Last June, Edward Snowden’s blockbuster surveillance disclosures were revealed, capturing headlines across the globe. And one year later, disclosures continue to trickle out, a testament to the extent of the documents he was able to download while working as a spy for the US government. The former NSA contractor turned whistleblower was back in the headlines this May, when he granted his first American television interview since the disclosures began; a major get for NBC. Brian Williams tries doggedly to put Snowden on the defensive, with veiled and not-so-veiled accusations of treason and spying for Russia (where Snowden lives in asylum). But there are the questions he fails to ask: namely, anything concerning the dragnet surveillance programs Snowden was trained in using. And while NBC’s line of questioning is telling, it’s not surprising. We should expect no less from the dinosaurs of Old Media, ever quick to take up a defense of institutional power.
The era of Snowden leaks is rife with contradictions, and it demands that we ask hard questions of our own. What’s to be gained from the NSA reform inching its way through Congress? Who are the journalists that made the Snowden leaks possible, and what are their limitations? We must move beyond Snowden and his journalist associates if we truly want to see an end to the new surveillance state.
Of Pigs and Politicians
On May 22nd, The House of Representatives passed a version of the “USA Freedom Act,” with the supposed intent of reforming the NSA. But according to a Democratic Congresswoman interviewed by The Hill, the bill was “effectively gutted of its most meaningful provisions before reaching the House floor.” Among the provisions axed from the bill was an oversight board for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). A critical statement by the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued ahead of the vote said “the inability to introduce a special advocate in the FISA Court severely weakens the bill.”
NPR’S coverage on FISA from June 2013 called FISA a “rubber stamp.”
The government always gets what it wants. And here’s a number that seems to support that: 1,856. That’s the number of applications presented to the court by the government last year. And it’s also the number that the court approved: 100 percent success.
Less than a month after NPR’s report, The New York Times drew a worrying parallel between FISA appointees and expanding presidential powers, citing the court’s “increasing proportion of judges who have a background in the executive branch”:
Senator Blumenthal, citing his own experience as a United States attorney and a state prosecutor, said judges who used to be executive branch lawyers were more likely to share a “get the bad guys” mind-set and defer to the Justice Department if executive branch officials told them that new surveillance powers were justified.
To put it bluntly, the landscape of 21st century American politics is a wasteland for privacy protections and the civil liberties supposedly enshrined in law. A deliberate, coordinated failure in the government to restrict the powers of NSA spying. The FISA court provides nothing less than pseudo-legal cover for the extra-judicial killings carried out under the covert drone program.
Starry-eyed liberals and Constitution-waving Tea Partiers alike look to Congress and the courts for surveillance “reform” that will never be delivered. The ironically named “USA Freedom Act,” touted by its supporters as an “end to bulk phone data collection” is in fact authored by the NSA’s legislative fan club. Were the bill to pass through the Senate and garner Obama’s signature, as promised, the Freedom Act will coat NSA practices with a veneer of legality for generations, while failing to address the most significant revelations of the post-Snowden leaks era.
Here is but a partial list of NSA activities the Freedom Act conspicuously ignores:
- Systemic efforts to compromise the servers of System Administrators indiscriminately.
- The NSA’s widespread use of malware to infect computers and imbed surveillance devices within them, including “automated systems that reduce the level of human oversight in the process.”
- Industrial espionage targeting, among others, corporations in China and Germany.
- Psychological Operations, or Psyops, to “manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.” [Note: The Intercept’s report on clandestine Psyops are based on documents authored by Britian’s GCHQ and subsequently shared with the NSA].
No Way Forward, No Way Out
Who stands to gain the most from the passage of the USA Freedom Act? Certainly not the political dissidents in the US attempting to carry on the difficult task of resistance: the central issues of government overreach in the domestic political sphere remain unaddressed. Nor will the relatives of drone strike victims find much to celebrate in the bill’s likely passage.
The chief beneficiaries of the Freedom Act’s passing will be the NSA itself. Obama and Congressional Democrats will pronounce any debate over the surveillance state as settled. What will remain untouched is the technological basis of the NSA spying apparatus: their multi-billion dollar investment in technologies of repression and control.
WikiLeaks and The Intercept
One of the most interesting aspects of the Snowden leaks saga over the past year has been tracking the career moves of filmmaker Laura Poitras and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Together with Jeremey Scahill, director of Dirty Wars, the trio founded news website The Intercept in February 2014, to “provide a platform to report on the documents previously provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden,” while promising to “produce fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues.”
Recently, however, their “fearless, adversarial” label stretched a bit thin, when The Intercept declined to publish the name of a country whose phone calls were being collected on a mass scale by the NSA, opting instead to refer to it as “Country X” in a report on the MYSTIC “voice interception program.”
WikiLeaks came out strong against The Intercept’s report, issuing a full statement denouncing the censorship:
We know from previous reporting that the National Security Agency’s mass interception system is a key component in the United States’ drone targeting program., [which has] killed thousands of people and hundreds of women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in violation of international law… WikiLeaks has confirmed that the identity of [The Intercept’s Country X] is Afghanistan.
The irony of Wikileaks’ intervention is surely not lost on Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald, whose inaugural Intercept expose detailed the central role of NSA phone surveillance in planning and executing drone assassinations. According to a former JSOC drone operator used as a corroborating source throughout the report:
The NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls…“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” he says. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.
Why would Greenwald and Scahill, director and star of a brutal expose on the drone programs, censor this information at the behest of the United States? The report itself cites “credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence.” This is absurd when you consider that the country in question is Afghanistan, which has suffered somewhere in the range of 18,00 to 20,000 civilian casualties under US occupation. But another possible motive for the censorship is revealed by Snowden himself in Part 4 of his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams last month:
The journalists have been required by their agreement with me as the source, although obviously they could break that or do whatever they want, but I demanded that they agree to consult with the government to make sure that no individuals or specific harms could be caused by that reporting.
The Intercept still has not clarified how reporting on dragnet surveillance of the Afghan population could cause harm to specific individuals. While Greenwald and company have been hailed as the vanguard of a new, adversarial, journalism, we see the same caving to institutional pressures that define mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
And while there is much to admire in the actions of Snowden himself, he too falls short as a role model for resistance in the present age. Since revealing himself in a video aired by The Guardian in June 2013, he has maintained his identity as a patriot. In his NBC interview, he even told Brian Williams that he is “still serving [his] government.” But these notions are the same ones used to justify the existence of the NSA, the surveillance state, and the endless War on Terror.
The political processes have not failed: they perpetuate the system perfectly. In my view, any significant changes will be decidedly antipolitical: riots, revolt, and refusal. It’s not enough to expose the NSA’s practices and thus reform them, just as a “citizen’s review board” is helpless to change the fundamentals of police and policing. Courts, politicians, police, spies, drones, the prisons: all of them must go. Each piece of the controlling system is essential to its workings and cannot function independent of the others. The end of NSA surveillance cannot come from Snowden, Greenwald, or The Intercept: it requires a push above and beyond them.