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Why NSA Domestic Spying Matters

Like others reading the news of the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, I was shocked.
Not, however, by the content of the revelations.
Having spent a few years as an Intelligence Analyst at the agency, I was aware.
I was shocked by the fact that suddenly there were specifics, and it was actually being covered by the press; in a big way.
This isn't the first time we've been warned about the overreach of the mighty US surveillance machine in the name of "fighting terrorism".
What makes this a bombshell isn't simply the fact that it was revealed.
This kind of information has been brought to the public before.
What makes this different is that timing was everything.
Washington is ripe and right in the middle of the harvest when it comes to reaping the scandals the Obama administration has apparently sown.
The blatant disregard the administration has demonstrated toward the press, and the dubious honesty demonstrated, has left a press much more willing to hold the president, and his administration, accountable.
THE HYPOCRISY In 2006, shortly after the New York Times revealed warrantless spying on as many as 500 individuals within the United States, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times broke the story about the nearly unlimited access the NSA had gained to major telecommunications switches, giving it essentially unchecked access to not only international communications, but also to domestic data and phone calls as well.
While the media splash was significant, and several courts ruled the activity both illegal and unconstitutional, we were led to believe that the program was dismantled.
During the aftermath of that scandal, several leaders and politicians expressed outrage at the blatant disregard for the privacy rights and constitutional protections of ordinary Americans.
One of those key leaders, a Democratic Senator from the State of Illinois, referring to the NSA wiretapping scandal, said that the Bush administration "puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide," Barrack Obama, a presidential candidate, said in an August 2007 speech.
He also vowed to end the "illegal wiretapping of American citizens.
" Another Democratic Senator, Joe Biden, speaking out against this unconstitutional program, appeared on CBS' "The Early Show" with host Harry Smith: "Harry, I don't have to listen to your phone calls to know what you're doing," Biden said.
"If I know every single phone call you made, I'm able to determine every single person you talk to, I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive.
" Another thing that provides a different context this time around is the somewhat blatant hypocrisy this leak has revealed.
As mentioned a moment ago, in 2007 as a presidential candidate, Barrack Obama stated that the Bush administration put forth a false choice between liberty and security.
The same (arguably) Barrack Obama, in his first commentary following the two leaked top secret US Surveillance programs this week argued that "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.
We're going to have to make some choices as a society.
" In another example of twisted paradigms, just a few short weeks after it was uncovered that the justice department had ordered the collection of metadata on more than 20 separate phone lines shared by up to 100 AP reporters to track down the source of a leak regarding the May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot.
The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States-this collection of telephone data was decried by politicians and press alike as "a massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how the press obtains news-we learned that not only is Verizon providing that same phone records on 10's of Millions of American citizens to the National Security Agency as part of a secret FISA court order, but now, according to some of the same politicians, this is old news, and quite necessary to protect us from terrorism.
THE DISHONESTY The revelations regarding the collection of phone records of virtually all Americans now casts prior statements of administration officials in a rather suspicious light.
Just few short months ago, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, in an open congressional hearing asked the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, ""Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" "No sir," replied Clapper.
"It does not?" continued Senator Wyden, clearly trying to elicit some kind of admission on the part of the administration.
"Not wittingly.
There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect, but not wittingly" replies Mr.
Clapper.
Faced with the reality revealed in the leaked FISA warrant regarding the Verizon data mining, Director Clapper sought to minimize the obvious damage to his credibility on the matter by stating that he "responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.
" In a similar scenario, Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson (GA) asked NSA Director, General Keith B.
Alexander, in response to a March, 2012 Wired article in which several ex-NSA staffers described ongoing phone and data surveillance of Americans: Johnson: Does the NSA routinely intercept American citizens' emails? Alexander: No.
Johnson: Does the NSA intercept Americans' cell phone conversations? Alexander: No.
Johnson: Google searches? Alexander: No.
Johnson: Text messages? Alexander: No.
Johnson: Amazon.
com orders? Alexander: No.
Johnson: Bank records? Alexander: No.
While the parsing of words and context within the American political arena is common-place, given the disclosures of the past few days, the disingenuous nature of the answers given by two of the top administration intelligence officials seems rather glaring.
BUT WE HAVE OVERSIGHT...
Shortly after Edward Snowden released information on the existence of both the Verizon records collection and the PRISM program, President Obama said the following: "If people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here.
" Well, we may have a problem.
Let's examine, for a moment the oversight to which Mr.
Obama refers.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal on June 9, 2013, "From 1979 through 2012, the court overseeing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has rejected only 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance applications by the government, according to annual Justice Department reports to Congress.
" Of 1,856 FISA applications the Justice Department made in 2012, the court denied none but modified 40, the Justice Department reported.
" So this is the judicial oversight to which President Obama was referring.
Those who call the FISA court a rubber stamp have some good data to pull from in making that assessment.
But, you may say, what about the congressional oversight? Almost immediately following the bombshell reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post, several ranking members of the intelligence committee stepped forward to announce that these programs were nothing new, they were simply continuations of old programs, and in the case of the Verizon FISA warrant, it was simply a three month renewal of the order.
Several other members of congress stepped forward to explain that every member of congress, in addition to approving the programs in the first place, had been briefed regularly on the programs.
The only problem is that several Senators and Congressmen started popping up and saying they weren't at all aware of the breadth of the programs and indeed had grave concerns about them.
A few who had been aware of them were barred from revealing anything about them.
In fact, so many members of congress were coming forward and stating that they weren't at all aware of these surveillance programs that the administration was forced to address it.
"It is certainly the case that some members of Congress did not avail themselves of the opportunity to be briefed, but that's certainly their prerogative," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday.
"I think it's been amply demonstrated that with regards to both sections of the Patriot Act and the programs that exist under those authorities that members of Congress were briefed or had the opportunity to be briefed on them.
" These elements of oversight referred to by President Obama and his stalwart supporters hardly amounted to oversight at all.
THESE PROGRAMS ARE VITAL TO NATIONAL SECURITY, AHEM...
We've been told countless times, by the same handful of administration players, that these surveillance programs are completely vital to our national security, and necessary in our eternal war on terror, but is that actually the case? While it may be difficult to fully examine the question, due to the complete secrecy in which these programs were administered, let's look at what some of the experts have said, currently, and in the past about the effectiveness of mass data collection.
In 2008, the National Research Council released a 352 page report entitled Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists.
The report examined many different intelligence collection methods and analyzed their effectiveness, as well as their impact, or potential impact on the privacy of Americans.
Summing up the findings on data mining, the report concludes that automated identification of terrorists through data mining or any other mechanism "is neither feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal of technology development efforts.
" Inevitable false positives will result in "ordinary, law-abiding citizens and businesses" being incorrectly flagged as suspects.
Due to the extremely large number of databases being compiled on American citizens, in both the public and private sectors, there is simply too much information to be able to analyze and act upon.
Coleen Rowley, an FBI Special Agent for 24 years, who was also legal counsel to the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis, had the following to say: "To switch metaphors, it does not make it easier to find a needle in a haystack if you continue to add hay.
No one has ever explained why it was left to fellow passengers or alert street vendors, not the "intelligence" agencies, to stop the last four major terrorist attacks or attempted attacks on U.
S.
soil.
" In fact, under questioning from Senator Patrick Leahy, General Alexander said that it was impossible to say that any one specific surveillance program was responsible for thwarting a terrorist attack.
"When I say dozens, what I'm talking about here is that these authorities complement each other in helping us identify different terrorist actions and help disrupt them," he said.
"They complement each other, so what you're asking me is to state unequivocally 'A' or 'B' contributed solely to that -- the reality is they work together, and we've got to help make that clear to you.
" What we seem to be able to deduce from the information available is that that data mining does tend to work well...
after the fact.
It doesn't prevent acts of terror, but after they occur it seems to really help in piecing together what happened.
Is this, in and of itself worth the tradeoffs in terms of privacy and basic civil rights? Recently the Chief Technology Officer of the CIA had this to say: "The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time," Hunt said.
"Since you can't connect dots you don't have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.
It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information," Hunt said.
After that mark is reached, Hunt said, the agency would also like to be able to save and analyze all of the digital breadcrumbs people don't even know they are creating.
You're already a walking sensor platform," he said, noting that mobiles, smartphones and iPads come with cameras, accelerometers, light detectors and geolocation capabilities.
You are aware of the fact that somebody can know where you are at all times, because you carry a mobile device, even if that mobile device is turned off," he said.
"You know this, I hope? Yes? Well, you should.
" Think about that.
The CTO of the Central Intelligence Agency openly admitted that fundamentally they try to collect everything and hang onto it forever.
IS HE TRAITOR, LEAKER, WHISTLEBLOWER, HERO, SPY...
OR JUST PLAIN AMERICAN? One thing there has been no shortage of, over the last several days, is armchair analysis regarding the 29 year-old NSA contractor who brought these programs to light.
On the heels of the breaking news stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post, the rhetoric ran the gamut.
According to House Speaker John Boehner, "He's a traitor" and his disclosure put at risk Americans and shows our adversaries what our capabilities are.
Many have called Snowden a hero for bringing to light these privacy encroaching surveillance monstrosities.
My take? It's irrelevant.
One area where politicians are unmatched in their proficiency is in spin and diversion.
Of course the administration and its backers have no interest in serious discussion around the implications of the revelations themselves.
Their impressive spin machines have already shifted the focus from the content of the revelations to the provider.
It doesn't matter one iota what Snowden's motives were, when he began to think about this leaking of information, or who his girlfriend is.
This isn't and shouldn't be about Edward Snowden.
HE SHOULD HAVE GONE THROUGH PROPER CHANNELS For those who say-and there are many-that if he had concerns about the legality of what the NSA was involved in, he should have followed the proper channels for the airing of those grievances.
He had no right to make the decision on his own and harm American interests this way.
Let's take a look at some earlier whistleblowers who decided to avail themselves of those channels.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this isn't the first time that things about these surveillance programs, or the illegality of them, has been brought out.
Let's step back and look at the cases of William Binney and Kirk Wiebe.
These two career NSA officials, unlike Edward Snowden, had been at the agency for 40 and 30 years, respectively.
They brought evidence of these programs (under different program titles) and their spying on the American public, along with additional evidence of waste and abuse on the part of the agency to the Inspector General, and congress.
Their testimony before congress angered then NSA chief, General Hayden, and he promptly retaliated and immediately moved them into positions where they could no longer have any access to congressional oversight committees.
Nothing changed.
Most are unaware that there are very few protections for intelligence agency whistleblowers.
They are not afforded the same protections as other government whistleblowers.
There are no protections against retaliation.
WHY IT MATTERS...
Finally, why does it, or should it, matter to us individually if the government is snooping through our call, email, internet, etc.
, data? More times than I can count I've heard those without the ability to think a few steps ahead ask the question: "If you don't have anything to hide, what's the big deal?" The government is collecting, as a matter of course your phone records and associated metadata.
So this means they know who everyone is that you call, or who call you.
In the case of cell phone records they also know the location you call from, and the location of the individual receiving the call and vice versa.
Pattern based analysis of this data can very quickly and effectively establish a very complete picture of your daily life.
So that's still not enough to give you pause? Let's now add financial transaction data, which is also turned over as a matter of course.
Now they know everywhere you spend your money, the amounts spent, and the timing of your purchases, now let's just combine those two databases (actually countless databases, but for the purposes of this article, we'll call each area a single "database"), and now we know who you call, when you call them, where both of you are, and where money is spent along those travel routes.
Stopping at the liquor store? $45 was an awful lot to spend on alcohol, isn't it? And you do that trip and spend that amount twice a week? Clearly an alcoholic.
Not creepy enough for you yet? Let's add in the content of your email and text messages.
Ah, now this one should give you pause.
Not good enough? Let's add in the websites you visit, and how long you stay at each.
Throw in all the Google or Yahoo searches you've ever done.
Starting to feel like this is a bit invasive? This is just the beginning.
WHEN EVERYTHING IS ILLEGAL The generous byproduct of a full time legislature at the national, state and local levels is an infinite number of legal statutes, both civil and criminal that is literally impossible to keep up with.
Even for the authorities tasked with enforcing them.
In fact, the total number cannot, and has never been calculated.
The only thing that those who study this know is that the number of criminal statutes in the US grows exponentially every year, with outdated laws rarely actually leaving the books.
In the US, currently there are roughly 4,500 criminal statutes, and when you include federal regulations that carry criminal penalties, that number grows to anywhere between 30,000 and 300,000.
After literally decades of trying to find the answer to that question, there has never been a definitive study that has been able to arrive at a number.
According to John Baker, a Louisiana State University law professor who undertook one such study, "There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime.
That is not an exaggeration.
" Add to that the previously mentioned state and local statutes and regulations, and there is LITERALLY no one who hasn't committed countless legal transgressions.
Do you see where I'm going with this? When we have a government that is vacuuming up all of our data, telephone records and any other database they can get their hands on, there is no one that they can't prosecute.
Obscenity laws alone could jail a healthy cross section of the public.
Prosecutors no longer have to provide first the evidence of a crime.
They find the suspicious person, and then find which of those countless statutes they want to charge them with.
Are you still alright with the government having access to all of your private information? If so, let's go ahead and add health and medical records to the pot.
With the recent second amendment battles that raged through the country in response to the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, many states responded by allowing greater access to medical records for the background checks required to purchase firearms.
In many states, this took a rather oppressive turn when those who had been diagnosed with fairly common mental issues also had their guns seized.
In many cases this included those who had been diagnosed as children, but suffered no lasting symptoms into adulthood.
The Affordable Care Act is here, and health and medical information required to sign up for health insurance through the government insurance exchanges will now be part of the mass of data captured and kept by the US government.
While we're here, let's go ahead and add gun purchase and ownership records.
Is that something you're okay with the government having and tracking, particularly given all the other data they're collecting? THEY SAID IT WOULD ONLY BE USED FOR COUNTER TERRORISM As most have come to understand, terrorism is not a specific group of people, or a certain country.
Terrorism is a tactic.
It's a method for inducing fear.
The generally agreed upon definition of terrorism used by the United Nations Follows: "Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.
" Traditionally, terrorism was used in reference to foreign governments, government sponsored groups, or religious organizations.
However, with the advent of the Patriot Act, terrorism was expanded and redefined to include domestic terrorism.
The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as: "activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.
S.
or of any state, that (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping, and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.
S.
" Again, this is a fairly broad interpretation, but through a series of moves by the George W.
Bush administration, in an effort to increase funding for anti-terror activities, the definition of terrorism for prosecution purposes was revised to include even the most mundane items.
In Iowa, the arrests of three contractors, all American, who failed to report drug convictions prior to starting work at airport runway jobs were charged with terrorist activities.
In many states, making terroristic threats is a misdemeanor, but still domestic terrorism.
The definition of terrorism can be bent and shaped to encompass many things never originally intended, so justifying the broader collection of surveillance and allowing for a greater use of "anti-terror" intelligence to prosecute those they choose.
TURNKEY TYRANNY The propensity of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to overreach their constitutionally mandated guidelines is ubiquitous and well documented, and many will say that this is just another example of that tendency.
Edward Snowden, in his first recorded interview following the stories in the Washington Post and the Guardian explained his greatest fear regarding the outcome of his revelations: "The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change.
People will see in the media all of these disclosures.
They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society.
But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.
" "And the months ahead, the years ahead it's only going to get worse until eventually there will be a time where policies will change because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state is policy.
Even our agreements with other sovereign governments, we consider that to be a stipulation of policy rather than a stipulation of law.
And because of that a new leader will be elected, they'll find the switch, say that 'Because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power.
' And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it.
And it will be turnkey tyranny.
" While I reserve judgment on Edward Snowden, on his motives and end goal, I find his explanations and reasoning to be well founded and thought out.
How many of us have already transitioned from outrage at the disclosure and admission on the part of the NSA to a sense of futility knowing that it will likely never change? Is this the new normal? Are we closer to 1984 than we are to 2013? The destination of our current path is a clear one.
The government is amassing staggering amounts of personal data on its American citizenry.
Data rarely goes unused, and yet that is what we are expected to believe.
One of the most touted and cheered aspects of the Patriot Act was the intelligence sharing that was not only allowed under the act, but mandated.
Where will the use and sharing of the data gathered eventually stop? Will it be accessible to politicians, state and local police departments? During the same speech quoted previously by the Chief Technology Officer of the CIA, he said this: "Technology in this world is moving faster than government or law can keep up," he said.
"It's moving faster I would argue than you can keep up: You should be asking the question of what are your rights and who owns your data.
" Was the CTO of one of our most powerful and secretive intelligence agencies warning us about our own government? It almost seems that way.
One of the common elements to humans and societies is the fact that rarely are we able to keep ourselves in check.
We tend to require oversight.
Otherwise we push the boundaries of our authority.
So many adages bear this out.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
As the Roman poet Juvenal inquired, "Who will guard the guards themselves?" Often modernly translated as who will watch the watchers themselves? Has there ever been a group more worthy of the title of Watcher than the National Security Agency? I do not dispute the legitimate mission of the National Security Agency.
They are tasked with collecting signals intelligence, with gathering as much information as they can, but we have already seen the target shift from foreign to domestic.
According to several government officials and publications produced by government agencies, the new threat; the overriding threat is no longer attack from abroad.
The greatest current threat is from within.
We are the new target.
Don't kid yourselves.
Who will watch the watchers? We are told that there is oversight.
That these programs operate within a very controlled and prescribed set protocols and procedures.
We're told to trust the Obama administration and our elected leaders with the so-called oversight.
But who watches the watchers? We, the American people are the administration's oversight.

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