Bipartisan Assault on Civil Liberties
On April 26, the House of Representatives passed the benign-sounding but deeply ominous Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Under the pretense of seeking to secure the country’s computer networks from “terrorists,” “cybercriminals” and foreign governments, CISPA provides legal authority for the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Defense to obtain detailed and sensitive personal information over the Internet without first obtaining a search warrant, which is supposedly required for intercepting phone and postal communications. The legislation offers immunity to corporations that convey the information to the Feds and exempts such data troves from the government’s disclosure obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.
If enacted, CISPA will give a blessing to the massive phone and cybersnooping already securely in place. In late 2005, it was revealed that the NSA was intercepting not only communications abroad but also those of U.S. citizens, without first procuring warrants. A glimpse of the scope of such snooping was provided by retired AT&T worker Mark Klein, who came forward to reveal how the NSA had tapped into AT&T’s fiber-optic cables to obtain a copy of much of the country’s Internet data flow. Klein’s revelations became Exhibit A in a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to expose and stop the illegal government data mining (see “Phone Worker Exposes Government Spying Network,” WV No. 953, 26 February 2010).
In an April 20 interview with Democracy Now!, longtime NSA staffer William Binney recalled that the system implemented at AT&T, supposedly in response to the September 11 attacks, had in fact been developed earlier. According to Binney, the NSA was “prepared to deploy about eight months before 9/11.” The NSA spy system at AT&T was set up under George W. Bush at the time of the Pentagon’s notorious Total Information Awareness project, which was run by convicted Contragate criminal John Poindexter. Following a public outcry over revelations of the project’s massive accessing of e-mail and other information on the Internet, Poindexter resigned and Congress made a show of cutting off funding for the project. In his interview, Binney declared that Poindexter’s project had been made public “to test the waters in Congress to see how they would be receptive to something they were already doing.” Binney resigned from the NSA in protest when the surveillance program he helped develop was applied to U.S. citizens.
The NSA-telecom spy network that Mark Klein revealed was just the tip of the iceberg. In San Antonio, Texas, the NSA has converted an old Sony factory nearly as large as a football stadium into a facility to intercept data. The NSA is putting the finishing touches on its Utah Data Center in the desert town of Bluffdale—a $2 billion project, five times larger than the U.S. Capitol, slated for operation next year. Coursing through its servers and routers will be complete contents of e-mails, cellphone calls, Google searches, parking receipts, travel itineraries, books purchased and much more. As revealed in an article by James Bamford in Wired magazine (15 March), the NSA has established listening posts across the country and has created a supercomputer with the aim of breaking the most sophisticated encryption codes, thus trying to remove one of the ways people can protect their privacy.
To put it bluntly, the government wants to know what you do, where you are, what political activities you engage in, what you read, what music you listen to, who you sleep with, what your bedmate reads, what his or her political affiliations are, etc. If George Orwell’s Big Brother were watching, he would be on the short end of a sibling rivalry.
The “war on terror” was launched as a rationale for both the imperialist occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and for expanding state repressive powers at home. As the Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee wrote in our 2003 amici curiae (friends of the court) brief on behalf of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen seized and detained by the government as an “enemy combatant” in the “war on terror”: “Like the ‘war against communism’ and the ‘war against drugs,’ this ‘war’ is a pretext to increase the state’s police powers and repressive apparatus, constricting the democratic rights of the population.”
Forty-two Democrats joined Congressional Republicans in voting for CISPA, though other Democrats have voiced vague civil libertarian concern about the bill. CISPA now has to go before the Senate, and President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, stating apprehension that the law fails to institute “privacy, confidentiality, and civil liberties safeguards.” This dance of the Democrats and Republicans is almost as old as the fox-trot. After voting nearly unanimously for the USA-Patriot Act in 2001, Democrats in Congress have made a ritual of balking at the renewal of various of its provisions, only to fall into line. When the NSA phone intercepts were first revealed, Congressional Democrats feigned outrage. But after squawking a bit they voted to authorize the NSA program in 2007 and voted for its renewal a year later. In 2009, Obama’s Justice Department won dismissal of the EFF lawsuit.
As the CEO of the most dangerous imperialist power in the world, Obama is concerned that CISPA might undermine receipt of data from the private sector, which should be done “in a way that permits appropriate sharing within the Government.” Joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes CISPA, the Obama administration proposes that such data mining be overseen not by an intelligence agency like the NSA but by a “civilian” agency, namely, the Department of Homeland Security, the massive government agency that is a centerpiece of the “war on terror.” With less fanfare, the Obama administration has reportedly drafted legislation that would force the Internet industry to insure that the government have “backdoor” access to all forms of Internet communication.
Already, by Binney’s estimate, the Feds have amassed some 20 trillion records of communications by U.S. citizens through its monitoring of the Internet. Meanwhile, cellphones are being tracked without warrants by police forces across the country, and cellphone tracking software can pinpoint the location of a phone and record where the user has been for at least the past month. Added to this is the FBI’s Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR) that is amassing tens of thousands of files on those alleged to have “acted suspiciously.” Surveillance video cameras are becoming ubiquitous, and the Feds and police departments are deploying drones the size of model airplanes to spy on the population.
A convenient tool for snooping and prying has been handed to the government by social media sites. In the current era of facebooking and tweeting, everything from one’s personal pictures and job information to political commentary and “friends” lists is made available to the public. Homeland Security has used sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for surveillance and data collection. Local police departments regularly monitor social media sites as a way to snoop and ensnare their victims in the name of “fighting crime.” Employers spy on potential job hires and impose discipline on employees for “inappropriate” off-duty conduct or “inflammatory” remarks. An article on the AlterNet Web site (16 January 2008) summarized how social networking sites are “priming a new generation for complacency in a surveillance society.” Facebook now has 840 million users worldwide.
Facebook is so financially valuable precisely because of its ability to collect enormous amounts of highly sensitive information and distribute it commercially to third parties widely and quickly. Facebook objected to an earlier Internet monitoring proposal—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)—fearing that the company might be targeted for copyright infringement. But Facebook as well as Google have come out in support of CISPA. What this new legislation mandates is not fundamentally different from what Zuckerberg & Co. have been allowing the government to do all along. But it provides such Internet giants legal protection against being sued by a user for handing over their information to government agencies.
The Capitalist Terrorists’ “War on Terrorism”
First enacted under George W. Bush, the USA-Patriot Act had already given the government’s secret police vastly expanded authority to tap phones, search homes, scour financial records, interrogate librarians and place people under arrest without probable cause that a crime has been committed. But it was the Clinton administration that laid the groundwork for Bush’s war on civil liberties, which has now been extended under Obama. In the 1990s, the NSA had already begun scanning international e-mails without warrants through its Echelon program. Measures such as Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, enacted in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal office building, would later be expanded as part of the “war on terror.”
We have always insisted that such repressive measures—whatever their pretext—will be used against labor, leftists, blacks and others deemed opponents of the government. American history is rich with examples of this. The 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, purportedly adopted to control the growth of monopolies, was used to bust strikes and break up unions as “unlawful conspiracies.” The 1970s RICO “anti-racketeering” laws, which supposedly targeted the Mafia, were used to break strikes and exert government control over unions like the Teamsters. In 2002, amid the U.S. rulers’ campaign for “national unity” against “terrorism,” the Homeland Security chief phoned the West Coast ILWU longshore union’s International president to warn that a strike would “threaten national security,” with the Bush administration later threatening to bring in Navy scabs in the event of a strike.
The capitalist rulers need their repressive state apparatus to control the workers they exploit and the minorities they oppress. The capitalists constitute a minuscule, ruthless class. They own the banks and major industries, producing nothing themselves while reaping trillions in profit out of the sweat and blood of working people and harvesting poverty, misery, death and destruction around the world. The vast class divide sows the seeds for class and social struggle.
Democracy under capitalism provides the trappings that mask the dictatorship of capitalist exploiters over the working class and the oppressed—enforced through the cops, courts and prisons that make up the capitalist state. As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin wrote in his 1918 work The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky:
“Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor…
“There is not a single state, however democratic, which has no loopholes or reservations in its constitution guaranteeing the bourgeoisie the possibility of dispatching troops against the workers, of proclaiming martial law, and so forth, in case of a ‘violation of public order,’ and actually in case the exploited class ‘violates’ its position of slavery and tries to behave in a non-slavish manner.”
The ultimate target of the capitalist political police is the proletariat, whose role in producing the wealth of this society gives it the social power to choke off profits and to overthrow the capitalist system. At the turn of the 20th century, the Russian tsars propped up their decrepit rule by unleashing an army of agents provocateurs and Okhrana (secret police) against that country’s small but rapidly growing working class and the Marxist circles that sprouted up at the time. But this was the hallmark of a dying ruling class. In October 1917, the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky led the Russian proletariat to power, overthrowing capitalist rule on one-sixth of the globe. While we Marxists see in that revolution a model for the proletariat of the world, the bourgeoisie to this day sees it as a calamity whose repetition must be prevented at all costs.
Government Spying from FDR to Obama
From the time he threw his hat into the ring five years ago, Obama made clear that he was dedicated to running a more efficient and effective “war on terror.” Many of those who ardently supported Obama closed their eyes and covered their ears hoping for a reversal of the excesses of the Bush years. As the Obama administration has not merely adopted those practices but bolstered and expanded them over the past three years, these liberal and reformist leftists whine like a jilted paramour.
On Obama’s watch, the Justice Department has invoked “state secrets” to shield the government from lawsuits by America’s torture victims and has greatly stepped up prosecutions for leaks to the press. Among those victimized for getting out some truth is Bradley Manning, a 24-year-old Army intelligence analyst suspected of passing on to WikiLeaks a video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter firing on Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists in 2007 as well as other evidence of imperialist crimes.
Further escalating “anti-terror” repression, Obama late last year signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), sanctioning the indefinite military detention of any persons, including U.S. citizens, accused of supporting “terrorism.” Under “material support” to terrorism laws, the Obama government has gone after the Freedom Road Socialist Organization on the basis of purported links to the secular-nationalist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. In the eyes of the U.S. rulers, the “crime” committed by these reformists—who supported Obama’s election—is siding with victims of the Zionist butchers and Colombian death squads. Obama’s Justice Department also quadrupled the sentence for 72-year-old leftist attorney Lynne Stewart, who was imprisoned for zealously defending her client, a blind Islamic cleric convicted for an alleged plot to blow up NYC landmarks in the early 1990s. Stewart, who has cancer, is appealing the vindictive ten-year sentence.
The reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO), while not openly campaigning for Obama, celebrated his election as “the end of far too many years” of Republican rule and gushed that his victory was “transformative.” More recently, in editorials like “Claiming the Republican Agenda As His Own” (socialistworker.org, 13 July 2011), the ISO castigates Obama for betraying his constituency: “Turns out the president many expected to revive the New Deal is out to bury it instead.”
The ISO is here promoting a long-held myth, stemming from the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that the interests of workers and minorities can be defended and advanced through the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt’s New Deal consisted of palliative reforms intended to stifle the huge workers upsurge that created the mass, integrated industrial unions of the CIO in the 1930s and to legally hamstring the burgeoning labor movement. In his efforts to subordinate the working class to the capitalist state, FDR was aided by the Communist Party (CP) and other reformists who helped channel the workers’ upsurge into support for his Democratic Party.
It was under FDR that the secret police became the FBI. In fact, Democratic administrations have led the efforts to unleash such forces against the workers movement. The origins of both the U.S. political police and domestic spying apparatus were in interimperialist World War I and, following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Scare of 1919-21 under Democratic president Woodrow Wilson. The central agency in this apparatus was the newly formed Bureau of Investigation and its General Intelligence Division (GID), headed by J. Edgar Hoover. Within months of its formation in 1919, the GID had compiled a list of 55,000 names—antiwar dissidents, left-wing socialists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World—and went on to pursue the fledgling U.S. Communist movement. The Wilson administration also carried out the deportation of thousands of foreign-born radicals in the 1919-20 Palmer Raids.
Amid the wave of working-class radicalization that broke out in the period of the Great Depression—epitomized by the 1934 citywide strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco, all led by reds—FDR rechristened Hoover’s organization as the FBI in 1935. A year later, he gave Hoover the authority to run secret intelligence activities against the U.S.’s “enemies.” The FBI proceeded to investigate virtually every member of the Communist Party and its affiliates as well as left-wing labor leaders in the coal mining, steel, shipping, garment and newspaper industries. The FBI expanded the wiretapping of phones, which was explicitly authorized by FDR in 1940 despite being earlier declared illegal by the Supreme Court.
In 1939, five days after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, FDR gave the agency greater powers. For 20 years, Hoover had demanded an anti-subversive law. Now he got it in the form of the 1940 Smith Act. Ostensibly directed against Nazi sympathizers, the law outlawed the advocacy of revolution and membership in organizations deemed guilty of such advocacy. The Smith Act’s first victims were 18 leaders of the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and leaders of the militant Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544. The SWP denounced the Second World War as an interimperialist war in which revolutionaries took no side between the competing Allied and Axis powers, while standing foursquare in defense of the Soviet Union.
It is well known that in 1942, Roosevelt ordered the roundup and detention of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Less well known is that more than two years earlier the FBI had started drafting lists of thousands to be rounded up in the case of a national emergency, overwhelmingly leftists. At the height of the post-WWII Cold War against the Soviet Union, liberal Democratic Congressman Hubert Humphrey was the driving force behind the 1954 Communist Control Act outlawing the CP. This was the period that gave birth to the NSA, whose overriding purpose was to spy on the Soviet Union. In the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson and his attorney general Ramsey Clark, the anti-Communist COINTELPRO program was expanded into a bloody vendetta against black radicals, especially the Black Panther Party, 38 of whose members were killed by police and Feds and hundreds more railroaded to prison.
For a Workers Party, Tribune of the People!
In his book Revolutionary Socialism (1918), Louis Fraina, who would play a leading role in the early American communist movement, wrote: “Government having engaged itself to promote finance-capital in its imperialistic projects, it becomes increasingly un-democratic.” He also noted the increasing power of the imperial presidency, a tendency which is “particularly strong and typical in the United States.”
Ultimately, what the government gets away with in its increasing drive to regiment the working class and most everyone else in this society is dependent on the level of class and social struggle. From the rights for workers to organize in unions to the smashing of legalized segregation, every gain for the exploited and oppressed has been won through hard and bitter struggle. And the bourgeoisie, driven by the lash of capitalist competition, has fought to take back their concessions to the masses. Formal legal restrictions were placed on the cops and the government’s political police in the wake of the massive struggles for black civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s and against the Vietnam War. But those restrictions have since been largely eroded.
The Spartacist League is dedicated to building a revolutionary workers party that would champion the struggles of the exploited and the oppressed against the vicious capitalist rulers. In so doing, such a party would impart the consciousness that the depravities of capitalist rule can only be ended once and for all with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie by a workers government—the dictatorship of the proletariat.
BACKGROUND: Obama Ramps Up “War on Terror” at Home