Snowden plagues U.S. national security state

BY JEFF MACKLER

When UK Guardian staffwriter Glen Greenwald reported last month that whistleblower Edward Snowden could do more harm (in the political sense) to the U.S. government than any other person on earth, most observers believed that his statement was perhaps an exaggeration. Today, it’s clear that there is more than a grain of truth to Greenwald’s assertion.

The almost comedic yet horrifying image seen around the world of Guardian staffers sledge hammering their newspaper’s hard drives on orders from the British government, no doubt at the request of top U.S. officials, was aimed at warning any and all Snowden supporters—as well as others who might download his massive trove of U.S.-classified documents—that the price to pay would be high. The 35-year sentence meted out to courageous whistleblower Sergeant Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning no doubt serves as a warning to all who would expose the truth about U.S. surveillance practices, military atrocities, and deadly dealings around the world.

On Aug. 21 Guardian staffwriter Greenwald captured the brutality and portended repression following this incident. Greenwald wrote: “Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger on Monday night disclosed the remarkable news that UK authorities, several weeks ago, threatened the Guardian UK with prior restraint if they did not destroy all of their materials provided by Edward Snowden, and then sent agents to the basement of the paper’s offices to oversee the physical destruction of hard drives.” (In Britain, “prior restraint” is the legal prohibition against publication of material that the government deems a threat to its “national security interests.”)

“As Rusbridger explains, this behavior was as inane as it was thuggish: since this is 2013, not 1958, destroying one set of a newspaper’s documents doesn’t destroy them all, and since the Guardian has multiple people around the world with copies, they achieved nothing but making themselves look incompetently oppressive.”

Undoubtedly, Rusbridger was on the mark, but even here there are additional critical elements to the matter, including the fact that Snowden’s trove has been encrypted to make its accessibility limited to only those who possess the codes to unlock it. Mindful of this, U.S. cloak and dagger officials began their search for the codes with a vengeance, beginning with a secret order issued to Lavabit, a Texas-based encrypted e-mail service used by Snowden to protect his records of illegal government spying and related abuse. Lavabit, according to Greenwald, announced on Aug. 9 that “it was shutting itself down in order to avoid complying with what it perceives as unjust secret US court orders to provide government access to its users’ content.”

Greenwald continues, “‘After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations,’ the company’s founder, Ladar Levinson, wrote in a statement to users posted on the front page of its website. He said the US directive forced on his company ‘a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.’ He chose the latter.”

Greenwald’s article continued: “What is particularly creepy about the Lavabit self-shutdown is that the company is gagged by law even from discussing the legal challenges it has mounted and the court proceeding it has engaged [emphasis in original]. In other words, the American owner of the company believes his Constitutional rights and those of his customers are being violated by the US Government, but he is not allowed to talk about it. Just as is true for people who receive National Security Letters under the Patriot Act, Lavabit has been told that they would face serious criminal sanctions if they publicly discuss what is being done to their company.”

In an exclusive Aug. 26 interview with the on-line publication Truthout, Greenwald stated that his research of government documents on the state of decoding encrypted material led him to believe that at least for the moment U.S. experts were unable to break Snowden’s encrypted materials.

Snowden’s 20,000 to 30,000 documents—perhaps even more according to the most recent reports—accumulated over at least two years, reveal the secret and illegal commission of crimes against the American people and the people and nations of the world.

Rarely a day passes when the Obama administration does not deploy its fire-fighting fleet of cover-up agents to deny what is now universally known. But it is increasingly routine that a U.S.-issued denial is quickly countered by yet another rebuttal based on the trove of secret government documents that constitute Snowden’s acquired archives. Every lie is countered by a truth based not on idle speculation but rather on texts from the government horse’s mouth.

Adding to Obama’s dilemma is a perhaps unusual conflict of interest with the nation’s corporate media. The New York Times, for example, has partnered with the UK-based Guardian in releasing Snowden’s frequent exposures. For The Times—whose reporters have also been illegally dogged by the government’s spies—and for the Washington Post, which also partners with the Guardian, being forced to remain silent or report important news secondhand is a heavy price to pay. The price is not only a financial one but also with regard to their ability to maintain the necessary image of a “free press” in corporate “democratic” America.

It is more accurate to say that the U.S. corporate media exercise “self restraint” when it comes to telling the full truth about corporate and government misdeeds. Even here, a few dissident voices are inevitably raised when the so-called free press finds its reporters facing jail terms for refusing to divulge their sources.

In the United Kingdom, officials simply ban material from publication; that is, they impose “prior restraint.” Violators are subject to severe punishment. In the U.S. the censorship process is subtler but largely results in the same outcome.

A recent revelation by Snowden cited a secret internal government newsletter published in 2011 that included a complaint by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Agency (FISA) court Judge John D. Bates citing the government for “Constitution violations” in its willy-nilly collecting of tens of thousands of domestic e-mails. The judge noted also that he had been consciously misinformed by government officials regarding the scope of the surveillance requested. He detailed his accusations against government sleuths in an 85-page document, which is still classified. This incident itself, as well more recent revelations that the U.S. government “vacuums” and opens the communications of countless millions of Americans, drove yet another nail in the coffin of the government’s credibility.

Snowden appears to leave no stone unturned regarding the government’s daily lies and obfuscation. Most recently, he released secret documents wherein the government paid various on-line providers millions for the legal expenses they incurred in defending their illegal government-ordered actions. Of course, the U.S. judicial system, primed in advance to do the government’s bidding, including virtually always upholding its “national security” laws, is a comfortable ally of the government and the corporate interests it protects.

As with all such matters, no sooner has the lie been exposed, than Obama or his subordinates note that whatever “errors” might have been committed are now legally rectified. This consists in the government’s approval of never-ending “amendments” to its FISA and related legislation that formally legalize what has been exposed as illegal, a neat game if there ever was one!

Several major corporate media noted in mid-August, for example, that while the government does scrutinize virtually all e-mail and other communications of 75 percent of the population’s communications, it exercises “discretion” in doing so. Rather than reading every one of trillions of such communications, the government’s speed-of-light computers are programmed to intercept only those that include key words, e-mail addresses, or other information deemed relevant to its “war on terror.”

But even this “scrutiny” has now been admitted by government officials to be “flawed.” An unnamed State Department official admitted to The New York Times that additional and non-approved words or terms were added to the government’s approved list, thus checking the e-mails of additional millions of internet and cell phone users.

Government apologies for this “accidental” transgression were duly noted by the accepting corporate media, none of which have challenged the wholesale violations of constitutionally protected rights other than with perhaps a modest slap on the wrist and cautioning to be more careful and a bit less intrusive.

Prior to Snowden’s revelations Obama and his spokespersons insisted that there was no significant gathering of phone, e-mail, and other such communications. With Snowden’s documents made public, their story was changed to the effect that nothing collected had been done illegally; nothing violated U.S. law. But with three billion so-called legally gathered communications monitored daily, Obama promised better oversight. This was followed by the government’s insistence that its spying was carefully moderated, only to be refuted yet again with a Snowden revelation that even this “moderation” was violated through “backdoor” channels that allowed virtual total access to everyone and everything under any circumstances.

Reporters James Bell and Spencer Ackerman, writing in the Aug. 9 Guardian in an article entitled “NSA loophole allows warrantless search for US citizens’ emails and phone calls,” noted that a U.S. spy agency has secret backdoor permission to search databases for individual Americans’ communications.”

The authors continued: “Details of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), give the NSA authority to target without warrant the communications of foreign targets. The National Security Agency has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority enabling it to search for US citizens’ email and phone calls without a warrant, according to a top-secret document passed to the Guardian by Edward Snowden.

“The previously undisclosed rule change allows NSA operatives to hunt for individual Americans’ communications using their name or other identifying information. Senator Ron Wyden told the Guardian that the law provides the NSA with a loophole potentially allowing ‘warrantless searches for the phone calls or emails of law-abiding Americans.’”

President Obama took to the airwaves in mid-August to forcefully proclaim that, minus some tweaks here and there wherein a handful of secret government oversight individuals would now keep track of what’s going on, no changes would be made. It now appears even this “oversight” is meaningless. In any capitalist state, so-called national security interests—that is, ruling-class interests—trump those of the people regardless of the formalities of “the law.”

Edward Snowden has been granted temporary status to remain in Russia for at least one year while he negotiates with other governments for permanent residency status. Obama officials were so enraged at the Russian refusal to send Snowden home to be persecuted as a criminal and face charges under the infamous Espionage Act that a long-scheduled Obama-Putin “summit” meeting was cancelled in retaliation.

On Aug. 18, at the behest of U.S. officials and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Glen Greenwald’s companion, David Michael Miranda, was detained and interrogated for nine hours at London’s Heathrow Airport. Miranda was forced, under threat of imprisonment, to divulge his computer passwords, on the grounds that he was suspected of being in possession of “stolen materials.”

Miranda was en route to Brazil from Germany. His confiscated computer and other electronic devices contained some of Snowden’s encrypted material. While he was eventually released, his detention demonstrates the ever increasing measures that U.S. and British governments are prepared to employ to terrorize anyone and everyone who dares tell the truth about secret and illegal government operations.

It is no exaggeration to conclude that courageous revelations of Snowden and Manning have cut deep into the credibility of all U.S. government functioning. There is more than a strong whiff in the air akin to the anti-government “Vietnam Syndrome” of the 1960s and ’70s. This was a time when the lies attendant to the Vietnam War and the associated atrocities—four million Vietnamese murdered by unprecedented bombings and the widespread use of chemical warfare—led the great majority to question, if not challenge, all government warmongering statements and actions.

Today’s Snowden/Manning revelations and the essentially failed cover-ups have once again brought public confidence in government to a new low. It was only the massive lobbying effort exerted by Obama and his top aides that prevented the U.S. House of Representatives from approving an extremely limited bill restricting government surveillance. The bill, presented by “dissident” Democrats and “libertarian” Republicans, failed by a vote of 205 to 217.

The severely damaged credibility of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad cannot be underestimated. Rapidly increasing numbers understand that they are daily subject to economic, political, socially repressive, and war-making policies. The fact that millions of capitalism’s victims have yet to take to the streets in massive protest cannot be taken for consent. It is only a matter of time until the accumulation of insults of every type and the knowledge that they are unremitting and inherent in the system’s day-to-day operations, burst out in new and unprecedented mobilizations that challenge the status quo.

Today’s beleaguered whistleblowers will become tomorrow’s national heroes. Their names will become synonymous with the early dissidents who helped unleash the pent-up anger of millions who will challenge the purveyors of lies, economic and social degradation, and endless wars and bring a new world into being.

Photo: Kin Cheung / AP