North Carolina capitol building. (Courtesy of Flickr user Jim Bowen)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
There’s something rotten in the state of North Carolina—and it smells like money. Specifically, Art Pope’s money.
In fact, Pope and his cash are responsible for North Carolina’s recent meteoric rise as the poster child for regressive, conservative politics.
As the head of Variety Wholesalers (a family-run discount store holding company) and the $150 million Pope Family Foundation, he has invested in an array of think tanks and advocacy groups dedicated to aggressively aligning the state’s political terrain with his business interests. Governor Pat McCrory, whose campaign he bankrolled, recently named Pope to the powerful post of state budget director.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Wangs Laundry, a “Western”-themed storefront at Great America theme park. (Rick Perlstein)
Even in a country that suffers from an official cult of optimism, where the dominant response to revelations that the entire nation is being spied upon is “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you don’t have anything to hide,” where racism is supposed to be over because we’ve elected a black president even if the number of death threats against him reportedly dwarf those against previous presidents, it can useful to count victories, to record how far we have come—if only for the sake of our sanity.
A friend of mine recently showed me a page of a book she dug up, an ancient Rand-McNally Grammar School Geography from 1911. With voice-of-God confidence, it defines the various “races.” Indians? “Few of them have ever attained the stage of civilization. Agriculture and the arts are rudimentary, and letters and science are generally wanting.” (There is a regional slur, too: “South of the United States the majority of the population are still of Indian blood.”) Then the “Black or Ethiopan Race”—those words in bold. “The head is long and narrow, with projecting jaws” (projecting jaws?). “Among them are found the lowest savages; some have advanced [advanced!] to barbarism; but no people of the black race ever became civilized without help from some other race.”
Study questions: “Look among your acquaintances for persons who display, in the greatest perfection, one or more of the characteristics of the Caucasian race. What colors of hair and eyes are generally found in the same person? Which is more common, straight or wavy hair? What color of hair is most common. Did you ever see a Chinaman? Describe him…”
Did “you” ever see a Chinaman? If you are reading the book you are are, definitionally, not a Chinaman.
It’s an old book, granted. But not innocent because of that fact: it is, after all, a grammar school book, which means that it shaped the world-pictures of grownups for generations later—for instance, the respondents to a Newsweek poll around the time of the 1963 March on Washington. “I don’t like to touch them,” one said. “It just makes me squeamish.” “It’s the idea of rubbing up against them,” said another. “It won’t rub off, but I don’t feel right either.” Majorities thought black people “laugh a lot,” tend to have less ambition” and “smell different.” When I was a kid my parents had a book in their library called Training You to Train Your Dog (1965). It observed that everyone knew people with dark skin shared an “excitable nature.” QED.: “If this be true, there is no reason why color of coat and pigmentation should not affect dogs as well.”
People aren’t like that any more, or mostly. They’re also not like this. Imagine you’re a man applying for a traveling sales job in 1964. This September Ig Publishing will be coming out with a new edition of Vance Packard’s book on privacy, The Naked Society, which came out that year; I’ve written a new introduction. In the book, Packard witnessed the following stunning colloquy between a polygraph operator and said job applicant:
“Ever fired for cause?”
“Ever drink to excess?”
“I’ve been loaded a few times, but I guess that’s not ‘excess,’ so I’ll say no.”
“Have you ever done something that you are really truly ashamed of?” Bill shook his head. My guide whispered, “That question will sometimes smoke out the homosexual.”…
Bill was unharnessed…. The examination seemingly was over, and Bill was looking for his hat. Then Mr. Probe said pleasantly, “Bill, one more question before you leave. There is nothing personal or offensive about this, but because of the kind of business you are going in and the fact you have been in the summer theater work, I think I should ask it. Are you inclined to be a homosexual?”
Bill looked startled. He said, “No.” But the question so unsettled him that he felt compelled to explain his situation. “I have of course been surrounded by them in my work in the theater in the MIdwest, and I’ve been exposed to this a lot in some of the bohemian areas where I’ve liked, and I have been approached. But the answer is no.” Mr. Probe didn’t explain why sexual status had any significant relevance to the job for which Bill was applying.
And that, today, is unimaginable.
Are we out of the woods? Hell to the no. Yesterday I accompanied a group of 10-, 11- and 12-year-old boys to Great America, the theme park halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago. Among the things those kids could have learned that day, in addition to the fact that the Raging Bull roller coaster features a 208-foot first drop and top speed of seventy-three miles per hour but is really not all that scary after all, and that there are places in the world where a single cup of Coca-Cola costs five dollars, is that if they ever see a Chinaman, they can infer that he probably runs a laundry, and doesn’t quite grasp English grammar.
Last week, thousands gathered in Arkansas for Walmart’s shareholder meeting. But while celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Jennifer Hudson and Hugh Jackman performed for the crowd of stock-owners and workers flown in by the company, members of OUR Walmart, a group of workers organizing for higher wages and better working conditions, protested outside.
The Nation’s Josh Eidelson joined Democracy Now! and Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Workers Rights Consortium, to discuss the Walmart strike on Democracy Now! this morning. He also appeared on Al-Jazeera.
Barbara Buono. (Wikimedia Commons)
State Senator Barbara Buono may be the only New Jersey Dem with the cojones to run for governor against the formidably popular Chris Christie, but she gets no respect from the media. And given the electoral chaos Christie’s whipped up with a $24 million special election to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, she’ll probably be getting even less.
Buono, 59, a progressive who was the first woman majority leader in the state senate, is underfunded and thirty points down in the polls. And so for months, the national media have tended to bring up her name only to joke about how little they bring it up. When Politico’s Maggie Haberman said on The Daily Rundown, “Barbara Buono is barely registering in the polls right now against [Christie],” the substitute host Chris Cillizza cackled, “Barbara Buono thanks you for mentioning her on national television.”
The Beltway media have been so enthralled with Christie since he embraced Obama and barked at Fox News after Hurricane Sandy that they seem to wonder why Buono even bothers to challenge him when powerful players, like Newark mayor Cory Booker and state Senate president Stephen Sweeney, backed down. An emblematic interview came in April when Chris Matthews interrupted Buono fourteen times, mostly to ask about Christie, as the chyron at the bottom of the screen read “DAWN QUIXOTE.”
Still, you might think she would have gained some traction after Christie, angering both Republicans and Democrats, called for a special Senate election in October, just twenty days before he and Buono face off in the general on November 5. He could have simply merged the two elections and saved $24 million in taxpayer money—but that would put popular Cory Booker, the likely Democratic nominee, at the top of the November ballot and increase Democratic and African-American turnout, helping Buono and a whole legislature’s worth of down-ballot Democrats. Christie’s calendar so reeks of voter suppression—coming just weeks after he vetoed a bill to allow early voting, complaining of the $25 million price-tag—that you might think it would create a groundswell for a Christie-slayer.
In fact, just the opposite is happening. Right after doing a superb takedown of Christie’s special-election hypocrisy last week, Jon Stewart turned the punch-line on Buono:
The idea was to make Christie seem all the more absurd: You, tough guy, you’re afraid of this little lady? This lady who’s so low on the Jersey totem pole that to get name recognition she has to compare herself to a pop-culture clown like Sonny Bono? Stewart only has to make one of his I-can’t-believe-this-idiocy faces and the audience razzes her on cue. (Shades of Stewart bullying former CNN host Rick Sanchez for being uncool.)
Of course, if you watch Buono’s ad in full, you get a different message:
By equating herself with Cuomo, she suggests (as she details in other ads and her website) that the New York governor and she are in sync, while he and Christie are miles apart—on vital regional issues like climate change and transportation (she supported building the ARC tunnel and the thousands of jobs it would have created, while Christie made it the signature act of his first term to kill the project), as well as abortion rights, gun control, education funding, a minimum wage increase, a millionaire’s tax and marriage equality.
All good liberal issues, in line with the majority of voters in New Jersey, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000—and all good reasons for Christie to lose. But the media know he won’t, so all that disappears in wide-eyed amazement at Christie’s cojones.
He’s a showman who’s always given the media the good YouTube they want: melodrama, blood feuds, unhinged bullying and a sense, as long as they don’t dig too deep, of “bipartisanship.” As Star Ledger columnist Tom Moran writes, “National pundits who have obviously never been to New Jersey proclaim he has created a new heaven on earth where everyone works together under his wise leadership.”
And now, Moran adds, Christie’s timetable ensures that the media will ignore Buono even more. In the Senate primary in August, Democrat Booker and rival candidates Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and US Congressmen Rush Holt and Frank Pallone
will be competing, all scooping up money from liberal donors that might have gone to Buono. They will buy TV ads, argue in debates and shake hands at train stations. And that clatter will make it even harder for Buono to send a clear message through the din.
To be fair, it’s not just the media that heart Christie. Democrats in and out of the Jersey statehouse do, too. Major Democratic donors are “flocking” to him, and, beholden and/or fearful of him, many of Jersey’s establishment Dems have sided with Christie against Buono’s pro-union politics. Others are only nominally supporting her. Today, powerbroker Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo outright endorsed him. (See them literally holding hands here.)
Still, Buono’s not as alone as it may seem. Saying the special election’s October date will suppress voter turnout in November’s gubernatorial election, Somerset County Democratic Party Chairwoman Peg Schaffer’s law firm filed suit to move it to November 5. And as John Nichols details, State Senator Shirley Turner is calling Christie’s bluff by introducing legislation to move the entire November election to October. UPDATE: A coalition of watchdog groups is now also trying to block the October election.
As for Cory Booker, who has campaigned with Buono, he admits he won’t be up in his good friend Chris Christie’s face over his very special election. After formally announcing his Senate run on Saturday, Booker told reporters that as a mayor he “obviously would have preferred” not to spend the money on an extra election, but that he doesn’t intend to do anything about it.
Ari Berman writes about John Lewis's long fight for voting rights.
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, before a pretrial military hearing. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the US Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden. The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden’s laptop. That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had Internet access like 2 billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.
Think of it as courtroom cartoon theater: the heroic slayer of the jihadi super-villain testifying against the ultimate bad soldier, a five-foot-two-inch gay man facing twenty-two charges in military court and accused of the biggest security breach in US history.
But let’s be clear on one thing: Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked thousands of public documents and passed them on to WikiLeaks, has done far more for US national security than SEAL Team 6.
The assassination of Osama bin Laden, the spiritual (but not operational) leader of Al Qaeda, was a fist-pumping moment of triumphalism for a lot of Americans, as the Saudi fanatic had come to incarnate not just Al Qaeda but all national security threats. This was true despite the fact that, since 9/11, Al Qaeda has been able to do remarkably little harm to the United States or to the West in general. (The deadliest attack in a Western nation since 9/11, the 2004 Atocha bombing in Madrid, was not committed by bin Laden’s organization, though white-shoe foreign policy magazines and think tanks routinely get this wrong, “Al Qaeda” being such a handy/sloppy metonym for all terrorism.)
Al Qaeda remains a simmering menace, but as an organization hardly the greatest threat to the United States. In fact, if you measure national security in blood and money, as many of us still do, by far the greatest threat to the United States over the past dozen years has been our own clueless foreign policy.
The Wages of Cluelessness Is Death
Look at the numbers. The attacks of September 11, 2001, killed 3,000 people, a large-scale atrocity by any definition. Still, roughly double that number of American military personnel have been killed in Washington’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its no-end-in-sight war in Afghanistan. Add in private military contractors who have died in both war zones, along with recently discharged veterans who have committed suicide, and the figure triples. The number of seriously wounded in both wars is cautiously estimated at 50,000. And if you dare to add in as well the number of Iraqis, Afghans and foreign coalition personnel killed in both wars, the death toll reaches at least a hundred 9/11s and probably more.
Did these people die to make America safer? Don’t insult our intelligence. Virtually no one thinks the Iraq War has made the United States more secure, though many believe the war created new threats. After all, the Iraq we liberated is now in danger of collapsing into another bitter, bloody civil war, is a close ally of Iran, and sells the preponderance of its oil to China. Over the years, the drain on the US treasury for all of this will be at least several trillion dollars. As for Afghanistan, after the disruption of Al Qaeda camps, accomplished ten years ago, it is difficult to see how the ongoing pacification campaign there and the CIA drone war across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas have enhanced the security of the United States in any significant way. Both wars of occupation were ghastly strategic choices that have killed hundreds of thousands, wounded many more, sent millions into exile and destabilized what Washington, in good times, used to call “the arc of instability.”
Why have our strategic choices been so disastrous? In large part because they have been militantly clueless. Starved of important information, both the media and public opinion were putty in the hands the Bush administration and its neocon followers as they dreamt up and then put into action their geopolitical fantasies. It has since become fashion for politicians who supported the war to blame the Iraq debacle on “bad intelligence.” But as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar reminds us, the carefully cherry-picked “Intel” about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program was really never the issue. After all, the CIA’s classified intelligence estimate on Iraq argued that, even if that country’s ruler Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction (which he didn’t), he would never use them and was therefore not a threat.
Senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003, was one of the few people with access to that CIA report who bothered to take the time to read it. Initially keen on the idea of invading Iraq, he changed his mind and voted against the invasion.
What if the entire nation had had access to that highly classified document? What if bloggers, veterans’ groups, clergy, journalists, educators and other opinion leaders had been able to see the full intelligence estimate, not just the morsels cherry-picked by Cheney and his mates? Even then, of course, there was enough information around to convince millions of people across the globe of the folly of such an invasion, but what if some insider had really laid out the whole truth, not just the cherry-picked pseudofacts in those months and the games being played by other insiders to fool Congress and the American people into a war of choice and design in the Middle East? As we now know, whatever potentially helpful information there was remained conveniently beyond our sight until a military and humanitarian disaster was unleashed.
Any private-sector employee who screwed up this badly would be fired on the spot, or at the very least put under full-scale supervision. And this was the gift of Bradley Manning: thanks to his trove of declassified documents our incompetent foreign policy elites finally have the supervision they manifestly need.
Not surprisingly, foreign policy elites don’t much enjoy being supervised. Like orthopedic surgeons, police departments and every other professional group under the sun, the military brass and their junior partners in the diplomatic corps feel deeply that they should be exempt from public oversight. Every volley of revealed documents from WikiLeaks has stimulated the same outraged response from that crew: near-total secrecy is essential to the delicate arts of diplomacy and war.
Let us humor our foreign policy elites (who have feelings too), despite their abysmal ten-year resumé of charred rubble and mangled limbs. There may be a time and a place for secrecy, even duplicity, in statecraft. But history shows that a heavy blood-price is often attached to diplomats saying one thing in public and meaning something else in private. In the late 1940s, for instance, the United States publicly declared that the Korean peninsula was not viewed by Washington as a vital interest, emboldening the North to invade the South and begin the Korean War. Our government infamously escalated the Vietnam War behind a smokescreen of official secrecy, distortion and lies. Saddam Hussein rolled into Kuwait after US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie toldthe Baathist strongman that he could do what he pleased on his southern border and still bask in the good graces of Washington. This is not a record of success.
So what’s wrong with diplomats’ doing more of their business in the daylight—a very old idea not cooked up at Julian Assange’s kitchen table five years ago? Check out the mainstream political science literature on international relations and you’ll find rigorous, respectable, borderline-boring studies touting the virtues of relative transparency in statecraft—as, for example, in making the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe such a durable peace deal. On the other hand, when nation-states get coy about their commitments to other states or to their own citizenry, violent disaster is often in the offing.
Foreign policy elites regularly swear that the WikiLeaks example, if allowed to stand, puts us on a perilous path towards “total transparency.” Wrong again. In fact, without the help of WikiLeaks and others, there is no question that the US national security state, as the most recent phone and Internet revelations indicate, is moving towards something remarkably like total state secrecy. The classification of documents has gone through the roof. Washington classified a staggering 92 million public records in 2011, up from 77 million the year before and from 14 million in 2003. (By way of comparison, the various troves of documents Manning leaked add up to less than 1 percent of what Washington classifies annually—not exactly the definition of “total transparency”.)
Meanwhile, the declassification of ancient secrets within the national security state moves at a near-geological tempo. The National Security Agency, for example, only finished declassifying documents from the Madison presidency (1809–17) in 2011. No less indicative of Washington’s course, the prosecution of governmental whistleblowers in the Obama years has burned with a particularly vindictive fury, fueled by both political parties and Congress as well as the White House.
Our government secrecy fetishists invest their security clearances (held by an elite coterie of 4.8 million people) and the information security (InfoSec) regime they continue to elaborate with all sorts of protective powers over life and limb. But what gets people killed, no matter how much our pols and pundits strain to deny it, aren’t InfoSec breaches or media leaks, but foolish and clueless strategic choices. Putting the blame on leaks is a nice way to pass the buck, but at the risk of stating the obvious, what has killed 1,605 US soldiers in Afghanistan since 2009 is the war in Afghanistan—not Bradley Manning or any of the other five leakers whom Obama has prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. Leaks and whistleblowers should not be made scapegoats for bad strategic choices, which would have been a whole lot less bad had they been informed by all the relevant facts.
Pardon my utopian extremism, but knowing what your government is doing really isn’t such a bad thing and it has to do with aiding the (American) public, not the enemy. Knowing what your government is doing is not some special privilege that the government generously bestows on us when we’re good and obedient citizens, it’s an obligation that goes to the heart of the matter in a free country. After all, it should be ordinary citizens like us who make the ultimate decision about whether war X is worth fighting or not, worth escalating or not, worth ending or not.
When such momentous public decisions are made and the public doesn’t have—isn’t allowed to have—a clue, you end up in a fantasy land of aggressive actions that, over the past dozen years, have gotten hundreds of thousands killed and left us in a far more dangerous world. These are the wages of dystopian government secrecy.
Despite endless panic and hysteria on the subject from both major parties, the White House and Congress, leaks have been good for us. They’re how we came to learn much about the Vietnam War, much about the Watergate scandal and, most recently, far more about state surveillance of our phone calls and e-mail. Bradley Manning’s leaks in particular have already yielded real, tangible benefits, most vividly their small but significant role in sparking the rebellion that ejected a dictator in Tunisia and the way they indirectly expedited our military exit from Iraq. Manning’s leaked reports of US atrocities in Iraq, displayed in newspapers globally, made it politically impossible for the Iraqi authorities to perpetuate domestic legal immunity for America troops, Washington’s bedrock condition for a much-desired continuing presence there. If it weren’t for Manning’s leaks, the United States might still be in Iraq, killing and being killed for no legitimate reason, and that is the very opposite of national security.
Knowledge is Not Evil
Thanks to Bradley Manning, our disaster-prone elites have gotten a dose of the adult supervision they so clearly require. Instead of charging him with aiding the enemy, the Obama administration ought to send him a get-out-of-jail-free card and a basket of fruit. If we’re going to stop the self-inflicted wars that continue to hemorrhage blood and money, we need to get a clue, fast. Should we ever bother to learn from the uncensored truth of our foreign policy failures, which have destroyed so many more lives than the late bin Laden could ever have hoped, we at least stand a chance of not repeating them.
I am not trying to soft-pedal or sanitize Manning’s magnificent act of civil disobedience. The young private humiliated the US Army by displaying for all to see their complete lack of real information security. Manning has revealed the diplomatic corps to be hard at work shilling for garment manufacturers in Haiti, for Big Pharma in Europe, and under signed orders from then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to collect biometric data and credit card numbers from their foreign counterparts. Most important, Manning brought us face to face with two disastrous wars, forcing Americans to share a burden of knowledge previously shouldered only by our soldiers, whom we love to call heroes from a very safe distance.
Did Manning violate provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice? He certainly did, and a crushing sentence of possibly decades in military prison is surely on its way. Military law is marvelously elastic when it comes to rape and sexual assault and perfectly easygoing about the slaughter of foreign civilians, but it puts on a stern face for the unspeakable act of declassifying documents. But the young private’s act of civil defiance was in fact a first step in reversing the pathologies that have made our foreign policy a string of self-inflicted homicidal disasters. By letting us in on more than a half-million “secrets,” Bradley Manning has done far more for American national security than SEAL Team 6 ever did.
While hunger strikes have put Guantánamo Bay back in the headlines, controversial terrorism trials against Muslim Americans have gone largely unnoticed. Read Victoria Brittain’s report here.
A government building burns during heavy bombardment of Baghdad, Iraq, by United States-led forces on March 21, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Many Washington policymakers and journalists have framed the NSA surveillance controversy as a debate between privacy and security. Proponents of the data dragnets argue straightforwardly that it is necessary to protect Americans from terrorists. “I flew over the World Trade Center going to Senator [Frank] Lautenberg’s funeral, and in the distance was the Statue of Liberty. And I thought of those bodies jumping out of that building, hitting the canopy,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said on Sunday. “Part of our obligation is keeping Americans safe.”
Opponents often accept the same frame, but argue that the country has traded away too much privacy. “I want our law enforcement people to be vigorous in going after terrorists.” Senator Bernie Sanders told Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s All In Monday night. “But I happen to believe they can do that without disregarding the constitution of the United States or the civil liberties of the American people.”
But what if the government abuses the vast surveillance power it is accumulating? What if the NSA is used for political purposes, not safety? This is often left out of the debate, or dismissed outright. Eric Posner wrote at The New York Times website that “I am unaware—and correct me if I am wrong—of a single instance during the last 12 years of war-on-terror-related surveillance in which the government used information obtained for security purposes to target a political opponent, dissenter or critic.”
Unfortunately, the NSA has already abused its surveillance power in at least one case where political opponents were targeted, and it’s a big one.
In 2003, a woman named Katharine Gun, who was working for a British intelligence agency, leaked a memo to the press from an NSA agent named Frank Koza. It described a massive American effort to monitor the communications of six delegations to the United Nations—the so-called “Middle Six” who were undecided on authorizing the Iraq War and who were being fiercely courted by both sides.
Here’s what memo said, in part. (Note “the Agency” is the NSA):
As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc—the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. In RT, that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.
We’ve also asked ALL RT topi’s to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can’t afford to ignore this possible source.
The British newspaper The Observer had three former intelligence officials confirm its authenticity, and confirmed that indeed a man named Frank Koza worked at the NSA. The British government tacitly admitted the memo was real by charging Gun with violating the Official Secrets Act. The charges were later dropped when the British government was worried it would have to disclose secret legal advice about the war during the trial.
James Bamford, a veteran journalist covering the NSA, confirmed the account in his book and said it extended to monitoring United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq. At the time, however, US media outlets covered the story lightly, or ignored it completely, in the case of The New York Times.
So here is a clear case where the US government used its surveillance powers—ostensibly in place for national security—to target political opponents and advance an invasion of Iraq. The memo states explicitly that the surveillance is being used to “give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.”
While this may be news to many people fiercely debating the NSA this week, it is not news to the United Nations. It has already accepted illegal surveillance as a part of international diplomacy. Here’s what several United Nations official told Foreign Policy this week:
Several U.N. based diplomats and officials interviewed for this story said they shared similar expectations—that most of their electronic and digital communications are being monitored by friendly and unfriendly governments.
“I think we all assume all of our emails are being monitored by all sorts of countries,” said one senior U.N. official, who like most others interviewed for this piece spoke by telephone or communicated by email on the condition of anonymity.
One chief argument made by civil libertarians is that massive surveillance power will inevitably lead to abuse—that the mission will creep from security to political and diplomatic applications. The fact is, it already has.
So one must then wonder: Where does it go next?
For more NSA coverage, Bob Dreyfuss pushes back against those comparing Obama's surveillance scandal to those of Nixon, Bush.
An audience member uses their smart phone to take a picture of President Obama speaking at a fundraiser on May 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The news about the National Security Agency isn’t a molehill, but it’s not a mountain either. When all is said and done, it’s very likely that it will turn out to be a situation where there’s less than meets the eye at first—at least, if what seems to have met the eye this week is a massive, unchecked NSA that sees all and knows all.
Plus, comparing Obama to George W. Bush is wrong. Bush, you will recall, invaded several nations in search of terrorists that didn’t—as in the case of Iraq—actually exist. Except for Obama’s diminishing use of drones, the Obama administration apparently believes that counterterrorism ought to be the work of intelligence and police. From everything we know, the current program at the NSA is approved by the president, legislated and known to Congress and backed by the courts. That doesn’t mean it’s right. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s the Second Coming of Richard Nixon, the Plumbers and illegal domestic spying by the CIA.
Let’s not get all paranoid about this.
And that might start with the leaker himself, Edward Snowden. As a journalist, I’m strongly in favor of leaks, and for that I’m grateful to Snowden and to The Guardian team, including Glenn Greenwald, who helped Snowden tell his story. As a civil libertarian, I’m encouraged that Snowden’s leaked documents might start a real debate over secrecy, spying and the intelligence community’s extraordinary anti-terrorist powers. But it’s also possible that Snowden, a computer nerd who backed Ron Paul in 2012, is a little paranoid, too. It’s true that he’s facing possible deportation, arrest and prosecution for what he’s acknowledged that he’s done. But when he says that the CIA might “pay off the Triads” to kidnap him in Hong Kong, that’s a little paranoid.
Too many Americans, of course, have reacted to the NSA story with a shrug and the comment that they “have nothing to hide.” And perhaps most of them believe that, but the fact is that nearly all of us do indeed have something to hide, even it’s no more than personal communications, say, between family members, doctors, bankers and others that we’d prefer don’t become public. But what’s often overlooked in this NSA story is that none of that—at least as far as we know!—is happening. No one, including the NSA, is listening in on your phone calls or reading your e-mails. That, however, is not what Americans apparently think. Most of them, fully 85 percent, according to a poll taken before—yes, before—the NSA revelations, believe that the government can “access citizens’ phone calls, e-mails and Internet use without their consent.”
Well, they can’t.
So what about collecting all of the “metadata” on phone calls made to, from and within the United States every few months and storing it all at some huge NSA data bank? That’s troubling, yes. But not really alarming, unless it can be shown that the data is misused, say, in criminal investigations, in tracking the movements of ordinary citizens, and so forth.
In an editorial today, The New York Times asks the right questions:
Are the calls and texts of ordinary Americans mined for patterns that might put innocent people under suspicion? Why is data from every phone call collected, and not just those made by people whom the government suspects of terrorist activity? How long is the data kept, and can it be used for routine police investigations? Why was a private contractor like Edward Snowden allowed to have access to it? So far, no one at the White House seems interested in a substantive public debate.
Every one of those questions needs to be answered. But some of the answers seem obvious. The reason why “data from every phone call [is] collected, and not just those made by people whom the government suspects of terrorist activity” is because if the FBI or other investigators are going to go back and look for patterns of activity after the fact, they’ll need an historical set of data. That’s something that ought to be debated, and if I get a vote, it will be that the threat of terrorism is so low that so vast a collection of data isn’t needed, especially when measured against the civil liberties lost and the potential for government abuse. That’s a debate worth having.
In answer to another of the Times’s questions—namely “Can it be used for routine police investigations”—the answer is no, and in this case we have some proof.
Consider this: if the NSA has metadata stored on every phone call made in the United States from every conceivable landline and cell phone, why would the FBI and the Justice Department need to acquire that very same data on a lot of Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation? Why not trundle over to the NSA and look it up? And in this case, especially, since it involved a leak involving an incident of terrorism and counterterrorism? The reason they didn’t, and instead sought the intrusive method that they actually used, is because this was a criminal case—a leak investigation—and not a case that actually involved terrorism. That, alone, should tell us that the NSA’s storehouse of phone metadata isn’t likely being used improperly.
On the other hand, in its investigation of the Boston Marathon bombers, the FBI and the CIA can indeed use the metadata to search the patterns of the bombers’ phone calls.
Less clear is the case of the would-be subway bomber, Najibullah Zazi, who the administration says was netted in part because of the NSA’s ability to track and monitor e-mail communications. (That’s the subject of another of Snowden’s blockbuster leaks, involving the PRISM program that gives the government entry in social networking and e-mail servers in cases involving foreign targets.) The administration says that Zazi was caught in the NSA’s net, but others say that he could easily have been tracked using the more standard intelligence and law enforcement tools that allow investigators to conduct wiretaps and electronic intercepts. (Dianne Feinstein, on the other hand, reportedly said that Zazi was caught using the NSA phone metadata, which definitely isn’t true.)
As I noted at the outset, comparing President Obama to President George W. Bush—and glibly popularizing phrases such as “George W. Obama”—is just plain silly. It’s comparing, well, apples and invasions. President Bush opted to use the military to invade entire nations in search of terrorists, some of whom didn’t even exist. More rational people, including Obama (and myself) have long argued that battling terrorism primarily ought to be the job of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. (Note to Obama: that doesn’t mean that intelligence agencies ought to use drones!) But if counterterrorism is the province of those agencies, not the military, then we need to discuss, as a nation, what powers those agencies ought to have—and what they shouldn’t.
Lee Fang writes about how intelligence contractors have already abused their power.
A member of the US Secret Service looks out from the roof of the White House in Washington April 11, 2010. REUTERS/Richard Clement (UNITED STATES—Tags: POLITICS)
With backing from the the American Civil Liberties Union, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the American Association of Law Libraries, The Constitution Project and open-government groups, eight Democratic and Republican senators have introduced legislation that would end the “secret law” governing controversial government surveillance programs.
The measure, coming amid daily revelations about the extent to which the National Security Agency is monitoring communications by Americans, would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions. The senators say the move would allow Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” explains Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate for congressional oversight of surveillance programs. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’s communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”
Merkley’s co-sponsors include Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, as well as Senators Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada; Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska; Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota; Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana; and Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.
The senators explain: “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is a special US federal court tasked with authorizing requests for surveillance both inside and outside the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of these requests, the FISC is a “secret court.” The FISC rulings, orders, and other deliberations are highly classified. The Court’s rulings can include substantive interpretations of the law that could be quite different from a plain reading of the law passed by Congress, and such interpretations determine the extent of the government’s surveillance authority. There is certainly information included in the Court’s orders and rulings that is necessarily classified, related to the sources and methods of collection used by intelligence agencies. However, the substantive legal interpretations of what the FISC says the law means should be made public.”
Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, which has for a number of years been raising concerns about the FISA court, sees an opening for legislative oversight that has been missing for so long.
“The ultimate check on governmental overreach is the American public,” says Abdo. “For years, the government has secretly relied on sweeping interpretations of its surveillance powers, preventing the very debate it has now belatedly invited on the wisdom and legality of those powers.”
Leahy’s embrace of the initiative is especially significant.
The Judiciary Committee chair’s willingness to step up as a cosponsor of this proposal offers a sense of frustration, even among key players in the Congress, with NSA secrecy—and, frankly, with the failure of the House and Senate to respond effectively, at least to this point, to privacy concerns that have been raised repeatedly since the enactment of the Patriot Act in 2001.
“For years, I have pressed for information about the business records program authorized by the Patriot Act to be declassified,” says Leahy. “I am proud to join in this bipartisan legislative effort to increase openness and transparency so that we can shed further light on the business records program authorized by this law.”
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, which outlines a reform agenda that calls for establishing a guaranteed right to vote, getting corporate money out of politics and opening up the political proces.
“I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president if I had a personal email.” —Edward Snowden, Booz Allen Hamilton whistleblower, during his interview with The Guardian.
Could the sprawling surveillance state enable government or its legion of private contractors to abuse their technology and spy upon domestic political targets or judges?
This is not a far off possibility. Two years ago, a batch of stolen e-mails revealed a plot by a set of three defense contractors (Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal) to target activists, reporters, labor unions and political organizations. The plans— one concocted in concert with lawyers for the US Chamber of Commerce to sabotage left-leaning critics, like the Center for American Progress and the SEIU, and a separate proposal to “combat” WikiLeaks and its supporters, including Glenn Greenwald, on behalf of Bank of America— fell apart after reports of their existence were published online. But the episode serves as a reminder that the expanding spy industry could use its government-backed cybertools to harm ordinary Americans and political dissident groups.
The episode also shows that Greenwald, who helped Snowden expose massive spying efforts in the United States, had been targetted by spy agency contractors in the past for supporting whistleblowers and WikiLeaks.
Firms like Palantir—a Palo Alto–based business that helps intelligence agencies analyze large sets of data—exist because of the government’s post-9/11 rush to develop a “terror-detection leviathan” of high-tech companies. Named after a stone in the Lord of the Rings that helps both villains and do-gooders see over great distances, the company is well-known within Silicon Valley for attracting support from a venture capital group led by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel and Facebook’s Sean Parker. But Palantir’s rise to prominence, now reportedly valued at $8 billion, came from initial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, and close consultation with officials from the intelligence-gathering community, including disgraced retired admiral John Poindexter and Bryan Cunningham, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice.
While Palantir boasts that its government-backed technology is geared towards helping the military track terrorists, stolen e-mails from HBGary Federal show the firm and its senior executives were eager to use its platform on behalf of the Chamber, one of the largest corporate lobbying associations. In the fall of 2010, the Chamber had received unflattering attention, first from a New York Times piece about allegedly laundered money from AIG, and then from my reporting at the Center for American Progress’ ThinkProgress blog about foreign funds flowing to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) entity used to run campaign advertisements. The Chamber’s attorneys at the firm Hunton & Williams, at the time already busy prosecuting a group of activists for impersonating the Chamber, sought out the help of Palantir to develop a team to go after the Chamber’s critics. As I reported later for TheNation.com, Palantir eventually connected with Berico and HBGary Federal, and along with the Chamber’s attorneys, the group began plotting a campaign of snooping on activists’ families and even using sophisticated hacking tools to break into computers:
The presentations, which were also leaked by Anonymous, contained ethically questionable tactics, like creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” to give to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to undermine the credibility of the Chamber’s opponents. In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to “generate communications” with Change to Win, a federation of labor unions that sponsored the watchdog site, US Chamber Watch.
Even more troubling, however, were plans by the three contractors to use malware and other forms of malicious software to hack into computers owned by the Chamber’s opponents and their families. Boasting that they could develop a “fusion cell” of the kind “developed and utilized by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC),” the contractors discussed how they could use “custom malware development” and “zero day” exploits to gain control of a target’s computer network. These types of hacks can allow an attacker not only to snoop but to delete files, monitor keystrokes and manipulate websites, e-mail archives and any database connected to the target computer.
In January of 2011, Hunton and Williams, which had met with the Chamber to discuss the proposals, sent by courier a CD with target data to the contractors. The targets discussed in e-mails included labor unions SEIU, IBT, UFW, UFCW, AFL-CIO, Change to Win, as well as progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, Courage Campaign, the Ruckus Society, Agit-Pop, Brave New Films and others. […]
The tactics described in the proposals are illegal. However, there were no discussions in the leaked e-mails about the legality of using such tactics. Rather, the Chamber’s attorneys and the three contractors quibbled for weeks about how much to charge the Chamber for these hacking services. At one point, they demanded $2 million a month.
By December in 2010, the attorneys from Hunton & Williams approached the three contractors about developing a similar plan to go after WikiLeaks on behalf of Bank of America, which was concerned that many of their private documents were about to be published by the whistleblower website. HBGary Federal’s Aaron Barr discussed his reasoning on why it was especially critical to take down Glenn Greenwald, noting in one e-mail: “I think we need to highlight people like Glenn Greenwald. Glenn was critical in the Amazon to OVH [data center] transition and helped WikiLeaks provide access to information during the transition. It is this level of support we need to attack. These are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals. Without the support of people like Glenn WikiLeaks would fold.” The team of contractors created a similar proposal for Hunton & Williams, again suggesting the idea of planting a false document and launching cyber attacks.
The contractors looked forward to the private sector money. One Palantir official wrote: “We are the best money can buy! Dam it feels good to be a gangsta.” However, they never had a chance to launch either attack plan.
The proposal fell apart when HBGary Federal’s Barr attracted the attention of LulzSec, a splinter group of Anonymous hactivists. LulzSec hacked into HBGary’s e-mail system and dumped thousands of private messages online, including the e-mails detailing the plan to go after both the Chamber’s perceived opponents and supporters of WikiLeaks. (A timeline of the scandal can be found here.)
Twenty House Democrats called for an investigation into the scandal, but the Republican-held chamber did little to look into the story. However, Congressman Hank Johnson did manage to briefly question NSA officials about the three defense contractors.
In the wake of the scandal, HBGary Federal shut down, but its sister firm, HBGary, was later sold to another military contractor, ManTech International for $23.8 million. Berico retained an influential DC lobbyist; Palantir increased their spending on lobbyists. Both companies managed to escape much scrutiny.
Although some media outlets have reacted to the Snowden story with apprehension that such a young employee of a government contractor would have such wide-ranging spy capabilities, the disclosure presents other questions. Journalist Tim Shorrock, who also blogged recently about the rise of Palantir, reported that some 70 percent of the nation’s intelligence gathering budget is spent on private contractors. Could any of these firms, which number in the hundreds, use their terrorist-seeking espionage weapons against their fellow Americans? If what Snowden claimed is true, he could have spied upon judges and journalists and sold that information to powerful domestic or foreign interests. At one point during the discussions about how to use their technologies to attack activists, Barr had met with Booz Allen Hamilton senior vice president Bill Wansley. The disclosure of the Palantir-Berico-HBGary proposals suggest other abuses could be lurking out there, from a rogue employee to a carefully planned effort to spy on activists.