A new controversy aggravating already strained relations between Washington and Caracas threatens to destabilise relations with other South American countries. On Thursday night Venezuelan Secretary of State Elias Jaua announced that the United States denied the Presidential Plane the right to fly over Puerto Rico on it’s way to China for diplomatic meetings. Outraged at American refusal to grant Venezuelan state leaders authorisation to fly over American airspace President Nicolas Maduro denounced Washington’s decision: “To refuse permission to a head of state to fly over airspace that they colonized in Puerto Rico is a serious offense.” This comes months after the United States refused to recognize the results of Venezuela’s elections in the aftermath of President Chavez’s death. Canadian based Foundation for Democratic Advancement ranked Venezuelan elections number 1 in fairness. The International Elections Report released by the Carter Center for Peace also found Venezuelan elections to be among the fairest in the world.
Responding to the news Ecuadorean Secretary of State Ricardo Patino posted on his twitter account:”First it was Bolivia. Now it is Venezuela. What do they want? To jeapordize the goodwill between peoples and peace in the world?” Patino was alluding to the forced landing of Bolivian President Evo Morales this past July. The United States ordered European countries to prevent the plane from flying through their airspace because, the US believed, Edward Snowden may have been aboard the President’s plane.
From Venezuela’s perspective Thursday’s rift fits into a wider context of American aggression in Venezuela. Less than a decade ago the Bush administration sought to oust Hugo Chavez from the Presidency of Venezuela. In a secretly backed coup, America threw its weight behind businessman Pedro Carmona. Carmona was installed. But the coup was reversed within 48 hours restoring Chavez to power. Washington’s ambitions to prop up a leader running on deregulation, privatization and hacking social programs (the typical conditions of securing US financed loans) would never materialize. Chavez bounced back bedeviling the Bush administration. Salivating foreign investors and oil tycoons lost their shot at bonanza in the resource-rich country.
Washington’s latest airspace bully controversy also comes just days after Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff canceled a meeting with President Obama at the White House. Leaks by Edward Snowden that were reported by Glenn Greenwald and TV Globo revealed that the NSA had been spying on President Rouseff’s personal communications and had targeted the computer systems of Petrosbas, Brazil’s majority-owned state oil company.
Refusing to recognize election results, grounding planes or refusing their travel, backing coups in Latin America as the Bush Administration did in 2002 or tacitly supporting coups as the Obama Administration did in Honduras in 2009 are all indicators of the arrogance of US Foreign Policy. Furthermore they highlight Washington’s refusal to accept the geopolitical shift known as Latin America’s “second independence”, that has resulted in a wave of popularly elected governments across the region. The rising tide of Latin American governments challenging neoliberal orthodoxy and refusing to bow to Washington reflects a real rebalancing of power. America’s aggressive tactics aren’t persuasive to leaders who were elected without covert American military backing. Reacting to the US forced landing of Morales’ plane in July Argentina’s President Christina Kirchner tweeted, “They’ve definitely gone crazy.” That the Obama Administration could have possibly calculated any strategic advantage in prohibiting Venezuelan heads of state from flying over Puerto Rico is, just that, crazy.
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.
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.
During a speech last week at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy National Convention, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren admonished her audience against the Chamber of Commerce’s growing influence on the Supreme Court. “Take a look at the win rate of the Chamber of Commerce,” “According to the Constitution Accountability Center, the chamber moved from a 43 percent win rate during the very conservative Berger court to a 56 percent win rate under the very conservative Rehnquist court. And now they are at a 70 percent win rate under the Roberts court.”
The Chamber of Commerce which fronts as the voice for American small business but operates as the largest anti-business/finance reform lobbying force in Washington has fought every Wall Street reform proposed since the financial collapse of 2008. Laws that would increase the transparency of executive compensation, make financial statements more reliable and accounting fraud more difficult to hide have all been fought by the Chamber’s team of lobbyists and millions of dollars contributed by CEOs from the largest corporations who want to keep their lobbying agenda secret.
In 2012 alone the Chamber of Commerce funneled over $100 million into the election campaigns of politicians who would do their bidding making the Chamber one of the biggest players in the money-access-power nexus that came to light during the 2012 Elections.
Other recent campaigns include the Chamber’s efforts to squash, and today, rollback regulations established under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law passed in 2002 designed to enhance transparency and accounting standards for public company boards and public accounting firms in the wake of the Enron, Tyco and WorldCom scandals. Before his ouster from AIG in 2005, Maurice Greenberg diverted $23 million from the Starr Foundation bankrolling the Chamber in its push against regulations effected by Sarbanes-Oxley. Starr Foundation is one of the largest private foundations in the United States, a non-profit that funds research and education programs in a number of areas, “including education, medicine and healthcare, human needs, public policy, culture and the environment”. The Chamber’s decade-long anti-regulation campaign is really about limiting the control shareholders have over their executives, limiting corporate disclosures to investors, and protecting the secrecy of corporate boardrooms while preventing shareholders and the public from holding the same board rooms accountable.
Then there was the 2009 Chamber funded national ad blitzkrieg attacking the Affordable Health Care Act. The National Journal later revealed how deceitful of the Chamber’s ad campaign was when it reported that major insurers
including Aetna, Cigna, Humana, UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint had funneled between $10 million and $20 million to the U.S. Chamber to fund the campaign. Meanwhile, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association, continued to public voice support for reform.
Another memorable 2009 campaign, one that put Elizabeth Warren in the cross hairs was the Chamber’s “Stop the Consumer Financial Protection Agency”. The Consumer Financial Protection Agency was conceived by Warren in a 2007 article she wrote in the Democracy Journal. Her idea was to create and agency that would have the authority and accountability to supervise, examine, and enforce consumer financial protection laws. The Chamber carried out an aggressive ad campaign featuring small business owners complaining that such an agency would crack down on small businesses that offer store credit to customers. Because of laws that do not require 501(c)3s like the Chamber to report donors the banks and credit card companies that financed the multi-million dollar ad and lobbying efforts were never disclosed.
Secrecy and anonymity are the trademark of the Chamber of Commerce. Ruling elites pay the non-profit hundreds of millions a year to secure the lucrative advantages they seek. But the drive for power is ceaseless within the ruling class. Nothing short of total control of all branches of the State will satisfy the appetites of those who wield power behind closed doors. The Chamber of Commerce and the corporations it represents from the shadows have already hijacked the legislative process, elections and government policy. It has already diffused its influence throughout “the least dangerous branch” as the increasing number of rulings favoring Big Business shows. Elizabeth Warren’s warning is prescient. Continuing her speech last week she said, “Follow this pro-business trend to its obvious conclusion and you will end up with a Supreme Court that’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce.”