George Orwell’s Big Brother may have been watching, but Barack Obama and his secret police are wiretapping, seizing enormous quantities of phone records, mining electronic data and doing so much more we do not know about. What books and periodicals you read, who you chat with, what Internet sites you visit and other intimate details of your life are the daily fare of FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) snoops. Obama sugarcoats the massive spying operation as necessary for the population’s own well-being. Add to the mix the other Orwellian newspeak—e.g., drone strikes save lives, secrecy is transparency, press freedom means subpoenas and indictments—and what you have is a creeping police state that is picking up the pace.
Obama’s ongoing dustup with the basic constitutional rights of speech, press and privacy sprang into view last month when the Associated Press (AP) revealed that the Justice Department had secretly obtained two months of phone records for several AP reporters and editors. Then came the disclosure that Attorney General Eric Holder had authorized a warrant for the Feds to track Fox News reporter James Rosen’s movements in and out of the State Department, trace the timing of his calls and read his e-mails.
Rosen had reported that U.S. intelligence believed that North Korea would respond to additional UN sanctions with more nuclear tests. His alleged informant, government employee Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who did not steal any classified documents or sell secrets, faces more than a decade in prison on espionage charges. For supposedly encouraging Kim to speak to him, Rosen was named in the warrant application as an “aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in violation of the Espionage Act. With much of the bourgeois press corps howling in protest over the criminalization of standard journalistic practice, Obama bluntly declared: “I make no apologies.”
The controversy over the government’s low intensity warfare against the press was eclipsed by a series of disclosures last week giving a greater glimpse into the extent of government spying on the entire population. First the London Guardian reported on a secret court order authorizing the NSA to collect all phone records from Verizon Business Services on an “ongoing daily basis” through July 19. Officials have admitted that such accumulation of phone metadata—e.g., the numbers of callers and recipients, the serial numbers of the phones involved and the calls’ timing and duration—has been going on for years.
The day after this data trawling came to light, the Guardian and Washington Post published accounts of the Prism Internet surveillance program. In agreement with nine industry giants, including Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype and Apple, the NSA can access troves of private information communicated over their networks. Combing through the large volumes of audio, video, photos, e-mails, documents and connection logs with such data-mining tools as Boundless Informant, NSA technicians can readily assemble individual profiles and track movements and contacts over time.
The whistleblower who leaked the information about these clandestine activities, Edward Snowden, has since come forward to voice his repugnance with “a world where everything I do is recorded.” A 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant who had been working at the NSA for the last four years as an employee of an outside contractor, Snowden elaborated in an interview with the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald: “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”
Having taken refuge in Hong Kong, Snowden also told Greenwald, “I do not expect to see home again.” Indeed, soon after the interview was made public, top U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were howling for his head. According to Britain’s Daily Mail today: “The United States may have already approached Interpol or its consulate in Hong Kong to start [extradition] proceedings. They will use the Espionage Act to gain warrants for his arrest.” Meanwhile, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the leaks.
The public airing of the Feds’ clandestine activities knocked the legs out from under Obama’s plan to press Chinese leader Xi Jinping on cyber warfare in the summit that just concluded. While most Democratic and Republican politicians have backed Obama on the grounds of “national security,” there have been some protests from both liberals and the libertarian right. In its June 6 editorial on Obama’s data dragnet, the New York Times even offered that “the administration has now lost all credibility on this issue.” Such rebukes from the bourgeois press and politicians reflect fear within the ruling class that it, too, is getting caught in the state surveillance web, one of the tools of repression whose central purpose is to keep the exploited and the oppressed in line.
Under fire, Obama justified such surveillance as crucial to defending the homeland against “terrorism.” Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the “war on terror” was launched as a rationale for the imperialist occupations of Afghanistan and later Iraq, as well as for expanding the repressive powers of the state at home. We have repeatedly warned that the draconian measures initially directed against Muslims and immigrants would lead to an assault on political dissent and the rights of all, particularly those of black people and the labor movement. The shredding of rights has since come to pass in spades.
During his tenure, the Democrat Obama has proved very capable in extending and expanding the “war on terror” policies of his Republican predecessor, not least the vast surveillance apparatus. Former Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer posted on Twitter last week: “Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. O is carrying out Bush’s 4th term.” Despite the outcry by some in Congress to rein in the snooping, Senator Saxby Chambliss acknowledged, “Everyone’s been aware of it for years, every member of the Senate,” a fact confirmed by California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Proposals floated for greater “checks and balances” and more focused targeting are all aimed at streamlining and winning wider acceptance for government spying on the population.
As Marxists, we expect that the capitalist state, whether Democrats or Republicans are at the helm, will continue to eavesdrop on what the rulers term “persons of interest,” not least those who oppose the blood-soaked capitalist order and its brutal repression. There is an inherent tendency for the state, which governs on behalf of a minuscule, ruthless class of obscenely wealthy exploiters, to attempt to amass ever greater power to control the population because it hates and fears the working people.
With a labor “leadership” that has prostrated itself before the capitalist rulers, the working class has taken it on the chin from a government flaunting constitutional rights while pursuing its slaughters abroad. But make no mistake: The bourgeoisie is determined to build up its powers of repression so that it is better able to smash any perceived threat to its rule and profits. At the same time, what it gets away with depends ultimately on the level of class and other social struggle. The working class will not advance its fight against exploitation without also defending the democratic rights of everyone and opposing the overseas savageries of its own ruling class.
“Welcome to America”
The government’s spy network is expanding for the simple reason that it has the technology to do so. The genie is out of the bottle, and this or that piece of legislation or court order is not going to put it back. In a Business Insider (21 March) article titled “CIA Chief Tech Officer: Big Data Is the Future and We Own It,” the CIA’s Ira Hunt brags, “It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information.” Hunt described anybody carrying a mobile device as a “walking sensor platform”—now your gait, as measured by smartphone sensors, is distinctive enough to identify you.
The popularity of smartphones, tablets, social media sites and the like has brought with it an explosion of digital data that the spymasters have harnessed. Some 97 billion pieces of data were collected from networks worldwide in March alone. Just from phone metadata, analysts can weave a mosaic of a person’s life, ferreting out all manner of correlations and patterns. As the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., observed, “The information associated with communications today is often more significant than the communications itself, and the people who do the data mining know that.”
So it was with more than his characteristic sleight of hand that on June 7 Obama promised: “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about.” He similarly waved aside concerns over Prism, curtly intoning that it “does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.” In fact, enhancing the government’s capacity to listen in and further pry is precisely what such programs are all about.
Last month, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente was asked by CNN whether the government could retrieve the content of phone conversations between deceased Boston marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife Katherine Russell. Clemente responded: “We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her.” He added, “Welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”
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 Bay Area AT&T worker Mark Klein, who came forward to reveal how the NSA had tapped into AT&T’s fiber-optic cables to access much of the country’s Internet data flow. Klein’s revelations became Exhibit A in a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to expose and stop the illegal government data mining (see “Phone Worker Exposes Government Spying Network,” WV No. 953, 26 February 2010). In a June 7 interview with the right-wing Libertas Institute, longtime NSA staffer William Binney noted about the NSA’s original AT&T project: “They could get most of it, but they couldn’t get it all. So in order to get all the data, they had to go to the service providers to fill in the blanks. That’s what the Prism program is for—to fill in the blanks.”
The AT&T data tap, as Binney noted in a 20 April 2012 interview with Democracy Now!, was “prepared to deploy about eight months before 9/11.” Since those attacks, more than 30 secure complexes with a total size of three Pentagons have been constructed in the Washington, D.C., area to accommodate spying operations. In September, the NSA is slated to unveil its Utah Data Center in the desert town of Bluffdale, a $2 billion project. Coursing through its servers and routers will be the complete contents of e-mails, cellphone calls, Google searches, parking receipts, travel itineraries, books purchased and much more. The NSA has separately created a supercomputer with the aim of breaking sophisticated encryption, one of the few ways people can protect their privacy. The simple truth is that in the “information age,” the most secure way to communicate is to buy a postage stamp.
Institutionalizing the “War on Terror”
On May 23, with the spotlight then on drone killings of men, women and children overseas and on Guantánamo hunger strikers protesting their indefinite detention, Obama delivered a speech at the National Defense University pledging to wind down the “war on terror” and to protect the rights of journalists. He advised repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to avoid keeping “America on a perpetual wartime footing.” Adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support immediately after the September 11 attacks, the AUMF has been the legal pretext for U.S. imperialism’s terrorization of workers, peasants and the impoverished around the world. Obama added, “I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.” He also spoke of creating new protections for civil liberties “to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.”
The New York Times gushed with joy that their prodigal son had finally come home. In an editorial posted online the same day, the Times hailed the speech as “a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America.” The statement also lauded the president’s shift in drone policy, e.g., turning the CIA’s fleet of drones over to the military—the significance of which will certainly be lost on the masses in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Momentous? About as much as a New York Mets loss. Turning point? Depends on how you look at it. Rather than articulating a change in policy, Obama’s speech marked the institutionalization of the panoply of post-September 11 repressive measures and laws as permanent fixtures of the American legal system. Obama is for discarding the AUMF not just because it is no longer necessary—the powers assumed under its authority are authorized by the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as well as Obama’s own presidential directives—but also because it serves as an unwelcome reminder that those powers were supposed to be temporary exigencies.
Obama’s speech was his Michael Corleone moment, recalling the christening scene in The Godfather in which Corleone promises to renounce Satan and all his works at the very moment his lieutenants are carrying out a murderous vendetta against Mafia rivals. Since Obama “renounced” the war on terror, more drones have struck in Pakistan’s tribal areas while the government vendetta against reporters and whistleblowers proceeds apace, as does the massive government spy operation.
Perhaps most ominous in Obama’s oration was the redefinition of due process. Obama asserted, “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen—with a drone, or a shotgun—without due process.” What he meant was seen in the drone assassination in Yemen two years ago of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was an Al Qaeda publicist. The president stated: “My administration submitted information about Awlaki to the Department of Justice months before Awlaki was killed, and briefed the Congress before this strike as well.” Dating back to 13th-century English common law, due process signifies that one cannot be deprived of life or liberty without notice of the charges and an opportunity to defend oneself in a court of law. For the former constitutional law professor Obama, due process now means merely consulting other members of the administration before terminating or locking up anyone deemed an enemy of U.S. interests anywhere in the world.
Obama has repeatedly promised to make his administration more “transparent” while pulling the shroud tighter over the government’s deadly machinations in a way that would make Richard Nixon turn green with envy. Similarly, in his May 23 speech, the president pronounced that “journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” even as he and his hatchet man Eric Holder were pursuing a vendetta against the media for (at times) unearthing and reporting things the White House finds uncomfortable. In the case of government employees who supply the information, it has been a full-scale assault.
The trigger for the seizure of the AP phone records was a 2012 article about a foiled terror plot that disclosed leaked information about CIA activity—specifically, a CIA-Saudi-British operation that planted a mole inside Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate. The mole had volunteered to blow up an airliner using a new bomb designed to circumvent airport security, which he then turned over to his CIA handlers. AP honored the CIA/White House request to hold the story for days in order to facilitate the assassination of a top Al Qaeda official using information obtained from the mole. Among the AP journalists involved in the Yemen article were Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for exposing the NYPD’s surveillance of American Muslim communities.
For lifting a bit of the veil of secrecy and lies with which the imperialist rulers cover their depredations, Army Private Bradley Manning is now undergoing a court-martial with the possibility of life imprisonment (see article on page 12). The Obama administration drips venom for WikiLeaks, which posted online the war logs and diplomatic cables made available by Manning. James Goodale, general counsel of the New York Times in its clashes with the Nixon administration, pointed out: “The biggest challenge to the press today is the threatened prosecution of WikiLeaks, and it’s absolutely frightening.”
Goodale’s former client, like the rest of the bourgeois media, is quite content to throw WikiLeaks head Julian Assange to the wolves. Although the Times & Co. bridle when the government steps on their toes, their role is not to expose the capitalist rulers but to be their mouthpieces. It was the Times that played an instrumental role in peddling the lies that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” a pretext for the U.S. invasion in 2003. When Mark Klein fought to expose the NSA/AT&T collaboration, the paper turned him away and sat on the story for months, just as it had refused to report the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping for over a year at the Bush administration’s request. In The ABC of Communism (1920), Nikolai Bukharin aptly described the role of the bourgeois press as auxiliaries to the armed bodies of men that make up the state, acting together with the schools and churches as “specialists to stupefy and subdue the proletariat.”
The Fraud of Bourgeois Democracy
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.” Among the “snares and deceptions” perfected in the U.S. is the vaunted “separation of powers” between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government. While this setup purports to maintain “checks and balances” on the power of any single branch, the White House gave the game away in responding to the disclosure of the Verizon data tapping. As described by an administration official: “All three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes such collection.” In the first 30 years of its existence, that secret court approved all but a handful of the tens of thousands of intercept requests by the government.
With Congress having written the White House a blank check to wage war on democratic rights and civil liberties, some lawmakers are belatedly and disingenuously professing dismay at the scope of the snooping. Among them is Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, an author of the Patriot Act, who now pleads, “I do not believe the broadly drafted FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.”
Such measures were precisely the purpose of the Patriot Act, which expanded the government’s authority to monitor anyone it claims is involved in international “terrorism.” Under its Section 215, the FBI has served tens of thousands of “national security letters” to libraries, phone companies and other businesses demanding records. The same section sanctions the seizure of journalists’ phone records. The repeated renewal and expansion of the law, including with the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, has made it even easier for the government to obtain authorization for electronic surveillance and interception.
The ultimate target of the police and spying apparatus is the working class, whose role in producing the wealth of this society gives it the social power to choke off profits, the lifeblood of 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 proletariat and the Marxist circles that sprouted up at the time. 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. The bourgeoisie to this day sees it as a calamity whose repetition must be prevented at all costs, while we Marxists see in that revolution a model for the proletariat of the world. It is our purpose to forge a world party of socialist revolution to lead the workers in overthrowing capitalist class rule and putting an end to its repression and imperialist ravages once and for all.