Greenwald Glenn - No place to hide

Author : Greenwald Glenn
Title : No place to hide Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State
Year : 2014

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Introduction. In the fall of 2005, without much in the way of grandiose expectations, I decided to create a political blog. I had little idea at the time how much this decision would eventually change my life. My principal motive was that I was becoming increasingly alarmed by the radical and extremist theories of power the US government had adopted in the wake of 9/11, and I hoped that writing about such issues might allow me to make a broader impact than I could in my then-career as a constitutional and civil rights lawyer. Just seven weeks after I began blogging, the New York Times dropped a bombshell: in 2001, it reported, the Bush administration had secretly ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on the electronic communications of Americans without obtaining the warrants required by relevant criminal law. At the time that it was revealed, this warrantless eavesdropping had been going on for four years and had targeted at least several thousand Americans. The subject was a perfect convergence of my passions and my expertise. The government tried to justify the secret NSA program by invoking exactly the kind of extreme theory of executive power that had motivated me to begin writing: the notion that the threat of terrorism vested the president with virtually unlimited authority to do anything to “keep the nation safe,” including the authority to break the law. The ensuing debate entailed complex questions of constitutional law and statutory interpretation, which my legal background rendered me well suited to address. I spent the next two years covering every aspect of the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal, on my blog and in a bestselling 2006 book. My position was straightforward: by ordering illegal eavesdropping, the president had committed crimes and should be held accountable for them. In America’s increasingly jingoistic and oppressive political climate, this proved to be an intensely controversial stance. It was this background that prompted Edward Snowden, several years later, to choose me as his first contact person for revealing NSA wrong-doing on an even more massive scale. He said he believed I could be counted on to understand the dangers of mass surveillance and extreme state secrecy, and not to back down in the face of pressure from the government and its many allies in the media and elsewhere. The remarkable volume of top secret documents that Snowden passed on to me, along with the high drama surrounding Snowden himself, have generated unprecedented worldwide interest in the menace of mass electronic surveillance and the value of privacy in the digital age. But the underlying problems have been festering for years, largely in the dark. There are, to be sure, many unique aspects to the current NSA controversy. Technology has now enabled a type of ubiquitous surveillance that had previously been the province of only the most imaginative science fiction writers. Moreover, the post-9/11 American veneration of security above all else has created a climate particularly conducive to abuses of power. And thanks to Snowden’s bravery and the relative ease of copying digital information, we have an unparalleled firsthand look at the details of how the surveillance system actually operates. Still, in many respects the issues raised by the NSA story resonate with numerous episodes from the past, stretching back across the centuries. Indeed, opposition to government invasion of privacy was a major factor in the establishment of the United States itself, as American colonists protested laws that let British officials ransack at will any home they wished. It was legitimate, the colonists agreed, for the state to obtain specific, targeted warrants to search individuals when there was evidence to establish probable cause of their wrongdoing. But general warrants—the practice of making the entire citizenry subject to indiscriminate searches—were inherently illegitimate. The Fourth Amendment enshrined this idea in American law. Its language is clear and succinct: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” It was intended, above all, to abolish forever in America the power of the government to subject its citizens to generalized, suspicionless surveillance. The clash over surveillance in the eighteenth century focused on house searches, but as technology evolved, surveillance evolved with it. In the mid-nineteenth century, as the spread of railways began to allow for cheap and rapid mail delivery, the British government’s surreptitious opening of mail caused a major scandal in the UK. By the early decades of the twentieth century, the US Bureau of Investigation—the precursor of today’s FBI—was using wiretaps, along with mail monitoring and informants, to clamp down on those opposed to American government policies. No matter the specific techniques involved, historically mass surveillance has had several constant attributes. Initially, it is always the country’s dissidents and marginalized who bear the brunt of the surveillance, leading those who support the government or are merely apathetic to mistakenly believe they are immune. And history shows that the mere existence of a mass surveillance apparatus, regardless of how it is used, is in itself sufficient to stifle dissent. A citizenry that is aware of always being watched quickly becomes a compliant and fearful one. Frank Church’s mid-1970s investigation into the FBI’s spying shockingly found that the agency had labeled half a million US citizens as potential “subversives,” routinely spying on people based purely on their political beliefs. (The FBI’s list of targets ranged from Martin Luther King to John Lennon, from the women’s liberation movement to the anti-Communist John Birch Society.) But the plague of surveillance abuse is hardly unique to American history. On the contrary, mass surveillance is a universal temptation for any unscrupulous power. And in every instance, the motive is the same: suppressing dissent and mandating compliance. Surveillance thus unites governments of otherwise remarkably divergent political creeds. At the turn of the twentieth century, the British and French empires both created specialized monitoring departments to deal with the threat of anticolonialist movements. After World War II, the East German Ministry of State Security, popularly known as the Stasi, became synonymous with government intrusion into personal lives. And more recently, as popular protests during the Arab Spring challenged dictators’ grasp on power, the regimes in Syria, Egypt, and Libya all sought to spy on the Internet use of domestic dissenters. Investigations by Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal have shown that as these dictatorships were overwhelmed by protestors, they literally went shopping for surveillance tools from Western technology companies. Syria’s Assad regime flew in employees from the Italian surveillance company Area SpA, who were told that the Syrians “urgently needed to track people.” In Egypt, Mubarak’s secret police bought tools to penetrate Skype encryption and eavesdrop on activists’ calls. And in Libya, the Journal reported, journalists and rebels who entered a government monitoring center in 2011 found “a wall of black refrigerator-size devices” from the French surveillance company Amesys. The equipment “inspected the Internet traffic” of Libya’s main Internet service provider, “opening emails, divining passwords, snooping on online chats and mapping connections among various suspects.” The ability to eavesdrop on people’s communications vests immense power in those who do it. And unless such power is held in check by rigorous oversight and accountability, it is almost certain to be abused. Expecting the US government to operate a massive surveillance machine in complete secrecy without falling prey to its temptations runs counter to every historical example and all available evidence about human nature. ...

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