Thanks to Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras, we know the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting a huge amount of information about American citizens. But what are they doing with it?
Government officials have been quick to deny any "misuse" of this huge data bank – beyond the to-be-expected eavesdropping on spouses, and other anomalous pranks by errant ex-employees – and critics have so far focused on potential misuse. Well, now we know it’s much more than just potential: it’s real, it’s happening, and it’s downright scary.
The rationale for the Surveillance State has always been "the foreign connection." There are these Bad Guys outside the US, you see, who are trying to infiltrate our society and cause violent havoc, so we have to create this huge "haystack" of data and sift through it with a fine-toothed comb – but Americans, we’re told, aren’t the primary targets. It’s them furriners we have to worry about.
This turned out to be a lie. We always knew it was a lie, but now James Risen and Laura Poitras have confirmed it in a recent New York Times article that blows the lid off this rationalization:
"Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials."
The "foreign connection" was only ever a fig leaf, utilized to get around existing laws forbidding mass surveillance of Americans: this had to be true because, after all, Al Qaeda and its affiliates were and are a foreign group trying to gain entry to our shores and implant its operatives on our soil. Ipso facto, it was deemed necessary to gain access to the entire "haystack" in order to map their success in doing so. The focus isn’t on overseas operatives but on their allies inside the United States who might conceivably be utilized in terrorist attacks. Pushing the legal limits of this mass surveillance, US government officials finally breached the walls of the Constitution in November 2010, when, as Risen and Poitras report, they began to "examine American’s networks of associations."
In an empire such as ours, the distinction between a "foreigner" and an American is increasingly hazy: every empire is a multi-cultural polyglot, by definition, and the American imperium more so than any other, surpassing even the British. For are we not a country of immigrants, an idea more than a nation in the European sense? Americans are connected through a thousand threads to foreign nationals, and once it was deemed "legal" to collect "meta-data" – i.e. records of our phone calls – the rest followed logically and inevitably.
Risen and Poitras report that a January 2011 memo, uncovered by Snowden, authorized the NSA to run "’large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness’ of every e-mail address, phone number or other identifier, the document said."
And that’s not all:
"The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents. They do not indicate any restrictions on the use of such ‘enrichment’ data, and several former senior Obama administration officials said the agency drew on it for both Americans and foreigners."
Here is a perfect illustration of how the advancement of government power works: give them an inch or three – access to "meta-data" – and they take a mile. What we wind up with is a perfect framework for a police state. Although we still don’t know how many innocent Americans have been caught up in this dragnet, the old "six degrees of separation" principle certainly applies in this case: anybody can be "linked" to anybody, given the sheer amount of information at the government’s disposal.
When Risen and Poitras asked the NSA about these "graphical analyses" of Americans’ data, a spokeswoman replied:
"All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period. All of N.S.A.’s work has a foreign intelligence purpose. Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cybersecurity."
That’s easy enough. For example, when the US government decided that Antiwar.com merited an "investigation," all they had to do was establish a fairly dubious "foreign connection" – one of their terrorist suspects had apparently visited this web site – and the rest followed from there. Since the Internet is global, enabling instantaneous communication worldwide, any web site can be targeted for "terrorist" activities or be characterized – as we were – as an "agent of a foreign power." This is how Americans exercising their First Amendment rights are targeted as "terrorists," spied on, harassed, and smeared by the most powerful government on earth. This is how a police state – operating in the dark – establishes itself, and extends its tentacles in an ever-widening arc of repression.
They can map out your whole life: your friends, your family, your finances, your enemies, your politics, your love affairs, your consultations with a doctor or a psychiatrist, and your location at any given time. They don’t need a warrant: they don’t need a judge: they just need to establish a "foreign connection" – and, as we have seen, that’s real easy.
Furthermore, once this data is obtained, it is stored away for later use: one NSA memo says it can be legally kept for ten years for "historical searches." They should call that one the "Blackmail File."
As Risen and Poitras document, a usurpation of the Constitution initiated by the Bush administration only gathered speed during the reign of the "liberal" Obama: so much for the partisan hacks who defend this administration at all costs.
What the NSA is doing, at the direction of the executive branch, represents a mortal threat to the Constitution. As such, it cannot be "reformed" or ameliorated by any kind of "oversight." As Risen and Poitras point out, the battering ram of "national security" was aimed at the feeble protections proffered by previous legislation – and these fell easily to the NSA’s relentless onslaught. Governments, once given this kind of power, invariably seek to expand it: the only way to stop this invasive process is to abolish that power altogether.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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