The NSA, PRISM, and Whistleblowing
Edward Snowden seems to me a hero in the classical sense: struggling with his conscience and having to decide to go on as before, living a comfortable life, or to take the ultimate sacrifice of leaving everything behind and accept the adverse consequences of his own convictions? He chose this difficult road, and abandoned his security, his home, his girlfriend, his family, his future and his freedom.
Thanks to him, we now know to what extend the US government has been spying on us, as we discover the NSA’s massive secret surveillance machinery most people wouldn’t have imagined possible. Snowden knows that the “Q group”, the internal police force of the NSA, is already hunting him down, saying in his interview from June 6th: “[you can’t win] against the world’s most powerful Intelligence Agency”, “there is no saving me” and “I do not expect to see my home again”, showing us why whistleblowers in the Intelligence community are so rare.
Who is the 29 year old Snowden, and what might have motivated him to give up everything and blow the whistle on the US government? We know he studied computing, but never finished high school. When he was 19, he joined the Special Forces Unit of the US Army, but broke his legs during an army exercise and was dismissed. He joined the CIA to work on IT security and was also stationed by the CIA in Geneva/Switzerland. He later left the CIA and worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as a private contractor working inside NSA facilities at the US military base in Japan. In his last job, he was a systems administrator for the NSA in Hawaii, being well paid and living with his girlfriend in a nice house.
Snowden always cared passionately about “privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world”. He was also a contributor to Ron Paul’s campaign and, in his Guardian interview, said that although he believed Obama when the latter claimed in 2008 that he would run a more transparent government, he voted in 2012 for “a third party”, which very likely means the Libertarian Party.
On June 6th Snowden revealed his knowledge and motivation in his interview with the Guardian reporter, Glenn Greenwald, which was recorded from a hotel in Hong Kong. He told us that the US government, without obtaining proper court warrants, obtains hundreds of millions of phone logs of Americans who have no connection to any terrorism.
He offered information on how the NSA has a newly developed program, PRISM, supposedly targeting suspect terrorists, but in the process also sweeping up huge amounts of data about ordinary Americans. This operation is done through US companies Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Skype and Apple. The information can then be locked away for a long time, and easily accessed in the future. A huge two billion dollar storage facility was recently built in Bluffdale, Utah by the Obama administration.
Snowden also talked about another program, “Boundless Informant”, which tracks a billion pieces of intelligence data around the world. In March 2013 alone, the NSA collected ninety-seven billion pieces of information from computer networks worldwide, and three billion of those pieces came from US based networks. This contradicts the NSA’s recent assurances to Congress that it cannot exactly track all of the surveillance it performs on American communications with the rest of the world.
It is hardly surprising that most of this data comes from Middle Eastern countries, but Snowden says: “We hack everybody everywhere: we make no distinction between us and the others. We do have the tools and I have maps where people are scrutinised most. We collect more digital communications from America than we do from Russia.”
Later in the interview (link here) Snowden reveals his fear of an Orwellian world “…where everything I do and say is recorded….where there is no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”
To understand how uncontrolled the collection of information is becoming, you have to look at the oversight of the intelligence gathering undertake by the NSA. In 1978, Congress voted on new oversights for Intelligence called FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), trying to prevent future presidential abuses like those which had taken place under the Nixon administration. The law prescribed certain procedures for surveillances.
It was amended in 2001 by the US Patriot Act, including easier wire-tapping, trying to catch terrorists’ activities. The law includes a requirement to obtain a US court order of 72 hours after surveillance has taken place for US citizens, but foreign citizens can be subject to surveillance for up to one year without any court supervision. The court which overseas FISA is called FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), but it is, according to a former NSA analyst, more or less “rubber stamping surveillance and basically a kangaroo court.”
Snowden’s leaks also confirm the testimony by a retired US intelligence officer, William Binney, who tried to alert the Defense Department to investigate the NSA for wasting many millions of dollars on a system called ‘Trailblazer’, which was supposed to analyse data carried on communication networks. ‘Trailblazer’ was not only very expensive, but also immensely intrusive and ineffective compared to another system called ‘ThinThread’. Binney, who specialised in analysis and codebreaking, and was described as one of the best analysts in NSA’s history, was furious that, despite possessing ‘Trailblazer’, the NSA didn’t discover the 9/11 plot. He claimed that ‘ThinThread’ was a much more focused system. Although ‘Trailblazer’ was tracking 20 trillion communication transactions of Americans, it didn’t get any of the analytical results.
Binney also testified in a US class-action lawsuit by Electronic Frontier Foundation against the NSA and high ranking officers of the Bush administration, claiming that they had an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet communication surveillance. The case is on appeal and the NSA is still trying to have the case dismissed under ‘state secrets privilege’.
Ron Paul recently commented on the leak, to the effect that Obama should be congratulating Snowden, as he promised in his campaign: “no more illegal wiretapping, no more spying on citizens and no more tracking citizens”. But a couple of days ago a different Obama was defending himself: “you can’t have 100% security and 100% freedom….”
In 2011, when the Patriot Act came up for renewal, Ron Paul showed the limits of absolute safety at the Congressional debate: “If you want to be perfectly safe from child abuse and wife-beating, Government could put cameras in every bedroom. But perfect safety is not the purpose of Government. Government should enforce the law and protect our liberties.”
In an interview by Russian TV in December 2012 Binney explained how much worse surveillance had become under Obama: information is not filtered any more, just stored and if Government wants to get you, it will just pull out the data. That same central Government will define what’s right or wrong: if your position is something the Government doesn’t like, you become the target.
After these leaks many questions seem to open up on the recent scandals surrounding the Obama administration. Why did General Petraeus resign at the precise moment when the Benghazi “talking points” were changed? How did the Government know the content of his conversation with his mistress? How could the taping of a Fox News correspondent and Associated Press reporters be carried out so easily by the Obama-appointed Attorney General?
Edward Snowden’s most haunting remarks about an Orwellian US government without proper checks and balances is his following observation: “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. [People] won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things…And in the months ahead, the years ahead, it’s only going to get worse. [They] say that… because of the crisis, the dangers that 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.”
Stephanie Surface tweets as @suranie