The American Bear


Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists, the government has built a vast system based on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future,” says Hina Shamsi, the head of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “On that dangerous theory, the government is secretly blacklisting people as suspected terrorists and giving them the impossible task of proving themselves innocent of a threat they haven’t carried out.” Shamsi, who reviewed the document, added, “These criteria should never have been kept secret. Blacklisted: The Secret Government Rulebook For Labeling You a Terrorist

State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The F.B.I. is developing what it calls its “next generation identification” project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data. … The State Department has what several outside experts say could be the largest facial imagery database in the federal government, storing hundreds of millions of photographs of American passport holders and foreign visa applicants. And the Department of Homeland Security is funding pilot projects at police departments around the country to match suspects against faces in a crowd. … The N.S.A., though, is unique in its ability to match images with huge troves of private communications. N.S.A. Collecting Millions of Faces From Web Images |

Freedom Rider: The Burglary and COINTELPRO

In 1971 eight anti-war activists calling themselves the Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI plotted to break into an FBI field office located in Media, Pennsylvania. They knew that the government was conducting a massive spying effort against American citizens and they were determined to find and publicly present their evidence.

On the night of March 8, 1971, they succeeded in stealing nearly every piece of paper in that office and later sent copies of key documents to the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. They also sent copies to two Democratic politicians, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota and Congressman Parren Mitchell of Maryland. The New York and Los Angeles newspapers both turned the files over to the FBI and so did the two supposedly left leaning politicians. The Washington Post, at the time a decent newspaper, was alone in standing up to White House and FBI pressure when they reported the story.

Five of the eight burglars came forward and are the subjects of a newly published book, The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, written by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. The late William Davidon, John Raines, Bonnie Raines, Keith Forsyth, and Bob Williamson chose to publicly reveal their identities for the first time and in so doing have done yet another service to the public. Because of their actions the world found out about the government’s depth of hostility towards the left and black freedom movements and its determination to destroy them. By stepping forward so many years later they remind us that government surveillance is endemic to our political system and is not easily stamped out.

Betty Medsger revealed the lengths the government went to in order to destroy the liberation movement in particular. “Every FBI agent was required to hire at least one informer to report to him regularly on the activities of black people. In the District, every agent was required to hire six informers for that purpose. On one campus in the Philadelphia area, Swarthmore College, every black student was under surveillance.”

FBI informers reported on every meeting, every word and every action of members of the Black Panther Party, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other groups. FBI agents used informers to create dissension among activists and succeeded in weakening and destroying many organizations. Individuals were targeted for persecution and prosecution and some like the Omaha Two, Mondo we Langa and Edward Poindexter, are still imprisoned. Forty years ago they were set up by the FBI and local police and charged in the killing of a policeman in one of the last COINTELPRO prosecutions.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died peacefully in 1972, without having faced the investigations and scrutiny he ought to have faced in his lifetime. His power remained unchecked and the revelations of his worst acts were withheld from the public until after his death. Despite the document theft which took place in 1971 the word COINTELPRO didn’t become public until late 1973 when a reporter successfully under took a Freedom of Information Act request.

Had it not been for the burglars, we would never have known about the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO. Hoover had a special animus against black people and left no stone unturned in his efforts to destroy the freedom struggle. Internal divisions, feuds and even murders resulted from COINTELPRO whose stated purpose was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” activists across the country. Black panther party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were among those “neutralized” in 1969 by an FBI and Chicago police department assassination.

In time the rest of news media followed the Washington Post’s lead and revealed more about Hoover’s domestic surveillance and illegal activities. Senator Frank Church led congressional hearings in 1975 and 1976 which ultimately resulted in greater oversight of domestic and foreign surveillance programs.

It now seems that the media revelations and investigations were all for naught. Acquiescence and collusion among politicians, the judiciary and media have left Americans with fewer rights now than in 1971. Richard Nixon didn’t have the legal right to designate citizens as terrorists or order them to be killed. Now forty years later, Barack Obama has the legal right to do those things and more. He has the right to hold anyone without charge or trial indefinitely and the NSA has given the government access to phone and internet records of ordinary citizens and foreign leaders alike.

The story of the 1971 burglary is fascinating on many levels but the central point is very simple. It was citizen action, not governmental decree which revealed the illegal acts committed by the government. Even 40 years ago when there was a stronger journalistic ethic, most of the corporate media chose not to cover this story. Politicians who were supposedly progressive were equally cowardly and even traitorous when handed information they were required to investigate and prosecute.

Times have changed and not for the better. The government has more tools as its disposal to use against activist citizens. The law has long ceased to be on our side. … .

[W]hat Snowden revealed was far worse than simple bureaucratic overreach or inconsistencies with the law. Instead a narrative which had been promulgated by government officials over the past decade - that Americans would need to sacrifice their basic freedoms in order to be safe - was revealed to be brazenly false. Americans had given up their most personal freedoms and were not any safer for it. This was not because the NSA didn’t have enough power to search, but because it turned out there was literally nothing out there for them to find. Their response to this discovery mirrored those of powerful intelligence agencies throughout history: it made them want even more power. The American people had given the NSA a free hand to hollow out their democracy and they zealously took up the opportunity. They sought out the holy grail of “total information awareness” for no apparent reason other than the fact that they could. Murtaza Hussain, What Snowden really revealed

I think it very important that the mere fact of there being surveillance takes away liberty. The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power. Quentin Skinner

If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, [NSA’s ‘Tailored Access Operations’ (TAO)] can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called ‘load stations,’ agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer. … These minor disruptions in the parcel shipping business rank among the ‘most productive operations’ conducted by the NSA hackers, one top secret document relates in enthusiastic terms. This method, the presentation continues, allows TAO to obtain access to networks ‘around the world.’ Inside TAO: Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit

So, the whitewashing of surveillance dragnet reform is in full swing, let the giddiness of last week give way to the understanding that Barack Obama, and the Intelligence Community, have no intention whatsoever of ‘reforming’. In fact, they will use the illusion of ‘reform’ to expand their authorities and power. Jonathan Turley noted, ‘Obama stacked the task force on NSA surveillance with hawks to guarantee the preservation of the program.’ … Not just preserve, but to give the false, nee fraudulent, patina of Obama Administration concern for the privacy and civil liberties concerns of the American citizenry when, in fact, the Administration has none. It is yet another con. The Civil Liberties Celebration Hangover Wears Off

White House Tries to Prevent Judge From Ruling on Surveillance Efforts |

The Obama administration moved late Friday to prevent a federal judge in California from ruling on the constitutionality of warrantless surveillance programs authorized during the Bush administration, telling a court that recent disclosures about National Security Agency spying were not enough to undermine its claim that litigating the case would jeopardize state secrets.

The Interest-Divergence Dilemma Between the Tech Companies and the NSA* | Translation Exercises

… [As] the tech letter [from Google, Yahoo, etc.] shows, while the language they resort to is the time-honored liberal discourse between security and freedom, in fact the balance they care about is the balance between corporate profits, government power, and customer complacence. It is not necessarily a problem to tip over from freedom to security, as long as government surveillance doesn’t begin to cause unrest among their customers such that they lose their profit machine.

Presumably “being sensible” means not undermining “trust in the Internet,” which makes total sense, when your business profits depend on your customers’ trust in the Internet. So the appeal from the tech companies to the USG, in essence, is to continue their collaboration with the corporations to mine and acquire as much data as possible, but to be less obtrusive, less extreme, less confrontational about it. One way to do so, is to re-institute strict controls on which persons are the focus of data collection.

This is the quintessential neoliberal environment: corporations and the government converge to strip the focus away from rights so as to have better control over individuals. But at the moment that corporate profit is threatened, corporations no longer act in complete concert with the state, but rather each “institution” (the government and corporations) battle each other for control over consumers/citizens.

I think there’s a different (or another) red herring … : It is the red herring of “interests.” In other words, the discourse of interests distracts the “public” conversation from naming several realities (i.e. this is what is NOT printed as part of the official record, as in Reuters or the NYT; it doesn’t mean that many of us don’t see it).

1) It distracts us from being able to identify the struggle over the limits of surveillance as being about the limits of corporate power versus the state’s power and not, as its typically articulated, to protect persons/subjects/consumers/citizens.

2) This struggle is better understood as that between corporate interests for profit and (managing its customers’ behaviors for that purpose) v. government interests to acquire all information as a mode of securing control over subjects and companies.

In other words, the struggle between the tech companies and the government is over managing individual actions en masse, and by extension, its dialectical counterpart: consumers’/subjects’ resistance to being managed.

And this battle reflects the red herring of interests: The discourse of “interests” saturates the public conversation, such that privacy is no longer a relevant question. In fact, the prime concern that governs state actions is “its” own interests. This makes more sense if we revert to the assumption that the state’s interest is in its own survival, not that of its subjects/citizens. The corporations have their own interests in mind is obvious, but their interests are profits as extracted through the control/management of consumers’ actions (such as through Google’s and Facebook’s data collection methods, which in turn are enhanced by targeting personalized ads at each user, which in turn extracts more information about user behavior.

The issue at stake is not about principles, or ethics, or privacy per se. Rather, the real concern—from the perspective of the tech companies is their profits being lost. That is the tipping point that shifts the balance away from profit in the service of overwhelming government desire to know everything that’s going on. That interest was okay, so long as the public (customers) didn’t know (or didn’t focus so much on) the fact that their information was being handed over in volume by the tech companies. But when that knowledge threatens to drive away their customer base, then the “balance” qua fine-tuning has been lost. [READ]