U.S. domestic surveillance dangers are not theoretical

The ongoing revelations of the National Security Agency’s large set of domestic surveillance programs – including the collection of telephone metadata, internet traffic, search requests, email, satellite communications, and domestic mail tracking – now present us with a defining issue. The outcome of the struggle over this issue will be defining for the course of the nation, and the rights of its citizens.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation has suffered a slow but relentless expansion of domestic surveillance activities that appears now to have well surpassed the far-reaching, illegal domestic surveillance programs undertaken by the FBI under the decades-long leadership of J. Edgar Hoover.

We would do well to keep in mind that the dangers posed by domestic surveillance are not imaginary. As I have noted previously, there is a well-documented history of utilizing information collected during illegal domestic surveillance operations to blackmail, discredit or otherwise silence political dissidents.

As an ACLU report notes, between 1960 and 1974, the FBI maintained files on some 1 million American citizens, investigated a half million individuals it considered “subversives,” and regularly used tactics like illegal break-ins – referred to as “black bag jobs” – and warrantless wiretapping to collect information used for a variety of what the report calls “unsavory and viscous tactics.”

Citing reports produced by the Church Committee, a Senate investigation into domestic surveillance, the ACLU report notes that the FBI deployed tactics such as “anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupting meetings, ostracizing people from their professions and provoking target groups into rivalries that could have caused deaths.”

The most often noted incident was the effort to blackmail Martin Luther King as he broadened his activism from opposition to Jim Crow into opposition to the war in Vietnam and the notion of forming a “poor people’s movement.”

The report notes that there have been countless similar instances, including efforts to keep one-time University of California president Clark Kerr from finding employment, spying on School of the America’s Watch (an organization that works to close a training facility at Fort Benning, Ga. which has provided counterinsurgency training to the leaders of countless South and Central American death squads), and infiltrating the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements.

The report notes that many abuses from the ‘60s and ‘70s are only now coming to light as FBI files are declassified, though it also notes several similar instances from the last decade.

We should bear in mind that many of these abuses occurred at a time when surveillance was money and manpower intensive, technically difficult and time-consuming. That is no longer the case.

And there are serious allegations that abuses similar to those carried out by the FBI are now being carried out by the NSA.

NSA whistleblower Russell Tice, who was fired from the agency in 2005 after calling for better whistleblower protections, alleges that he personally saw surveillance files on business and industrial leaders, politicians, judges, anti-war groups and environmentalists. Nothing he has said is verifiable as of yet.

NSA whistleblower William Benny, a mathematician who worked for the agency until 2001, told the News Hour last week that he believes the government is collecting not only metadata but the content of telephone calls.

“I think, semantically, they’re trying to say that their definition of collection is having, literally, a physical analyst look or listen,” Benny said, noting that, by his estimation, a new data storage facility set to come on line next month in Utah could hold “roughly 100 years of the world’s communications.”

Whether the NSA is actually recording and storing phone calls is mostly irrelevant because the fact that they can collect all telephone metadata at all means that they have tapped into all telephone communications. The metadata is not sent separately. If the NSA is not recording phone calls, it is only because they are choosing not to. And they could change their minds.

Whether such abuses using NSA-collected data are occurring at present is not the crux of the issue. The crux of the issue is that the intelligence community has vast standing surveillance infrastructure, powerful storage and data mining technology, a near-total lack of oversight and a culture of secrecy. It doubtless has information on Americans opposed to its interests, and therefore has incentive to use that information to harm them.

The unique danger of the NSA’S surveillance programs is that they render domestic surveillance so incredibly easy. The potential for current and future abuse is essentially limitless.

The citizens of West Virginia can do something about this. Sen. Jay Rockefeller currently sits on, and formerly chaired, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. His constituents can and should pressure him to support a Church Committee-style investigation into the post-9/11 growth of the surveillance state.

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