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Foxes Monitoring Foxes: Obama and Warrantless Spying

Foxes Monitoring Foxes: Obama and Warrantless Spying

By Dennis Loo (1/23/14)

Obama’s speech last week Friday - billed as his “reforms” of the NSA’s universal warrantless surveillance in which he actually describes Paul Revere as an early “secret surveillance” agent – are not reforms any more than a criminal who has been systematically breaking into your home and snooping into every aspect of your life is reforming what he’s doing when he says, after being caught red-handed, that he’s going to continue doing what he’s been doing, but he’s going to be neater about it:

“Instead of looking into three layers of your records, I am only going to go two layers deep.”

It’s as if this burglar, in justifying his actions, told you that he is actually the neighborhood watch captain and that in order to prevent criminals from breaking into homes and harming the residents, he must continue to look for criminals by breaking into everyone’s homes constantly, in case one of the residents is secretly a burglar.

Now assuming that you are still calmly listening to this absurd explanation from this thief with unbelievable chutzpah that you have in front of you, you might then be moved to ask him something like this: “Don’t the police have the fingerprints and a description of the gang that broke into that house down the street back in 2001? Why aren’t you trying to find that gang and their associates? Why are you treating every single person on this street as suspects?”

To which our intrepid thief says confidently, as if to say, I don’t really even need to tell you, but since you asked: “I’m balancing your rights to privacy with the needs to secure the neighborhood against outside threats.”

In the welter of double-speak that we hear from Obama, Congress, and most of the punditocracy, it is somewhat difficult for us to see clearly what’s actually going on here. To assist in clarifying matters, a few facts that lie at the heart of this matter need to be put forward in a forthright manner.

Fact #1: The massive warrantless surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications began before 9/11 and was not therefore provoked by and is not explained by 9/11. The Bush Regime began secretly monitoring and collecting every American’s phone calls and Internet activity in February of 2001, seven months before 9/11.

Fact #2: As Edward Snowden has said, and as I have been writing about for years,[1] the government’s universal warrantless surveillance (what Obama calls “bulk data collection”) isn’t about stopping terrorist attacks. It’s about social control and repression of dissent. If your real target isn’t terrorists but the entire world’s population, then of course it makes sense to be spying on everyone because your real enemy is everyone. If, on the other hand, your goal is actually to detect and prevent or at least minimize anti-state terrorist incidents, then you would put all of your resources into tracking known and suspected terrorists, just as any sane police detective would try to track down a serial killer by trying to determine the killer’s profile and MO. This detective would not try to track down this killer by gathering data on every single person in the nation and beyond and track everyone’s thoughts and daily activities. Such a strategy would be literally crazy.

Yet that is exactly what we are being told is what the NSA et al are doing and that this is necessary to keep us safe. To paraphrase the famous quote from the Vietnam War about how a village had to be destroyed in order to save it: “We had to destroy your freedoms in order to preserve your freedoms.”

Fact #3: Obama says that warrants have been and still are necessary before the NSA collects and/or monitors American citizens’ electronic communications. As I have previously pointed out, this is a flat out lie. For example,

On September 7, 2013 the Washington Post reported

The Obama administration secretly won permission from a surveillance court in 2011 to reverse restrictions on the National Security Agency’s use of intercepted phone calls and e-mails, permitting the agency to search deliberately for Americans’ communications in its massive databases, according to interviews with government officials and recently declassified material.

In other words, in direct contradiction to Obama’s flat assertions that the government was not and is not doing this, denials necessitated by Edward Snowden’s revelations, the Obama Administration has been and is deliberately taking both meta-data and the full contents of Americans’ electronic activities and communications.

Here is what Obama said on the Charlie Rose show on June 17, 2013:

Obama: ... Now, with respect to the NSA, a government agency that has been in the intelligence-gathering business for a very long time --

CHARLIE ROSE: Bigger and better than everybody else.  

BARACK OBAMA: -- bigger and better than everybody else and we should take pride in that because they’re extraordinary professionals. They’re dedicated to keeping the American people safe. What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails.  

CHARLIE ROSE: And have not?  

BARACK OBAMA: And have not. They cannot and have not -- by law and by rule. And unless they -- and usually it wouldn’t be they, it would be the FBI -- go to a court and obtain a warrant and seek probable cause. The same way it’s always been...

“Transparency,” dear friends, means lying.

“Meta-data” means “Mendacity.”

The Post article further reveals that this supervisory body, the FISA court that Obama says provides rigorous oversight to make sure nothing bad is being done, gave the Obama Administration whatever it asked for. When the Obama Administration wanted to suspend its power to look at Americans’ electronic communications in 2008, FISA said “Ok.” When in 2011 the Obama Administration changed its mind and wanted to get permission from FISA to once again spy on Americans’ electronic communications without a warrant, FISA said “Ok” again.

Note further Obama’s language in his Charlie Rose interview: “I can say unequivocally … if you are a U.S. person the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your emails.”

Apparently, “U.S. person” must have a different meaning for Obama than what the rest of us think a “U.S. person” is.

Perhaps to the Obama Administration, "U.S. person" means "the individuals who we lie to every chance we get."

In this latest speech, Obama continues this lie. For example, “the legal safeguards that restrict surveillance against U.S. persons without a warrant do not apply to foreign persons overseas.”

It is probably worthwhile given the thick fog of misrepresentations and assurances that the government is taking care of us and has our best interests in mind to revisit one aspect of the NSA’s program. This is from a July 31, 2013 article by Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian:

XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'

• XKeyscore gives 'widest-reaching' collection of online data
• NSA analysts require no prior authorization for searches
• Sweeps up emails, social media activity and browsing history
NSA's XKeyscore program – read one of the presentations

A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The NSA boasts in training materials that the program, called XKeyscore, is its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet.

The latest revelations will add to the intense public and congressional debate around the extent of NSA surveillance programs. They come as senior intelligence officials testify to the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday, releasing classified documents in response to the Guardian's earlier stories on bulk collection of phone records and Fisa surveillance court oversight.

The files shed light on one of Snowden's most controversial statements, made in his first video interview published by the Guardian on June 10.

"I, sitting at my desk," said Snowden, could "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email".

US officials vehemently denied this specific claim. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said of Snowden's assertion: "He's lying. It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."

Fact #4: Obama’s public persona of caring about “liberty” and “Constitutional rights” is the opposite of his behind-the-scenes behaviors and policies. Consider, for example, this gem, reported by McClatchy newspapers June 22, 2013:

Even before a former U.S. intelligence contractor [Snowden] exposed the secret collection of Americans’ phone records, the Obama administration was pressing a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.

President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of “insider threat” give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.

Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.

“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy for the program that was obtained by McClatchy.

This is not merely or even mainly a case of audacious deceitfulness by Obama. It is more importantly a sign of the nature of post-Cold War neoliberal regimes as a whole: no longer threatened by the alternative of a socialist camp, the capitalist camp headed up by the US must pursue a strategy in which everyone now must be treated as a suspect. They have no choice but to do this because the very workings of capitalism and imperialism in which market forces are given free rein to shred the social fabric asunder and destroy the planet’s resources are forcing people into unsustainable conditions and driving them to resist. This is a certainty:

  1. The gap between the obscenely wealthy and the impoverished will continue to widen (Oxfam reported this week that the world’s 85 richest individuals now have more wealth than the bottom half, 3.5 billion people, on Earth. This is an intensification of what was true a few years ago: the 497 richest individuals had as much as the bottom half of the world’s population.
  2. People will resist their exploitation and the destruction of the means to life around them.
  3. The only way to forestall this rebelliousness from fundamentally undoing this absurd and criminal order is to try to fool people (at this point, led by Obama) and repress the people (also, at this point, led by Obama).

The standard is no longer that you must commit a crime or be suspected of having committed a crime based on actual tangible evidence. The standard is now that you can be labeled and treated as a terrorist if someone in authority does not like who you are, what you stand for, or something that you have either done or might do. I don’t say this as hype; I say this as the literal unvarnished truth.

There is one final point I’d like to make here.

If you were a member of al-Qaeda, would you be using cell phones or the Internet to speak to anyone who you were associated with in planning your terrorist activities? As I wrote in June, 13, 2013, in “Those Who Cry Treason,”

We know from none other than the CIA that in the hunt for bin Laden that al-Qaeda communicated with bin Laden through courier and not through cell phones, email, or landline phones because they already knew the U.S. was monitoring electronic communications. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2008, for example, “Bin Laden was known not to use phones after 1998, when the U.S. had launched missile strikes against his bases in Afghanistan and Sudan in August (Operation Infinite Reach) by tracking an associate's satellite phone.[22]

If you were using the Internet at all, would you not use coded language that appeared to be innocuous?

And if many young people and others in the US know about using TOR, a free downloadable program which prevents anyone from tracking your ISP address by constantly changing the ISP address that you are using, relying on a large number of host computers around the world volunteered for this purpose, then do you not think that someone in al-Qaeda must have also discovered the benefits of TOR? Would not any al-Qaeda or similar terrorist group who was actually using a computer for whatever reason use TOR, in which case the NSA’s universal warrantless surveillance would be rendered ineffective against such individuals and groups?

The NSA continues to try to crack TOR but so far it’s been unable. As PC World reported on October 4, 2013:

Another day, another revelation revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks. Friday, The Guardian reported that the U.S. NSA and its British equivalent, the GCHQ, have been actively trying to defeat the encrypted protection provided by the popular Tor anonymity software.

But amazingly, it appears the attempts have failed. The latest Snowden leak suggests that Tor has actually withstood the brunt of the NSA’s efforts thus far.

“We will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time,” according to a leaked presentation titled ‘Tor Stinks,’ the Guardian reports. “With manual analysis, we can de-anonymize a very small fraction of Tor users.”

If the NSA can’t at least for now crack TOR, and since terrorists’ lives depend upon not being discovered by the NSA et al and so using either TOR or something equivalent to it, then what does this do to the NSA’s surveillance over the Internet over the very individuals that they claim they’re specifically after? It makes it useless and renders the NSA and Obama’s continuing claims that they must continue their warrantless universal surveillance over all of the rest of us a massive deceit. It underscores Fact #2: this massive warrantless surveillance isn’t intended to avoid anti-state terrorist attacks. It’s intended to be used against us. We are the enemy.


[1] I explore these questions most thoroughly in Chapters Three and Four of Globalization and the Demolition of Society. For online articles, one of the earlier pieces is my 2007 article, “Fighting Terror with Terror…”


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Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12