms and private sector partners work independently towards the same end. Secret surveillance programs are designed to assure that information flows in one direction only, away from those subjected to monitoring and towards the intelligence agencies, shady entities that are at once governmental and private. Ruling classes have understood the power of knowledge at least since Francis Bacon. With an endless array of surveillance technologies and spy programs at its disposal the surveillance state, the political and corporate class it protects will wield tremendous powers over individuals it has come to know everything about. When a government can extract your thoughts and monitor you behavior through surveillance, consolidate that information through databasing to establish a data profile that defines who you are in the eyes of national security and then disseminate information about you throughout an integrated network of authorities without you knowing, it’s only a matter of time before you think, say or post the wrong thing warranting closer scrutiny. And by then it’s too late because the algorithms have already passed their verdict. The file is opened and the investigation begins with your June 26, 2013 Google search for “Terrorism”.

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June 25, 2013 at 10:58 pm

Recent leaks shed further light on inner workings of surveillance state

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Here’s what we know: Secret kill lists, covert drone strikes, Authorization of the Use of Military Force and assassination, top secret NSA databases, warrantless wiretapping, trying whistle blowers under the Espionage Act, secret web spying, grand jury subpoenas and shadow courts, data vacuums, cyber warfare, direct call log access, information sharing between corporations and intelligence agencies, and the ballooning classifications that aim to keep these programs secret are all parts of Obama’s sprawling surveillance state. It’s frightening to think about the other tools we don’t know about that the Obama Administration is using. One thing is clear,with a vast arsenal of surveillance tools at its disposal the Administration is actively monitoring every one. We could all be Bradley Manning if we took “if you see something say something” to mean something more than reporting terrorists to intelligence hotlines. But a Washington Post-Pew Poll taken in the wake of the recent NSA leaks reveals 56 percent of those polled found it acceptable for the agency to get secret court orders to track the phone calls of millions of Americans. In times of fear and uncertainty passivity provides a false sense of security. Meanwhile the ruling elites dismantle the last vestiges of freedom as they move towards total social control.

The recent leaks about the NSAs direct access to phone subscribers metadata and web spying PRISM program shed further light on the inner workings of power. While every single phone call may not be eavesdropped on nor every email read, the capacity is there and the record of electronic correspondence made. Edward Snowden explained in an interview with Glenn Greenwald this past Sunday that he could tap the phone call of anyone including the President himself provided the targets email address. “Even if you are not doing anything wrong you are being watched and recorded,” he says.

And the storage capability of these systems increases every year, consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.” This is what we’ve come to, the dystopic nightmare of the all powerful surveillance state.

There is no reason to suppose that such powers will be scaled back. In the eyes of the surveillance apparatus functionaries, the elected politicians who overwhelming support these “legal and limited” measures, the lack of public outrage justifies their use. Senators like Dianne Feinstein, Congressional leaders like Dick Durbin and John Boehner who have been outspoken defenders of the governments spying programs tout the age old argument that leaks of classified information embolden our enemies and threaten national security. But classifications are seldom used to protect national security. As if terrorists are unaware that the US government has been tapping their phone calls and tracking them for decades. We have government officials essentially saying people who are regularly pursued by drones, who likely have fought besides others who have wound up in black sites or worse Guantanamo had no idea that the U.S. could effectively monitor their activities. Here’s what director of national intelligence James Clapper had to say about the leaks:

It is literally—not figuratively, literally—gut-wrenching to see this happen, because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities. And, of course, for me, this is a key tool for preserving and protecting the nation’s safety and security. So, every one of us in the intelligence community, most particularly the great men and women of NSA, are very—are profoundly affected by this.

Officials are insulting our intelligence in defending these invasive spy programs with such specious arguments.

As pressure within the administration mounts to repress leaks the motive behind the Administration’s secrecy couldn’t be clearer. Despite widespread claims that the Administration uses classifications only where necessary to protect national security, it is glaringly obvious that classifications are used to protect power and to keep the actions of officials secret so that the public cannot hold them accountable. The Administration will do anything in its power to make sure that information flows are a unilateral affair. How Snowden is dealt with from here on out will demonstrate just how far the US is willing to go in its war on whistle blowers.

With the overall lack of public outrage to shift Congressional views and the Administration’s pretense about welcoming an open debate on the balance between privacy and security (which amounts to a discussion about nothing because everything needed to be discussed is top secret) we can expect the attitude towards the rapid growth of the surveillance state to remain the same. Government spying on citizens will not be revealed for what it truly is -a radical effort to monitor and know the behavior and thoughts of everyone under its scope – as long as the reigning ideology that the government is our safe-keeper from the bad-scary-other prevails. As long as this remains the dominant discourse, all invasions into our private lives by the surveillance state will be in the words of our trusted ruler, little more than “modest encroachments on privacy”.

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June 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

NSA’s PRISM Program Wants to Know Your Thoughts

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The NSA, the world’s largest intelligence agency and a central part of the United States military apparatus has received access to droves of civilian communications through its recently revealed PRISM program. Like many other top secret domestic surveillance programs, including Stellar Wind, and the FBI led Project Carnivore (now referred to as the Digital Collection System) that aim to vacuum up electronic data on people in the US, PRISM reveals itself as another powerful tool in the governments rapidly growing surveillance arsenal.

The NSA’s PRISM program functions as a “back door” through which the US government can directly access massive reserves of private data from partnership companies. The companies the NSA has partnered with to form PRISM are Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Paltalk, Youtube, AOL and just this past year Apple. These nine companies which make up the bulk of email, video, search engines, online communications in general, provide the US government with direct access to their servers. In other words the NSA can directly obtain information stored on the companies servers about anyone and conduct real-time data collection on targeted users. According to the Obama Administration with its radical interpretation of powers enumerated in the FISA Amendment this kind of probing is limited and legal. But a quick look at what the FISA Act of 1978 originally set out to accomplish shows how far we have drifted after two administrations from the legal confines of carrying out surveillance and how the criteria for selecting those targets has changed.

Senate Committee findings in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal where federal resources were discovered to have been used by the Nixon administration to spy on political activist groups prompted lawmakers to create judicial and congressional oversight of government surveillance activities while still providing intelligence agencies the secrecy needed to conduct investigations on “foreign powers” and Americans communicating with them. The idea was to strike a balance between intelligence agencies’ needs to intercept communications pertaining to plots to sabotage and attack the United States and US citizens’ constitutional rights to live free from unwarranted searches and seizures. For that reason Congress passed the FISA Act satisfying national security needs to undermine and intercept foreign plots while preserving civil liberties, in particular the right of US citizen to not have their communications eavesdropped on without a court warrant. For thirty years federal investigators would have to show probable cause to a FISA court (a special court of judges responsible for overseeing federal agents requests for surveillance warrants) that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.” Intelligence agencies were emboldened by this law to carry out surveillance on actors subversive to US national security. Furthermore the FISA courts posed virtually no obstacle to intelligence agents seeking to obtain warrants. From the period 1979-2006 a total of 22,990 applications for warrants were made to the Court of which 22,985 were approved. In sum, FISA became primary tool for investigators to combat foreign threats and terrorism. The 2001 Patriot Act, Protect America Act of 2007 and the reviled FISA Amendments Act of 2008 changed all of this by vastly expanding the governments powers to conduct surveillance and increase the number of targets it could surveil. Today these are the legal justifications the Obama Administration is using to carry out its massive dragnet.

Last December’s debate about the renewal of the FISA Amendment ACT shed further light on the Administration’s expanding powers.Tthe ACLU published a policy paper that highlighted the constitutional concerns the Act raised. The NSA’s PRISM program makes the following eight concerns a concrete reality.

1. The law gives the government sweeping surveillance power without requiring it to identify the targets of its surveillance.
2. The law allows the government to intercept U.S. citizens’ and residents’ international telephone and email communications without having to identify the facilities, phone lines, email addresses, or locations to be monitored.
3. The law allows the government to conduct intrusive surveillance without meaningful judicial oversight.
4. The law places no meaningful limits on the government’s retention and dissemination of information relating to U.S. citizens and residents.
5. Nothing in the law prevents the government from compiling huge databases of foreign intelligence information and searching those databases later for information about U.S. citizens and residents.
6. The law does not limit government surveillance to communications relating to terrorism.
7. The law gives the government access to some communications that are purely domestic.
8. The law immunizes the telecoms that participated in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

So what are the implications of the US government having direct access to users data from the largest internet companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo? While there are many three implications of the PRISM several things immediately stand out.

First and foremost it means that Americans who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism and who pose no threat to national security are having their communications records stored for digital analysis and where deemed necessary for further analysis by intelligence specialists. The Wall Street Journal reported as far back as 2008 that the NSA receives “transactional data” from a variety of agencies and private companies so it can monitor ‘huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records.” When suspicious transaction patterns are detected by the NSA’s sophisticated dragnet software leads are spit out to counter terrorism agencies for investigation.

Second the broad sweeping powers of PRISM assure us that the communications of millions of individuals are being intercepted by the United States without warrants, in total secrecy and save the Obama Administration’s radical interpretation of executive authority so similar to that of his predecessor, in violation of the Constitution.

Third the cooperation of private companies with the NSA blurs any line that distinguishes private telecommunications and internet corporations as separate from the growing surveillance state. From Google to Apple, the nine companies participating in the NSA’s PRISM are complicit in providing services for and carrying out the functions of the the United State’s surveillance apparatus.

Fourth that a military/intelligence institution has become so heavily involved in intercepting and analyzing the private communications of individuals across digital networks suggests nothing but the militarization of communications infrastructure.

Finally in parsing through the private communications of millions of individuals who have no connection to terrorism and who are not suspected of having committed a crime the government is keeping record and analyzing the conversations of its citizenry. In this way it comes to know not only what kinds of terrorists plots are brewing but what it’s citizenry is talking about, thinking. This begs the question, why would a government want to know the thoughts of the governed and why would it want to hide the fact that it monitors their communications?

Written by yourinquirerprofoundly

June 7, 2013 at 9:16 pm