Spying on Americans

Spying on Americans

by digby

So, most of you have probably already read the latest Snowden bombshell revealing that the NSA targets American citizens on the basis of their ethnic and religious affiliation. Greenwald has all the details here and you should read the whole thing. They targeted GOP candidates for office, lawyers, political activists, all of whom happened to be Muslim. Also too: American citizens.
The National Security Agency and FBI have covertly monitored the emails of prominent Muslim-Americans—including a political candidate and several civil rights activists, academics, and lawyers—under secretive procedures intended to target terrorists and foreign spies.

According to documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the list of Americans monitored by their own government includes:

• Faisal Gill, a longtime Republican Party operative and one-time candidate for public office who held a top-secret security clearance and served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush;

• Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases;

• Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University;

• Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights;

• Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.

The individuals appear on an NSA spreadsheet in the Snowden archives called “FISA recap”—short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under that law, the Justice Department must convince a judge with the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is probable cause to believe that American targets are not only agents of an international terrorist organization or other foreign power, but also “are or may be” engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage, or terrorism. The authorizations must be renewed by the court, usually every 90 days for U.S. citizens.

The spreadsheet shows 7,485 email addresses listed as monitored between 2002 and 2008. Many of the email addresses on the list appear to belong to foreigners whom the government believes are linked to Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Among the Americans on the list are individuals long accused of terrorist activity, including Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.

But a three-month investigation by The Intercept—including interviews with more than a dozen current and former federal law enforcement officials involved in the FISA process—reveals that in practice, the system for authorizing NSA surveillance affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.

The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives. All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press. Some have even climbed the ranks of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishments.

Back in the 1960s they listened in on African Americans. Some, like Martin Luther King, they tried to blackmail. Now it's Muslim Americans. From what I'm seeing around the internet today, the NSA apologists are unmoved by their plight.  If Americans don't want to be surveilled by the government they should probably not have a heritage associated with Muslim nations. You've got to choose your parents a little bit more wisely if you don't want to be associated with "the bad guys." You know, as President Obama's former press secretary Robert Gibbs famously said, "he should have had a more responsible father."

Of course, it's probably a good idea to recall others the government was also interested in during this same time period:
A database managed by a secretive Pentagon intelligence agency called Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, was found last month to contain reports on at least four dozen antiwar meetings or protests, many of them on college campuses. Ten peace activists who handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside Halliburton's headquarters in Houston in June 2004 were reported as a national security threat. So were people who assembled at a Quaker meeting house in Lake Worth, Fla., or protested military recruiters at sites such as New York University, the State University of New York and campuses of the University of California at Berkeley and at Santa Cruz.

The protesters were written up under a Pentagon program called Talon, which is supposed to collect raw data on threats to defense facilities in the United States. CIFA, an agency created just under four years ago that now includes nine directorates and more than 1,000 employees, is charged with working to prevent terrorist attacks. Instead, hidden from public and congressional scrutiny, it has repeated the same abuses once committed against war protesters and civil rights activists of the 1960s. In addition to compiling information on Americans who were peaceful political dissenters rather than terrorists, the agency retained reports in its database well beyond a 90-day limit -- a standard adopted in response to the Vietnam-era excesses.

The activity came to light only because of aggressive reporting by, among others, The Post's Walter Pincus, Newsweek and NBC News, which obtained a list of more than 1,500 "suspicious incidents" included in the CIFA-managed database. After the improprieties were made public, Pentagon spokesmen acknowledged that mistakes had been made, and they promised to clean up the database and give Defense Department intelligence personnel a refresher course on the regulations. Ensuring that the corrective action takes place -- and that further steps are taken to prevent intelligence-gathering on domestic political activity -- ought to be the job of the congressional intelligence and armed-services committees, which have yet to hold a hearing to review CIFA or its activities.
They supposedly ended that specific program so I guess we can all be sure that there's nothing to worry about, amirite? Just because they've done this numerous times over many decades doesn't mean we should worry that they might  do the same thing again --- or use the stored information for the same purpose should they feel the need. The government assures us that it is not interested in the activities of Americans who are not suspected of being associated with or in some way crossing paths with people who might have something to do with terrorism. Anymore. For the moment.

And nobody should feel as if they ought to be paranoid about what they write on the internet or say on the phone either just because the government has all these programs in place to monitor and store them for a rainy day. It's paranoid to suggest that at some point in the future, someone might misuse that information or find it convenient for political use. That could never happen.

This piece by Julian Sanchez gets to the heart of that matter. He rightly points out that it's all too easy for us non-Muslims to dismiss this sort of surveillance as being rather narrowly targeted --- after all we aren't Muslim. It's easy for us to feel safe. It's happening to someone else (who should have chosen a more responsible father.) He suggests that privileged people who assume this is nothing to worry about because they are unlikely to be the targets put themselves in the shoes of those who are:
Let’s instead ask a peaceful Pakistani-American who protests our policy of targeted killings, perhaps in collaboration with activists abroad; we might encounter far less remarkable confidence. Or, if that seems like too much effort, we can just look to the survey of writers conducted by the PEN American Center, finding significant percentages of respondents self-censoring or altering their use of the Internet and social media in the wake of revelations about the scope of government surveillance. Or to the sworn declarations of 22 civil society groups in a lawsuit challenging bulk phone records collection, attesting to a conspicuous decline in telephonic contacts and members expressing increased anxiety about their association with controversial or unpopular organizations.

What’s important to keep in mind here is that even if Ben were well justified in his belief that government is unlikely to ever again misuse its powers against any peaceful citizens, the panoptic chilling effect these systems exert on many who lack his (let us suppose) superior understanding would still inflict a real cost in the currency of democratic engagement.
I think the NSA probably didn't design the system as a panopticon. Because they have developed the capability to do it they simply wanted to gather all the communications of everyone in case they needed it some day.  (What that need would be is purposely left undefined.) But now that it's been revealed, it's entirely likely that the panopticon will be in full effect. It's already making journalists afraid to talk to sources and writers are thinking twice about expressing unpopular opinions. And many members of the public will weigh the potential cost of civic engagement to the need to protect their livelihoods and the well being of their families. If you know you may be being watched and your words are being stored, it is not at all irrational to "watch what you say" as another presidential Press Secretary so famously admonished the American people to do.  It's not the NSA or any of the spying/police agencies that will benefit from this, of course. They want people to spill their secrets so they can use them if need be. It will be the political and economic power structure that benefits from conformism and obeisance to the status quo.

Now if the congress demanded that the government stop these programs and initiated the kind of protections that would make a difference it would go a long way toward restoring people's confidence in their basic freedom of speech, assembly and the press, without fear that the government is watching their every move. But it's going to take a long while and a much more vigorous response from America's political leaders to make Americans sit in front of their computer or text on their smart phones and not stop and wonder if it's smart to say what they think if it might "look bad" on your "permanent record." A whole lot of them will make the calculation that it's just not worth it to get involved. Keep your head down, do your work, provide for your family and leave all that messy democracy stuff to the people who don't have anything to lose ...

Update: Oh, and in case you still think that "oversight" is ever going to be enough, get a load of this. They even forget to tell the president.

Update II: Consider recent history when you evaluate whether this comment is accurate:

“It is entirely false that U.S. intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights,” the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a written statement. “Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone’s communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.”