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Who watches the watchers? (Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the NSA)

“It’s clear there are times where what is lawful is distinct from what is rightful. There are times throughout history, and it doesn’t take long for an American or a German to think about times in the history of their country where the law provided the government to do things that were not right.” – Edward Snowden

The technological achievements of the modern era trump even the most fantastic visions of science fiction writers of the 20th century. The accelerating rate of technical advancement has led to many advantages but has come at a steep price. Every innovative gadget and new, convenient form of communication has also opened the door for users of these technologies to be scrutinized and exploited by those in the business of gathering intelligence.  In an age of mass surveillance, the networks that connect us to each other across also provide powerful institutions near limitless access to our private information on a scale previously unimaginable. This dragnet of data collection and retention has serious implications for our ability to speak, think, and associate freely in the world. The power to garner intelligence on whole populations, study human interactions, map patterns of thought, track associations, and engage in predictive analysis of actions, behaviors, and events could send Philip K. Dick plunging into an existential crisis.

Fortunately, there is also abundant proof that in an age of increasing connectivity, new information can spread rapidly, shift dominant narratives, engender new perspectives, and change the course of history. An example of this phenomenon is former NSA intelligence analyst Edward Snowden who is responsible for some of the most important leaks in human history. At 30 years of age, Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a private contractor, and was paid to track international terrorists.  He became concerned when he noticed the ease with which his employer could gather data on American citizens in clear violation of the constitution. Instead of ignoring the abuses and collecting his $122,000 annual salary, Snowden followed his conscience and fled with irrefutable proof, risking life and limb to expose official criminality at the highest levels.

In a series of explosive stories that began in the UK newspaper, the Guardian, in June 2013, Snowden revealed that the NSA collects the phone data and text messages of millions of people in the US and worldwide on a daily basis. One of his first leaks exposed a program called PRISM that the NSA used to collect mass quantities of online communications such as e-mails and chats as well as browser history and stored data, documents, photographs, and videos from at least nine corporations including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Skype.

Subsequent leaks by Snowden also revealed that the NSA bugged the computer servers of the European Union, spied on 38 embassies world-wide, intercepted and stored the phone calls of at least 35 foreign leaders, including US allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Equally disturbing was the disclosure that the NSA runs an elite hacking unit specializing in cyber warfare called the T.A.O. or (Tailored Access Operations) that went so far as to intercept laptops purchased online and divert them to warehouses where spyware and hardware could be installed before sending them to customers.

On December 17, 2013, Federal District Court Judge Richard J. Leon argued against the NSA spying programs calling them, “almost Orwellian,” in a 68-page landmark ruling stating, “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen.”

In 2008, during his campaign for president, Barack Obama promised to end the Bush regime’s unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping programs. In February of that year he stated, “We can give our intelligence and law enforcement community the powers they need to track down and take out terrorists without undermining our commitment to the rule of law, or our basic rights and liberties.”

Unfortunately, under Obama’s watch, the massive power of the NSA has only grown by leaps and strides beginning with his five-year extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2012.

In response to the global debate over Snowden’s leaks, the President commissioned a review panel that published a 300-page report on December 18, 2013, recommending substantial reforms including the termination of bulk data-collection by the NSA. Despite this suggestion, on January 17, 2014, President Obama gave a speech deflecting his panel’s legitimate concerns and severely understating the dangers of the NSA’s systematic violations of the fourth amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. Though acknowledging the tremendous impact of Snowden’s leaks, Obama proposed piecemeal policy reforms that essentially rubber-stamped the NSA’s unconstitutional programs such as Prism, Boundless Informant, and X Keyscore. He claimed the “United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent.” In an article for the Guardian, Glen Greenwald called the reforms a “PR attempt to mollify the public” that served to “make the system prettier and more politically palatable” and “placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged.”

The revolving door that has come unhinged between the private and public sector and the increasing reliance on corporate contractors to carry out government functions are likely to have influenced the decisions to leave these spying programs relatively untouched. For example, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who perjured himself on the Senate floor on March 12, 2013, when asked whether the NSA collected information on US citizens, worked for the same private contractor as Edward Snowden, Booz Allen Hamilton, from 2006-2007. In 2010 at his confirmation hearing, Clapper stated that, “I worked as a contractor for six years myself, so I think I have a good understanding of the contribution that they have made and will continue to make.” This trend in surveillance apparatuses, armies, and privatizing prisons is extremely dangerous. When institutions designed for social control are maintained for profit, their imperative is to not only perpetuate themselves continuously but also expand to meet their shareholder requirements regardless of the social costs or whether there is an actual need for their services.

The repressive capacity of surveillance systems is especially important in light of our sordid national history of counter-intelligence programs (COINTELPRO). With the onset of the Cold War, the FBI used a combination of spying, dirty tricks, and even assassination to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of protesters and liberation movements of many different stripes. This program was exposed by courageous whistleblowers in 1971 who suspected that authorities were engaging in a covert war against dissent but lacked the hard evidence to prove it. As recounted in Betty Medsgar’s stellar new book, The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (2014), nine individuals burglarized an FBI field office in Media, PA, in 1971 to expose the designs of this powerful program. One of the ugliest chapters of this nation’s history was when the FBI used surveillance to obtain blackmail and send an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to kill himself or have his sexual infidelities exposed.

As Will Potter extensively documents in his award-winning book Green Is the New Red (2011), the fear-based tactics once reserved for labor organizers and suspected communists during the McCarthy era have, in the ten years since 9/11, morphed into a highly lucrative witch-hunt against anarchists, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, and any one whose fight for social, economic or ecological justice threatens the bottom line of Wall Street. Surveillance is used to categorize a person’s politics and strip activists of their rights by falsely labeling them “terrorists.” Take for example recent legislation like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). The wording of this law previously stated that a person could be charged with “terrorism” for “physically disrupting,” animal enterprise but this was later changed to “damaging and interfering” with any animal enterprise business. This ambiguous phrasing has been interpreted to include civil disobedience and even investigative journalism within the rubric of “terrorism”.

As people active in struggles in the Pacific Northwest know, surveillance of our communities is what led the FBI to break down the front doors of three local Olympians with warrants to seize “black clothing, paint, sticks, flags, computers and cell phones, and anti-government or anarchist literature.” Maddy Pfeifer, Katherine Olejnik, and Matt Duran spent several months in solitary confinement for refusing to cooperate with the Grand Jury supposedly convened to investigate the events of May 1, 2012, but public records showed the grand jury had been planned two months before May Day happened. It is no accident that the individuals targeted by the Grand Jury had been active in the the anti-war movement from 2007-2009 when John Towery, a criminal intelligence analyst working with the US Army, infiltrated the movement and sent intelligence to the Washington State Fusion Center (an multi-jurisdictional information sharing network between local, state, federal, military, and private partners). The surveillance that Towery conducted at that time tagged these individuals as “persons of interest” which may have contributed to their consideration as “high value targets” to be subjected to a Grand Jury even years later.

The years of fabricated arrests, false charges, and campaigns of harassment against myself and other activists in the Pacific Northwest demonstrate the danger of criminalizing certain ideas and selectively enforcing laws in retaliatory ways that can socially, politically, and economically disenfranchise people deemed to have the “wrong” politics. In preparing for the lawsuit brought against John Towery, documented proof surfaced that at least four protesters were entered into a “national domestic terrorist database with pictures, and identifying personal information along with false claims alleging a propensity for violence.” Also discussed in the legal brief brought against John Towery were “threat assessments” and “force protection memos” written as if protesters “were an enemy military force that had to be defeated in battle instead of non-violent civilians exercising their first amendment rights.”

With this distorted outlook, how far will the authorities go to crush dissent when our democratic rights to protest and redress grievances can be conflated with “terrorism”? The most recent Snowden leaks published earlier this month seem to offer a glimpse into that nightmarish future. The article written by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill confirmed that NSA surveillance is key to the military’s assassination program abroad: “the NSA ‘geolocates’ the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s mobile phone, enabling the CIA and U.S. military to conduct night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the individual in possession of the device.”

Paul French, aka Strife, is an Olympia resident, a musician, and a member of the area’s vibrant activist community.

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