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Six Reasons to Be Afraid of the Private Sector/Government Security State
Beatrice Edwards (Photo: Berrett-Koehler)

Six Reasons to Be Afraid of the Private Sector/Government Security State

Beatrice Edwards (Photo: Berrett-Koehler)

Part of the Series

Truthout is serializing Beatrice Edwards’ book, The Rise of the American Corporate Security State. To read more excerpts from this book, click here.

Daniel Ellsberg writes of The American Corporate Security State: “Edwards is an extraordinary writer who brilliantly captures the essence of what whistleblowers such as [Edward] Snowden have sacrificed their careers and jeopardized their personal liberties to convey.” Get the book by contributing to Truthout here.

Beatrice Edwards, as executive director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), represents Edward Snowden and four other NSA whistleblowers.

Her new book, The American Corporate Security State, offers six reasons that people in the United States should fear the growing alliance between government and corporations to create a surveillance state. Truthout recently interviewed Edwards regarding her concerns about the growing collaborative encroachment upon privacy and – through the surveillance empowerment of the private sector – democracy itself.

Daniel Ellsberg writes of The American Corporate Security State: “Edwards is an extraordinary writer who brilliantly captures the essence of what whistleblowers such as Snowden have sacrificed their careers and jeopardized their personal liberties to convey.” Get the book by contributing to Truthout here.

Karlin: Your priority recommendation for starting to put some constraints on the US corporate security state is the permanent defeat of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Why is this your number one goal?

Edwards: CISPA must be stopped because it provides legal immunities to private corporations that exchange information with US intelligence agencies. The right of US citizens, determined to preserve democratic processes, to sue corporations for damages related to these exchanges is crucial to preserving both democracy and privacy. As I discuss in the book, lawsuits – especially those alleging damages as a result of government/corporate data exchanges – are extremely inconvenient for corporations. They are time and funding intensive. They force testimony and documents into the public domain, which can be extremely embarrassing – even ruinous.

The telecoms and the electronic information industry are deeply concerned about legal liability and about negative publicity in this regard. CISPA would patch this remaining vulnerability of the corporate security state, and therefore the legislation must be stopped. Once corporations have legal immunity for cooperation with intelligence agencies, the task of reclaiming other rights that have been secretly annulled (the right to freedom of association and speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, for example) will be much, much more difficult.

On a tactical level, the permanent defeat of CISPA is an achievable goal in the short term. The legislation looked as if it was headed for passage in the summer of 2013, but the Snowden disclosures stopped it cold. After it easily passed the House in the spring, it was not even introduced in the Senate. Still, it is poised for resurrection, and we have to be vigilant.

You also would require that the NSA be held accountable for its illegal actions. How can this be achieved in the current political environment, when the executive branch and Congress are providing little more than the mildest of lip service in reining in the NSA?

In specific corners of the Congress, there is vocal opposition to massive warrantless surveillance. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has expressed a willingness to hold hearings or take action against the impunity of the NSA. Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a principal author of the Patriot Act, introduced the USA Freedom Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet Collection, and Online Monitoring), H.R. 3361/ S. 1599, in the House of Representatives. The legislation would end bulk collection of Americans’ communications records and reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, among other things.

The FISA reforms are inadequate, but they are a beginning. In addition, Rep. Barbara Lee has introduced H.R. 4608 to repeal the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force, which is a blank check for endless war. AUMF has been used to justify some of the worst abuses of executive power since 9/11 and has contributed to the fearmongering of the intelligence community. With Osama Bin Laden dead, Al-Qaeda a shell of its former self and our involvement in Afghanistan quickly diminishing, a movement is building in Congress to repeal the 2001 AUMF once and for all. Support for this comes from both the liberal side of the Democratic party and the libertarian wing of the Republican party. Budgetary constraints and resistance to wholesale surveillance are creating a new political coalition that can mobilize to roll back the surveillance state.

A coalition of NGOs advocating transparency and accountability is already campaigning in support of the Freedom Act and working to strengthen the recommended reform measures, but admittedly, the work needs to go further. Public awareness and attention are needed. An effective campaign against government impunity will involve the media – particularly online investigative journalism outlets, such as Pro Publica and the Center for Public Integrity – and a high-profile event that would feature the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI and the activists who participated in the 1971 Media, Pennsylvania, FBI break-in.

As a goal, the event will establish the parameters for a new congressional committee to examine the unconstitutional practices of the NSA. The coalition sponsoring the event and its follow-up will have access to much relevant information regarding NSA practices because of the Snowden disclosures already made.

It is clear from national polls that the public is increasingly engaged and alarmed about the dragnet surveillance to which we are all now subject. Supporters of democracy and privacy must keep the issue in the public mind and continue to draw attention to its implications.

How do you compare the government corporate surveillance complex to the military industrial complex?

The answer to this question could be a book in itself, but the short answer is that the government corporate surveillance complex includes the “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” (SIFIs) and engages in coordinated data mining targeting ordinary citizens for purposes of pursuing profits and suppressing dissent. The military industrial complex is only a subset of the overarching gov./corp. complex.

The military industrial complex includes defense contractors, the Pentagon and the revolving door between them, through which top-level military and civilian officials in the war-making industry transit during their careers (and post-retirement). These officials and the lobbyists they hire influence Congressional representatives by locating defense facilities in their districts, which then require (and receive) continuing appropriations. Votes and profits go hand-in-hand, and this political-economic conglomerate promotes war (or the preparation for it) as a source of financial gain.

The government/corporate surveillance complex has expanded its scope into all executive agencies – and not only the Department of Defense. For example, the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department are fundamental elements of the gov./corp. surveillance complex. The Justice Department prosecutes whistleblowers reporting fraud in the military industrial complex (as spies), under the Espionage Act, does not prosecute high-level intelligence authorities for abuse of authority or corruption, declines to prosecute senior managers of SIFIs for fraud and ignores testimony and disclosures from whistleblowers who expose systemic corruption in the financial sector. The Treasury Department supplies public wealth to the SIFIs to prevent their insolvency, which periodically threatens them because of systemically fraudulent practices.

Lobbying by the gov./corp. comp extends far beyond the Congress, into the rulemaking at the executive agencies, so that if legislation represents the public interest, the rules implementing the legislation make the law inoperable.

The government/corporate surveillance complex engages in increasingly pervasive data gathering and mining for the purpose of controlling the population and raising profits through expert targeted marketing.

Given that both the state (through government agencies and contractors) and corporations (for marketing purposes) are massively data mining us, is there any way to currently protect our informational privacy?

Encryption can be used as much as possible. Intelligence agencies can break through encryption, but the break-in must still be done on an individual basis, and if more and more internet users employ encryption, bulk data gathering becomes impossible. Many of us believe that encryption represents the most effective, immediate obstacle to data mining.

Encryption programs, which are not especially easy to use presently, are becoming more user-friendly as the market for them grows.

Hasn’t the growth of technological communication made us more vulnerable to surveillance? In essence, the more we use technology to transmit and view information and converse, don’t we increase our exposure to surveillance?

We do. Technological communication, however, also represents the most effective and far-reaching means of mobilizing against gov./corp. surveillance. Like any technology, the internet is a double-edge sword. It can be used both for and against the public. The challenge is to appropriate its capabilities in the public interest. As the Snowden disclosures show, it is very difficult for the state to keep its secrets in the face of instantaneous global communication.

While we depend upon the right of privacy, the gov./corp. complex depends on secrecy. Our job is to preserve privacy in the face of increasing sophistication in the electronic information world, while minimizing government secrecy.

How did 9/11 provide a pretext for the exponential growth of the corporate surveillance state?

The attack of 9/11 gave the government a pretext for secrecy and surveillance. The public was terrified of a subsequent attack, and no one knew whether 9/11 was the beginning of a new borderless war or a fluke. Our government capitalized on this fear and presents its surveillance activities to the public as the price we pay for security.

As we all know, people who are afraid of attack readily surrender their rights – the same rights the government purports to defend by violating them. So the intelligence community tells the public that we must surrender our right to free speech in order to defend our right to free speech. We were never encouraged to debate this contradiction and examine the logic behind it. If we had, we would have realized that the government’s position was senseless.

In addition, we now know that the intelligence community’s dragnet surveillance has been absolutely useless in thwarting terrorist attacks inside the United States. The attacks that have been prevented – and the attack on the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which was actually carried out – were detected and solved through ordinary, coordinated law enforcement operations.

What is the fundamental conflict of interest inherent in the corporate surveillance state?

The government’s surveillance operations are put at the service of corporate interests, but they are presented as operations undertaken in the public interest. Corporate power and the public interest are not the same. The government finances its surveillance with taxpayer funds, but then puts its operations at the service of private power rather than the public. This conflict of interest is concealed through government secrecy.

What is the fate of whistleblowers when they try to make the surveillance state more transparent?

Their fate differs according to the sector they expose. Intelligence community whistleblowers (Tom Drake, William Binney, Edward Snowden) are prosecuted or persecuted mercilessly in order to silence them. Whistleblowers from the financial sector (Richard Bowen, Eric Ben-Artzi, Eileen Foster) are simply fired and then ignored. After they made their disclosures, the Justice Department never contacted them. Bowen’s disclosures were sealed and sent to the National Archives, where they would not be released until after the statute of limitations had run.

Do you have a response to the US citizen who brushes off concern about surveillance by averring that they are law-abiding citizens and have nothing to worry about?

Yes. First, law-abiding citizens depend upon access to a free press in order to preserve their democratic rights. Wholesale surveillance means that journalists cannot protect their sources’ identities, which means that the press becomes little more than a mouthpiece for the state. That represents the end of democratic governance as we know it.

Secondly, the prevalence of surveillance creates a mentality of suspicion in the intelligence community: All citizens are potential threats to the state. You may be a law-abiding citizen, but you are no longer the party deciding that you’re law abiding. A faceless bureaucrat in the intelligence community decides that. Your activities – communicating in a foreign language by e-mail, using encryption, having a friend who donates to a charity suspected of associating with “terrorists” will make you a target of the state. Once that happens, you will be hard-pressed to defend yourself, and your argument – that you’re a law-abiding citizen – will not help you much.

In brief, wholesale surveillance eliminates the presumption of innocence. Once the state suspects you of association with a party critical of the state, you are presumed guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.

How much taxpayer money is being spent on the expanding government intrusion into our privacy?

Documents released by Edward Snowden show that the intelligence community has an annual budget of $52.6 billion. That figure represents an increase of about $40 billion a year since 2001.

Prior to the Snowden disclosures, we did not know this figure. We are obliged to pay for the activities of the intelligence community, but we have no right to know what those activities are.

Daniel Ellsberg writes of The American Corporate Security State: “Edwards is an extraordinary writer who brilliantly captures the essence of what whistleblowers such as Snowden have sacrificed their careers and jeopardized their personal liberties to convey.” Get the book by contributing to Truthout here.

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