It was interesting that Glenn Greenwald's revelations in The Guardian about the NSA's "PRISM" total surveillance program popped up around the same time that the trial of Bradley Manning began (with the firestorm of coverage in the mainstream media prompting Cryptogon to wonder why they've piped up all of a sudden - by some random coincidence the Bilderberg conference is on at the moment - even "Enemy of the State" - one of my favourite movies - was on TV here this weekend).
The Atlantic has a good summary of the news - Birth of the Surveillance State.
On December 20, 2002, a Senate Intelligence Committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today one of the most vociferous critics of the so-called "surveillance state," came to the following conclusion in its official report on the mistakes that led to 9/11: The National Security Agency had harmed U.S. counterterrorism efforts that might have prevented that terrible day because of the agency's "failure to address modern communications technology aggressively."
The report, a joint effort of the Senate committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, blamed "NSA's cautious approach to any collection of intelligence relating to activities in the United States, and insufficient collaboration between NSA and the FBI regarding the potential for terrorist attacks within the United States."
The Senate-House report said the NSA simply could not keep up with the explosion of information technology. "Only a tiny fraction" of the NSA's 650 million daily intercepts worldwide "are actually ever reviewed by humans, and much of what is collected gets lost in the deluge of data," the report said. In interviews at the time, then-NSA Director Michael Hayden explained why: The NSA, originally authorized to conduct monitoring only overseas, was effectively a Cold War dinosaur that was going "deaf" since its main mission of tracking "signals intelligence," known as Sigint, from the Soviet Union had ended.
"We have gone from chasing the telecommunications structure of a slow-moving, technologically inferior, resource-poor nation-state--and we could do that pretty well - to chasing a communications structure in which an al-Qaida member can go into a storefront in Istanbul and buy for $100 a communications device that is absolutely cutting edge, and for which he has had to make no investment in its development. That's what we've got to deal with," Hayden told me in an interview in mid-2002.
In congressional testimony leading up to that critical Senate-House report, Hayden explained the NSA had gone from tracking a relatively small number of Soviet communications pipelines -- microwave transmissions, for example, from Moscow to various ICBM bases -- to trying to keep up with billions of conversations on phones and emails in a world in which technological borders had been erased, and much of this traffic was now being routed through the United States. This huge new challenge was coming at a time when the super-secret agency had "downsized about a third of its manpower and about the same proportion of its budget in the '90s," the era of the so-called post-Cold War peace dividend, Hayden said in his testimony. "That's the same decade when mobile cell phones increased from 16 million to 741 million--an increase of 50 times. That's the same decade when Internet users went from about four to 361 million."
These perceived deficiencies, and the NSA's aggressive efforts to redress them since then, make up the real backdrop to the latest scandal that has engulfed Washington, this time over what appears to be a massive infringement of American civil liberties. And despite the outrage voiced by senators such as Wyden and other critics, the truth about what the NSA and intelligence and investigative community is doing is far more complex than the rhetoric might lead you to believe.
Most important of all, almost the entire U.S. government has been on board in promoting it.
After many struggles and failures in the last decade, the NSA did finally come up with new approaches to keeping up with the traffic. One such approach was the NSA's "PRISM" program, disclosed Thursday by The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper. The newspapers revealed that the NSA and FBI have set up a program to tap directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, "extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates," as the Post wrote. The program was reportedly set up in cooperation with the major companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.
Crikey's Guy Rundle is sounding even more like a marxist academic then usual lately - here's his take on the story - All hail Snowden, the hero who exposed a government.
Like many people around the world, I’ve spent the last 48 hours tracking, reading, watching, refreshing and barely sleeping, as a torrent of stories of total surveillance run by the National Security Agency have come to light through the US journalist Glenn Greenwald, published in The Guardian.
The leaks revealed total blanket phone call metadata (origin, length of calls, networks and connections) by the NSA, followed by the voluntary turning-over of mass amounts of data by private internet service providers and social media corporations — including Microsoft, Google, Skype and Twitter. Then came news that UK’s Government Communications Headquarters may have been illegal cribbing such data for its own ends. Finally, on the weekend, the leaker revealed himself, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a systems operations operator for Booz Allen Hamilton and Dell, to whom the NSA subcontracted various tasks.
Snowden bobbed up three weeks after leaving Booz Allen Hamilton with 41 carefully chosen pages of dynamite memos. He holed up in Hong Kong, while releasing the memos to people he trusted. He initially approached The Washington Post, but they appear to have been furiously hedging their bets, as have all mainstream US media. He made the decision to reveal his own identity, in order that people could understand that a very ordinary — in the best sense of the word — person was behind it, and to make the intolerable nature of what was revealed to him clear.
The facts are clear enough: while accessing the content of phone calls on old tech lines is protected by limiting laws, no such limit holds on the ISP/social media giants, if they choose to comply with the government. Clients of these services — i.e. everyone — have already signed away their rights, in those huge documents you click “accept” to without reading. The NSA’s mega-data collection centre in Bluffdale Utah has come on stream, and it can collect and store all communicated data for decades. The files are multi-dimensionally searchable by programmes that learn as they go. The idea that the process will be drowned in cat videos is consoling and fanciful.
The PRISM programme represents the most far-reaching extension of power into the very texture and fabric of everyday life in history. Those on the hacker/cypherpunk side of things have realised for some years, many years, that this process was under way. Some of us have been aware of it for a couple of years. Now it has become general knowledge.
The policy and the practice is an extension and expansion by the Obama administration of a process begun in the Bush years, and with various antecedents, from the days when the internet began to vastly expand, carried by the web, in the early 90s. Snowden, who has worked in the NSA purview since 2009, has said that his actions, and the delay in them, arose in part from waiting to see if Barack Obama would take some action on the matter — and then a decisive disappointment when he didn’t.
What appears to have been a passivity on the part of Obama with regard to a practice in place changes the meaning and character of his presidency substantially. In writing about him over the years, I’ve noted that any belief that he would substantially alter the projection of US power was an illusion; any candidate was applying for a dual position of President and emperor; supporting the former did not preclude attacking the latter’s policies.
But of course that has always been, to some degree, a false dichotomy. The empire reaches back into the Republic. With PRISM, that process is totalising; the space of the Republic has been squeezed to near-zero. To the surprise of many, that does not seem to have overly disconcerted the US public, with support for the NSA’s policies polling at 56% to 41%. Not too much should be made of that — the US has become such a news desert in many areas that many people are at this stage, simply not aware of the breadth of PRISM and other programmes.
But the revelation of these programmes has thrown the US state into disarray, and had the same effect on its institutional politics. The state elite’s determination to push into every area of life is driven not merely by a desire to avoid terror attacks of the latter type, but in response to challenges from states such as China, which highlight their vestigial constitutional limits, and the general expansion and extension of technical power and possibility, from standard high-tech to biological engineering.
What this historical process should prompt is a renegotiation of state and social power on a global scale. What it is prompting instead is a paradoxical attempt by states to extend their power further into everyday life than they hitherto been, just as that process becomes one that is unwinnable, save by explicit and visible tyranny. In the meantime, it is stretching state power to the point where its legitimacy cracks in the middle. Since that middle runs through the heart of decent people, loyal to their society and humanity, it produces whistleblowers willing to take the ultimate risk.
The ramifications of this are manifold, to be explored in these pages by many writers in the weeks to come. But for the moment one crucial point needs to be made: this process is ramrodding one of the most serious recombinations of politics in recent decades, or perhaps longer. This is happening most substantially in the imperial centre of the US — now little more than a contradiction with a flag — but it will spread elsewhere.
On the Left it is happening in reasonably orderly fashion, along old faultlines — between a core, statist Left which cleaves ever closer to an unlimited national security state, and a dissident Left which has always resisted it. Such centre-left support for the national security state draws, distortedly, on the communalist core of Leftism — the idea that standing for the nation is standing for the collective, no matter how distorted. Thus California leftists like Senator Dianne Feinstein have no problem finding themselves aligned with John McCain, Bill Kristol and a whole bunch of others, in what is basically a centrist, totalising, national security party. The dissident Left can detach from its partial attachment to that Left, without too much confusion.
Meanwhile on the Right, they’re going f-cking nuts. I say that with no more than a dash of schadenfreude — you take your pleasures where you find them — but more as an analysis of what’s likely to happen. That the Republican Party would split on this issue is unsurprising; that it would split down the middle of its Tea Party/libertarian Right is an extraordinary thing to behold.
Thus Rand Paul is now promoting a Supreme Court challenge to the NSA in such a way that would gain the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the CounterPunch left, and hundreds of other groupings. The national security Right is now arguing that they will have to marshal a figure like Ted Cruz to challenge Rand Paul in the nominations.
Finally, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam came up with the best quote I've seen on the topic - "George Orwell's 1984 "wasn't intended to be an instruction manual"" - 'We're waiting for an Aussie to blow the whistle on PRISM'.