Remember What Snowden Told Us
So there was this interview yesterday on PBS News Hour with Sue Gordon, a former senior intelligence official, who said:
I think domestic extremism is a particularly challenging issue, number one, from an intelligence perspective.
Remember, our intelligence community doesn’t typically or statutorily look at U.S. citizens, so you don’t have the advantage of that craft in the way you might for other threats, to just our Constitution, the rights of citizens.
And then, if law enforcement is the lead, law enforcement needs some sort of predicate. You have to have done something. And so if nothing is manifest, it’s difficult.
Do I think that we need a moment of considering how we’re going to deal with this threat that looks like it’s going to be with us for awhile? Yes, I think you almost need a 9/11 Commission kind of activity. It’s got to be a combination of FBI. It has to include DHS. And you have got to find a way to bring intelligence or the craft of intelligence into it.
And I done think that’s in one organization right now. You know, as an old intelligence hand, there are elements of this that remind me of the rise of Islamic extremism and what it looks like. And there are probably a fair number of lessons that we learned in the fight against foreign terrorism that can be applied here and some lessons that we probably don’t want to apply.
Now would be a very good time for everybody to go back and reacquaint themselves with what Edward Snowden revealed about US intelligence and surveillance capabilities. Here is a short list.
Every one of us should be aware that nothing we do electronically — not our phone calls, not our e-mails, not our non-cash transactions, not our texts, nothing — is private. In Citizenfour, the documentary Laura Poitras made about Snowden, All of it is scooped up by the NSA and stored for future mining using artificial intelligence. It may never be accessed, but it’s there if they feel the need to get at it.
“We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” Snowden says, in the movie. And:
Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.
This is not science fiction. It’s our reality. InLive Not By Lies, I refer to Snowden:
In his 2019 memoir, Permanent Record, Snowden writes of learning that the US government was developing the capacity of an eternal law-enforcement agency.
At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration—any future rogue head of the NSA—could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.
Snowden writes about a public speech that the Central Intelligence Agency’s chief technology officer, Gus Hunt, gave to a tech group in 2013 that caused barely a ripple. Only the Huffington Post covered it. In the speech, Hunt said, “It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human-generated information.” He added that after the CIA masters capturing that data, it intends to develop the capability of saving and analyzing it.
Understand what this means: your private digital life belongs to the State, and always will. For the time being, we have laws and practices that prevent the government from using that information against individuals, unless it suspects they are involved in terrorism, criminal activity, or espionage. But over and over dissidents told me that the law is not a reliable refuge: if the government is determined to take you out, it will manufacture a crime from the data it has captured, or otherwise deploy it to destroy your reputation.
As repulsive as the insurrectionists and right-wing extremists are, Americans should ask themselves if they really want to further empower the State to turn this Eye of Sauron onto this country and its people. I remember what it was like back in the early 2000s, about how easy it was to allow fear and loathing of Islamic terrorists to override any suspicion one had of government power.
Joe Biden has said that he wants to pass a “domestic terrorism” bill. Based on Biden’s long Senate record of supporting surveillance legislation, the left-wing magazine Jacobin raises the alarm:
Given this history, and recent events, Biden’s purported plan to introduce a new domestic terrorism law gives us plenty of reason to worry. As in 2001, the ground currently looks fertile for such legislation to find a big (and potentially bipartisan) constituency even if its contents prove repressive or heavy-handed. The Trump era, with its incessant valorizing of security and intelligence officials and general atmosphere of emergency, has worryingly seemed to lay the groundwork for something resembling a second Patriot Act to find support among liberals — especially if they’re encouraged to believe its sole targets will be figures associated with the likes of QAnon. Against this backdrop, the deep (and understandable) sense of shock in the wake of this month’s Capitol storming will probably act like gasoline poured on an open flame.
However such legislation may be justified with liberal-sounding language, there’s absolutely no reason to believe authorities wouldn’t use new powers to target groups that have nothing to do with Donald Trump or Trumpism. Police almost certainly infiltrated Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and American law enforcement has a long and ignominious history of targeting progressive groups — not to mention socialists, trade unions, and civil rights activists. As this history suggests, the premise behind any new anti-terrorism law will also be wrong on its face: the American state hardly faces excessive restrictions on its capacity to surveil, discipline, and punish. (The FBI, to take an obvious example, already possesses considerable power to investigate groups suspected of extremist activity.)
And, while there is seldom a good time to restrict civil liberties, the aftermath of a bloody riot in the Capitol that raises serious questions about police conduct, and about the presence of far-right forces inside law enforcement, seems like a particularly bad moment to do so.
After the September 11 attacks, Congress hastily approved a sweeping and Orwellian piece of legislation that drew heavily on a bill written by Joe Biden. With Biden about to enter office amid a climate of social instability and deep public anxiety, there’s an all-too-real risk that history will repeat itself.
There’s a line in Citizenfour from a young civil rights lawyer, who points out that what we now call “privacy” we used to call “liberty.” There’s a direct connection, he explains, between liberty and privacy. In that sense, Americans had better learn to love liberty more than they hate their enemies.
UPDATE:Must-read latest from Glenn Greenwald. Excerpt:
Continuing to process Washington debates of this sort primarily through the prism of “Democrat v. Republican” or even “left v. right” is a sure ticket to the destruction of core rights. There are times when powers of repression and censorship are aimed more at the left and times when they are aimed more at the right, but it is neither inherently a left-wing nor a right-wing tactic. It is a ruling class tactic, and it will be deployed against anyone perceived to be a dissident to ruling class interests and orthodoxies no matter where on the ideological spectrum they reside.
The last several months of politician-and-journalist-demanded Silicon Valley censorship has targeted the right, but prior to that and simultaneously it has often targeted those perceived as on the left. The government has frequently declared right-wing domestic groups “terrorists,” while in the 1960s and 1970s it was left-wing groups devoted to anti-war activism which bore that designation. In 2011, British police designated the London version of Occupy Wall Street a “terrorist” group. In the 1980s, the African National Congress was so designated. “Terrorism” is an amorphous term that was created, and will always be used, to outlaw formidable dissent no matter its source or ideology.
If you identify as a conservative and continue to believe that your prime enemies are ordinary leftists, or you identify as a leftist and believe your prime enemies are Republican citizens, you will fall perfectly into the trap set for you. Namely, you will ignore your real enemies, the ones who actually wield power at your expense: ruling class elites, who really do not care about “right v. left” and most definitely do not care about “Republican v. Democrat” — as evidenced by the fact that they fund both parties — but instead care only about one thing: stability, or preservation of the prevailing neoliberal order.
Unlike so many ordinary citizens addicted to trivial partisan warfare, these ruling class elites know who their real enemies are: anyone who steps outside the limits and rules of the game they have crafted and who seeks to disrupt the system that preserves their prerogatives and status.