The exposure of the massive extent of the surveillance by the National Security Agency is one of the most important whistle-blowing events of our times. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, says these exposures by Edward Snowden are even more important than those stunning revelations.
What has been laid bare is the existence of a national security state of a scope beyond anything the great majority of the world’s peoples, including US citizens, could even imagine.
The ruling class response has centred on a manhunt to capture Snowden and put him in the dock, as they are doing to Bradley Manning.
US prosecutors have charged the whistleblower with espionage and leading political figures are baying for blood. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Snowden’s revelations are “an act of treason”. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner agreed that Snowden “is a traitor”. The penalty for treason is death.
Snowden has spectacularly evaded US authorities to date. But he knows he is in danger. In a famous interview, conducted prior to his departure from Hong Kong, he said, “You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you, in time.”
The media and pundits are being mobilised to counter the positive image and message Snowden has thus far presented. He either isn’t very smart and couldn’t have had the material he exposed, or he is an evil genius bent on destroying the United States. He didn’t graduate from high school, so he is a dumb klutz, or he is so smart and proficient with computers he just knew too much for his own good. Besides, he is lying – who are you going to believe: the President, Congress, the judicial system and the NSA, or some guy who turned against the war while in the military?
Liberals chime in
Some liberals are arguing that the vast programs revealed are unfortunately needed to prevent “a new 9/11”, which, if it should occur, would lead to even worse attacks on democratic rights, so we have to get behind the president.
Obama supporters who were appalled when Bush raised implementing such a program (but went ahead with it secretly anyway) now claim that Obama’s continuation and acceleration of the program is different. After all, Obama reassures us that he knows how to balance national security and democratic rights.
Obama went on TV to tell US citizens that “no one is listening to your phone calls”. The “only” information about every phone call the NSA gathers and sorts through and saves, is who is called, when and for how long. This creates a vast trove of information about everybody’s communications.
As Snowden explained, “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded … You simply have to fall under suspicion from somebody, even a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinise every decision you 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.”
The only phone calls actually listened to in this dragnet will be those the watchers decide to listen in on. Obama promises this will be done only with a judge’s oversight. But legal authorisation has already been given by secret judges’ decisions beforehand. They’ll listen in to whatever they want.
Every phone call
The first of Snowden’s revelations that reporter Glenn Greenwald released in the British Guardian and the Washington Post concerned this surveillance of every phone call in the US. This overwhelming search and seizure without the fig leaf of probable cause or even suspicion of a crime of those being targeted is in direct violation of the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.
The second revelation was about the even broader dragnet of internet communications throughout the world. This is done by wholesale monitoring of Google, Facebook, Apple, Verizon, etc, etc.
The NSA can zero in on anything that relates to “national security” as it sifts through the data. Whenever the rulers use this phrase, they mean their security. This can mean monitoring striking workers, union dissidents, socialists, civil rights and immigration rights activists or anyone else the capitalists think might disturb their “security”.
Is there any doubt that they monitored, read or listened in to every Facebook entry, every tweet, every phone call of the participants of the Occupy movement? Or that this information wasn’t used to coordinate the nationwide police dispersal of that movement? After these revelations, no one should have any doubt on that score.
The dragnet of the internet means they also monitor every email, tweet, etc, of protesters throughout the world. Does the NSA share this information with its allies, such as the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain? Did it share with Mubarak during the Egyptian spring?
A further revelation – and Greenwald promises more to come – from Snowden is that Obama ordered his senior national security and intelligence officials to draw up a list of potential foreign targets for US cyber-attacks, which the administration itself characterises as “acts of war”, while accusing others of doing just that.
Then Greenwald revealed more details about an NSA data-mining tool called Boundless Informant. In just one month, March 2013, the NSA collected 97 billion pieces of information from computer networks worldwide.
A top-secret “global heat map” showed the most frequently targeted countries were Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and India. In the same month, the NSA collected three billion pieces of information from computers in the US under the program.
In the new Kafkaesque world of the national security state, logic is of a special type. Snowden committed a crime, you see, because the very existence of the massive surveillance operation was classified, so revealing its existence violated the rules of classification of state secrets.
After the first revelations, Obama said he welcomed the discussion on them. But the discussion itself couldn’t have begun if Snowden hadn’t revealed the existence of the program, which was to have been kept secret. So Obama welcomes a discussion on the existence of the program, but seeks to imprison the person who revealed its existence, which Obama tried to hide.
In reality, the administration is moving to squash any real debate by coming down with an iron fist.