- Created: Thursday, 08 August 2013 15:56
- Written by Steve Palmer
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013
The recent revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) have really put the cat among the pigeons. It is difficult to think of peaceful actions by any other single individual which have ever created such an international stir. US correspondent STEVE PALMER reports.
So far Snowden has released details of some 30 different programmes. The most significant of these appear to be:
• PRISM – this involves collaboration with private companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to gather huge amounts of data on non-US ‘targets’, selected according to criteria entered into the system.
• Collection of phone metadata from US telephone companies.
• Upstream – some 10-20 secret ‘rooms’ installed in critical internet switches across the United States. They contain beam splitters installed into fibre-optic trunks, which enable the NSA to analyse and intercept vast amounts of raw internet data. It takes advantage of the fact that, due to cost advantages, much of the entire world’s internet traffic flows through switches in the US.
• Boundless Informant – a massive ‘Big Data’ warehouse where the harvested results of other programmes are stored and analysed.
• Stellar Wind – the ‘mining’ of the collected data.
• Dropmire – snooping on foreign embassies, diplomats and international organisations.
The NSA and its predecessors have engaged in the surveillance and interception of US citizens’ communications for decades. Project Shamrock began in August 1945, reviewing all telegraphic data entering and leaving the United States. A sister project, Project Minaret, intercepted electronic communications to and from US citizens on a watch list, and passed them on to other intelligence and police agencies. The UKUSA Agreement, a secret treaty signed in March 1946, established a multilateral intelligence alliance, the ‘Five Eyes’, between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This enabled the organisation of Echelon in the 1960s, a programme designed to intercept all communications of the socialist countries, including phone calls, fax, email carried by satellite, microwave networks and cables. This monitoring of US citizens’ communications within the US was exposed in 1975 and deemed unconstitutional, violating the Fourth Amendment, which gives US citizens protection against unreasonable searches without a warrant. This led to restrictions being placed on the NSA, including the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which required warrants and judicial scrutiny of monitoring and interception. Surveillance of US citizens was then supposedly off limits, unless they were deemed ‘agents of a foreign power’, engaged in espionage or terrorist activity. Despite these restrictions, Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in 1994, which required communications companies to engineer their facilities so that their networks can be easily monitored. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 spurred the passage of the Patriot Act, a sprawling bill which enormously increased the size and powers of US security organisations. Under its provisions, the Bush administration began secret warrantless wiretapping of US citizens, an illegal programme that was eventually reined in.
Today, the surveillance apparatus includes:
• The NSA’s massive one million square foot, $2bn Utah Data Center, designed to warehouse all the electronic communications the NSA can capture. The volumes of data stored here will be so large, they defy any simple attempt to describe them.
• Its Multiprogram Computational Data Center at Oak Ridge, a quarter of a million square foot computer centre, to hold the world’s fastest computer operating at unprecedented and unimaginable speed, using ‘brute force’ techniques to crack encrypted communications, especially those from the Utah Data Center.
• Digital Collection System Network (DCSNet) – the FBI’s surveillance system which allows the FBI to access, in real-time, almost any communication device in the US using CALEA taps. It can collect and store not only metadata (number called or email address, duration of call etc) but also the contents of each communication.
• The FBI’s secretive Domestic Communications Assistance Center advises police forces across the country how to snoop on the citizenry and develops innovative surveillance technology.
Snowden’s revelations have triggered anger and embarrassment among the US ruling class, fury in the capitals of Europe and Latin America and have ramped up the tension between the US and both Russia and China. They have demonstrated that the limitless emissions of hot air from bourgeois windbags about the joys of bourgeois democracy is just a lot of rotten hypocrisy. Behind all the blathering about ‘sovereignty of the people’ and ‘consent of the governed’, Snowden has shown that the US ruling class fears its citizens and is engaged in constant surveillance of their every communication. The superficially harmonious G20 back-slapping competitions and the pompous speeches of US statesmen and women about ‘peaceful cooperation among nations’ have been shown to be nothing but a farcical charade as Snowden exposed how the US reads the diplomatic and other emails and faxes of other countries and international organisations, and snoops on their most confidential conversations. The ‘protections’ to civil liberties supposedly provided by the FISA court are a sick joke: only ten surveillance warrant requests have been turned down, while 20,909 have been granted.
In August 2007, discussing the warrantless wire-tapping scandal, candidate Obama remarked: ‘[the Bush] Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.’ In power, Obama’s actions are 180 degrees different: ‘One of the things we’re going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy. Because there are some trade-offs involved.’ (June 2012) The ‘false choice’ has turned into necessary ‘trade-offs’. This is not some personal defect of Obama: in order to get elected, candidates have to promise one thing and do something else when they come to power.
While the Obama administration has yet to prosecute a single bankster for their activities during the financial crisis which impoverished millions of Americans, it has carried out an unprecedented crackdown on whistle-blowers and journalists who have attempted to expose the hidden activities of the US government. The government has subpoenaed the phone records of journalists from the Associated Press and Fox News in pursuit of leakers. There have been more than twice as many prosecutions of whistleblowers as there were in all previous administrations combined. As we go to press, Private Bradley Manning faces possible life imprisonment on charges of ‘aiding the enemy’, for disclosing classified information about US operations in Iraq to Wikileaks. This White House is responsible for bringing six of the nine total indictments ever brought under the 1917 Espionage Act. Snowden will be the seventh.
With Snowden stuck passport-less in Moscow airport, the Obama administration has threatened countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela if they give him political asylum. In June, a Bolivian aeroplane carrying President Morales was grounded for hours in Vienna en route from Moscow on the basis of bogus US intelligence that Snowden was on board. What hypocrisy! Snowden has hurt no one, yet the US gives asylum, despite repeated requests for his extradition, to mass murderer and international terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, the man responsible for the most serious terrorist attack in Latin America, the 1976 bombing of the Cubana passenger airliner which killed 73 innocent people.
The real purpose of surveillance
The US government claims that all these programmes are essential to the security of US citizens. Yet every day the security of ordinary Americans is under attack from the banks and the state. Millions live pay cheque to pay cheque, are unemployed, have no medical care, suffer hunger in the richest country in the world and live in fear of everyday violence in the poorest areas of big cities. In fact these programmes are not about protecting the people, but about protecting the profits and property of the ruling class. There can be no security for the vast majority of the US people under capitalism and imperialism. The day-to-day workings of capitalism are a far bigger threat to the lives and liberty of the US population than the relative pinpricks inflicted by Al Quaeda and its ilk. As the crisis deepens, the US people will struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Equally certain is that these surveillance systems will be deployed more extensively in the struggle of the ruling class to preserve its rule against the rebellion of the exploited.
This is no reason for pessimism about the future of the struggle. The future depends not on the strength of the technology used by the ruling class, but on the level of struggle and revolutionary determination of the mass of the people. Throughout history people have faced all kinds of pervasive surveillance used by the ruling class to try to cling to power, whether they were the Bolsheviks in Russia facing the Okrahna, the Cuban comrades faced with Batista’s repression or in Iran under the Shah. The exposure of the NSA’s surveillance is not an excuse to relinquish struggle, but an inspiration to redouble our efforts to overthrow a system which relies on systematic spying on the people to maintain its power.