John W. Whitehead
June 11, 2013
“The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.” – New York Times editorial board
“Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten – and they’re talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.” – Edward Snowden, alleged source of NSA leaks
There is a deep and abiding sense of unease permeating American society. From the IRS targeting politically conservative groups to the Department of Justice targeting journalists for surveillance, from the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) is tracking the telephone calls of most Americans to the public spectacle of whistleblower Bradley Manning’s trial, in recent weeks there has been no shortage of evidence that the new “normal” in the United States is not friendly to freedom.
The America we learned about in school, the one celebrated in songs and poems, the one to which our ancestors flocked in hopes of starting a new life based upon promises of wealth and liberty, is getting harder to find with every passing day. As I document in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (available at Amazon.com), the American ideal of freedom and civic involvement is being replaced by a technocratic nightmare in which government bureaucrats and their allies in the corporate sector rig the rules of society in order to protect the power and privilege of a select few politicians and businessmen. All the while, the majority of the American people are kept in check via debt, imprisonment, and a vast surveillance network which keeps us monitored, controlled and marching in lock step with the government’s dictates.
If any of this sounds fantastical, it’s only because people haven’t been paying close enough attention. Why, in the past week alone, the government has doubled down on its attacks on individual liberty, government transparency, the rule of law, and basic human decency.
On Wednesday, June 5, it was revealed that the NSA has been systematically collecting information on all telephone calls placed in the United States via the Verizon network. Based upon a top-secret order handed down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) in April 2013, Verizon has been forced to hand over its records to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis.” While the government insists that the content of telephone conversations are not recorded, they acknowledge that telephone numbers, location data, call duration, and other unique identifiers are sent to the NSA for analysis. The NSA collects information on about 3 billion phone calls per day.
Immediately following the revelation of the secret court order allowing the NSA to record the telephone activities of Verizon customers, The Washington Post released a top-secret document outlining a project code-named PRISM, which involves the NSA and FBI “tapping 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 foreign targets.” These companies include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.
PRISM was born at the tail end of President Bush’s disastrous program of warrantless surveillance. It depends in part on legislation passed by Congress in 2007 and 2008, the Protect America Act and FISA Amendments Act, which provide immunity to private companies that voluntarily cooperate with government efforts to collect private data on users. Government officials are increasingly relying upon PRISM for data collection as the program has become the “most prolific contributor to the President’s Daily Brief” and nearly one in seven intelligence reports rely primarily on information extracted via the program.
While shocking to some, these revelations are par for the course for our out-of-control government. Relying on secret orders handed down from government officials and the courts and emboldened by members of Congress with little concern for protecting the rights of the citizenry, government agents are now able to flout all safeguards to privacy while still claiming that they are technically acting within the bounds of the law.