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From Spying on “Terrorists Abroad” to Suppressing Domestic Dissent: When We Become the Hunted
Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyer's Guild. (Photo: City Lights Books)

From Spying on “Terrorists Abroad” to Suppressing Domestic Dissent: When We Become the Hunted

Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyer's Guild. (Photo: City Lights Books)

If you’re wondering why the ongoing revelations about the development and use of a massive public and private surveillance complex should be of concern to you, read what Michael German, senior policy counsel for the ACLU (and former FBI agent), says about the new book, Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance:

Heidi Boghosian’s ‘Spying on Democracy’ is the answer to the question, ‘If you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you care if someone’s watching you?’ It’s chock full of stories about how innocent people’s lives were turned upside-down by public and private-sector surveillance programs. But more importantly, it shows how this unrestrained spying is inevitably used to suppress the most essential tools of democracy: the press, political activists, civil rights advocates and conscientious insiders who blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance and government abuse.

Truthout recently spoke with Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, about the ever-expanding government/corporate surveillance state.

You can receive the book and help support Truthout with a minimum contribution. Just click here to order.

Mark Karlin: Aren’t we at a juncture in history where we’ve arrived at a perfect storm for nearly unrestricted surveillance in the United States? We have the political cover of keeping America “safe from terrorism” to justify the surveillance state. We have technology so advanced that few people cannot be monitored and tracked unless they are hermits hidden in caves. We have a corporate sector that increasingly depends on data mining for marketing and increasing profitability. And we have a rising tide of rebellion against the financial status quo, which the state has an interest in suppressing on behalf of the economic elites.

Heidi Boghosian: The confluence of circumstances enabling mass surveillance has the potential to permanently imperil Americans’ civil liberties. How we respond will determine whether we continue to function as a democracy.

Several other factors add to the urgency of this challenge: The Obama administration is on the defensive after Edward Snowden’s disclosures and will likely invest even more resources to protect its perpetual “war on terror” campaign and the corporate partners that profit from this manufactured war. As the public, and certain legislators, express apprehension about mass surveillance, the executive branch and the NSA may enact more stringent measures to fortify and safeguard their highly sophisticated spying infrastructure.

On top of that, CEOs of telecommunications and defense companies such as Lockheed Martin, Verizon and Microsoft are allied with the administration, guiding telecommunications and anti-terrorism policies through the president’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. And in addition to the lucrative business of data mining, corporations continue to adapt and refine technologies of war, from laser microphones to motion sensing capabilities, with which to monitor civilians.

Mark Karlin: Of course, we also have the “feed the beast” phenomenon that we have with the military-industrial complex. There are now so many US agencies and private contractors with a financial interest in the surveillance industry that it has the lobbying power to grow exponentially. How many individuals are approximately employed in the government-corporate surveillance behemoth? How important and approximately how many private companies have a stake in surveillance dollars?

Heidi Boghosian: We have created an entire new class of society that gathers and has access to classified information – an elite class that promises to grow as private companies seek increased revenue and as the government operates in unparalleled secrecy.

The majority of national intelligence, an astonishing 70 percent, is carried out by contractors. That translates into tens of thousands of analysts from more than 1,900 private firms who have performed intelligence functions over the past few years. Large contractors conduct most of the work, including Booz Allen Hamilton (which according to The New York Times, derived $1.3 billion in revenue from intelligence contracts), Northrop Grumman, L-3 Communications and Science Applications International Corporation (with 39,600 employees, a reported $11.17 billion in revenue as of 2013, and a recent $6.6 billion contract from the Defense Intelligence Agency).

In 2012, an estimated 1.1 million private contractors had security clearance. The number of federal employees with security clearance is 2.6 million.

Mark Karlin: Historically, the U.S. government and local and state governments have used law enforcement agencies to suppress dissent. We have seen this in almost every era: Those who challenge the established financial order, in particular, are subject to surveillance. We are seeing the increased criminalization of protesting, whether it be the Occupy Movement, environmental protests, animal abuse protesters (you cover spying on critical mass bicyclists in NYC), etc. How easy is it to shift the surveillance data and information that the US and its contractors are assembling into focusing it on those who exercise First Amendment rights to challenge the status quo?

Heidi Boghosian: Not only is it easy for the US and its contractors to focus on activists, it is imperative that they do so. They must target social advocates in order to justify maintaining their budgets and their livelihoods. There are simply not enough “terrorists” in existence for the government to warrant the current level of intelligence spending. As a result, enormous federal resources are devoted to identifying and tracking activists who are portrayed as “extremists.” Individuals who have helped bring about changes in corporate policies, such as animal rights or environmental advocates, are labeled domestic terrorist threats by the FBI.

The more individuals the security industry can identify as posing a national security threat – often based on tenuous, inaccurate or misleading information – the more it becomes possible to secure sizable government contracts.

The catch-all “anarchist extremist” can describe many individuals who challenge the status quo. Law enforcement circulated a list with photographs of “known anarchists” in 2004 before the Republican National Convention in New York. An unclassified DHS-FBI Intelligence Bulletin received much media coverage during the 2012 political conventions; it warned of possible increased risk of violence and property damage by anarchist extremists, arousing fear among local residents and businesses. FBI agents persist in circulating lists of alleged anarchists and visiting their friends, families and colleagues to frighten and harass politically active individuals and to create threats where none exist.

Mark Karlin: Explain the significance of the recent revelation that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was using secret surveillance data supplied to it by other agencies and not informing defendants or their counsel of the existence of the secret monitoring or information as the origin of the DEA charges.

Heidi Boghosian: This is precisely why we cannot trust the administration when officials say they are only using data for specific reasons. Secrecy is not compatible with the rule of law or with democracy.

The DEA’s Special Operations Division’s routine use of NSA information to initiate cases (and then backtracking and lying about how cases began) illustrates just one of the many possible ways that information gathered covertly may be used to contravene the laws of this nation. Hiding evidence gathered secretly violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable government searches and seizures and also impugns due process requirements of a fair trial. This shows how secrecy inherently corrupts a fair judicial process. And there are many other ways that covertly gathered personal data may be misused.

Mark Karlin: Much has been made by the Obama administration of alleging Edward Snowden has done great damage to the surveillance state by revealing its illegal and Foreign Intelligence Service Act-authorized activities and massive information database. But if such a large number of people allegedly are involved in surveillance activities, isn’t data kept on us and those around the world at risk of leaking to foreign governments and private global corporations? Isn’t this “top secret” information vulnerable to being obtained in parts or whole by parties other than the government for uses that have nothing to with “preventing terrorism”?

Heidi Boghosian: As more individuals are entrusted with access to and oversight of vast troves of personal data, this information necessarily becomes more vulnerable to misuse, whether by the parties gathering and analyzing it or by foreign governments and private multinational corporations. Because this data literally contains information related to people’s entire lives, it is ripe for bullying, blackmail, threats or other improper uses.

But this “top secret” information is already being used by our own government for reasons that have little to do with combating threats to national security. Ownership of this information affords the administration unlimited power to suppress dissent, inhibit free speech and intimidate would-be critics into adhering to the status quo.

Stored data is vulnerable in the future as well. We cannot know now what activities the government may elect to stigmatize or criminalize years from now. Having access to stored data means that currently benign information may be assigned sinister meaning long after it was collected.

Recall that J. Edgar Hoover wielded enormous powerful because his FBI agents gathered information that he stored in secret dossiers on key politicians for nearly five decades. Presidents despised him but wouldn’t fire him because he knew the intimate details of their personal and political lives and could use it to ruin their careers.

Mark Karlin: Just continuing on this concept of inherent vulnerability built into the NSA and the other government and private agencies doing US authorized surveillance work, doesn’t the alleged hacking into the Pentagon database and other sites by the Chinese government generate serious implications that the US cannot protect its data, given rapid advances in technology?

Heidi Boghosian: No system is completely secure. There is only one surefire way to safeguard data, and that’s by not collecting and storing it in the first place. The more data that the NSA and other government and private intelligence agencies amass about us, the more vulnerable we are, as individuals and as a nation. This underscores the dangers of secrecy. If there was a massive data breach, corporations and the government would not inform the public. They would hide it. We would be none the wiser, and our overall security would be greatly compromised. The less data that private security companies collect, the less money they make. The current dynamic is to sustain and grow the private surveillance industry; as a result, mistakes will be covered up.

Mark Karlin: Given the fascination of US consumers with new technology, isn’t technological surveillance going to continue to have new products that will enable it to tighten its grip even further on monitoring individuals?

Heidi Boghosian: Technology cuts both ways: that which protects privacy and that which destroys privacy. Edward Snowden’s disclosures will hopefully spark a public backlash against the model pioneered by Google, Apple and other corporations, namely, personal data in exchange for free services. People should start to recognize that when something is offered for free, the customer/user becomes the product.

Mark Karlin: What are the threats to a free press, even the mainstream media, in recent Obama administration use of surveillance information to threaten prosecution and to intimidate journalists?

Heidi Boghosian: Radical changes in media ownership, coupled with the Obama administration’s penchant for secrecy and control of information, pose a formidable threat to the possibility of a free press – the ability of the media to be independent of the government.

The administration’s unprecedented attacks on whistleblowers and members of the media have impeded the ability of investigative journalists to cultivate new sources, causing Jane Mayer of The New Yorker to proclaim that “investigative reporting has come to a standstill.”

Those writers who do engage in investigative journalism, such as Associated Press reporters or James Rosen from Fox News, are spied on and may be accused of being co-conspirators in felonies for communicating with confidential sources. New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen was monitored and subpoenaed after exposing President George W. Bush’s domestic wiretapping program and publishing State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

The mainstream press is now part of the corporate-government system. Anyone who doubts the alignment between the media and government should be reminded that Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, bought The Washington Post, was awarded a 10-year, $600 million cloud computing contract with the CIA.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security came more ways for the government to collect and retain personal information about members of the press. The DHS Office of Operations Coordination and Planning and the Media Monitoring Initiative of the DHS National Operations Center are authorized to gather and retain personal information from journalists, news anchors and others who use traditional or social media in real time.

These examples are part of a history of threatening journalists and the independent press. From 1971 to 1978, the FBI’s COINTELPRO targeted alternative newspapers with the goal of shutting them down. Banks routinely handed over financial records for these papers and their subscribers; from 1971 to 1978, the number of alternative publications declined from more than 400 to 65, as a direct result of customer and printer harassment, infiltration, wiretaps and even bomb threats.

Mark Karlin: Is there a chance that the surveillance-state story that has evolved is so massive that people won’t be able to comprehend the extent of how the government is amassing information that can be used to control its citizens? There are so many forms of surveillance – and such obfuscation from the White House and the surveillance industry – that it’s hard to get one’s hands around the specifics. On top of that, let’s not forget that we – as citizens – know only what we know. We don’t know what is still secret.

Heidi Boghosian: We can never know the true extent to which the government is amassing information, given that the nature of intelligence gathering is covert, but we can begin to surmise the scope. Knowing what we do know, we have a duty to reign in an overreaching government and its corporate partners. Frank Church, chairman of the Church Committee that investigated surveillance abuses in the 1970s, predicted that the NSA could be used to control the citizenry: “The [National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, andno American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.”

Mark Karlin: Given the history of the National Lawyers Guild in defending protesters exercising their constitutional rights against a government that historically suppresses dissent that threatens the elite status quo, are you in any way optimistic that the surveillance state can be slowed down or rolled back?

Heidi Boghosian: The power of the people united against government and corporate abuse is the most resilient power in the world. Revolutions rippling across the globe, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to protests in Turkey, make clear that the vast majority of people are dissatisfied with the global system and are ready, and able, to resist. Because of this, I am optimistic that we can curtail the surveillance state.

To do so we must first end the war-on-terror campaign. James Madison noted that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” and it is apparent that the current perpetual war on terror is indeed thinning our lifeblood, namely our freedoms. This perpetual war is as much a failure as the government’s ill-conceived and costly war on drugs, initiated during the Nixon administration.

We must also restore transparency to government.

At the bleakest moments in our past, whether in the labor or civil rights movements, people persevered against overwhelming odds. The challenges facing us now are: will we, the people, elect to harness our collective power to curb a mass surveillance state that infringes on our privacy and our constitutional rights? Will we demand transparency and accountability from government agencies? Will we respect the Supreme Court decisions affording corporations the same rights as people, or will we demand that the law protect human rights and not the property interests of an elite few?

I hope we will do all this and more – people power is limited only by one’s imagination, and history has proven humanity to be eminently resourceful, creative and persistent in the face of injustice.

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