The skinny on government surveillance of Americans


It’s real, pervasive and intrusive.  Any and everything you produce electronically, digitally or perhaps even analog with crossover to digital equipment is monitored by the government and stored away for future reference.  This can be done without the required governmental judicial oversight and is done, up until now, without your knowledge.  Eugene Robinson weighs in on that here

I don’t believe government officials when they say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs do not invade our privacy. The record suggests that you shouldn’t believe them, either.

It pains me to sound like some Rand Paul acolyte. I promise I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat or scanning the leaden sky for black helicopters. I just wish our government would start treating us like adults — more important, like participants in a democracy — and stop lying. We can handle the truth.

James Clapper

James Clapper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The starkest lie came in March at a Senate intelligence committee hearing, when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper a simple question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Clapper replied, “No, sir.”

As we’ve learned from Edward Snowden, a former analyst for an NSA contractor, Clapper’s answer was patently false. The agency collects metadata — essentially, a detailed log — of many and perhaps all of our domestic phone calls.

Lying to Congress is a serious offense; baseball legend Roger Clemens was tried —and acquitted — on criminal charges for allegedly lying about steroid use at a congressional hearing. The chance that Clapper will face similar peril, however, is approximately zero.

Following Snowden’s revelations, Clapper said that an honest answer to Wyden’s question would have required him to divulge highly classified secrets, so he gave the “least untruthful” answer he could come up with. Clapper apparently believes that “least” is a synonym for “most.”

In a recent letter to the Senate intelligence committee, Clapper said he thought Wyden was asking about the content of domestic communications — which the NSA says it does not collect “wittingly,” for what that’s worth — rather than about the metadata. “Thus, my response was clearly erroneous,” Clapper wrote, “for which I apologize.”

He sounded like the cheating husband, caught in flagrante by his wife, who feigns surprise and says, “What mistress? Oh, you mean that mistress.”

Clapper’s defenders say Wyden unfairly asked a question that he knew the director could not answer. But Wyden says he sent the question to Clapper’s office a day in advance — and gave him the chance to amend his answer afterward.

Also untrue is President Obama’s assertion that the NSA surveillance programs are “transparent.” They are, in fact, completely opaque — or were, until Snowden started leaking the agency’s secrets.

Eric Snowden

Edward Snowden

By what authority does the government collect data on our private communications? We don’t know. More accurately, we’re not permitted to know.

A provision of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to seek warrants “requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”

Seizing records that pertain to an investigation is not the same thing as compiling a comprehensive log of billions of domestic phone calls. How has the law been stretched — I mean, interpreted — to accommodate the NSA’s wish to compile a record of our contacts, associations and movements? The government refuses to tell us.

We know that permission for this surveillance was granted by one or more judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But the court’s proceedings and rulings are secret. We don’t know what argument the government made in seeking permission to conduct this kind of vacuum-cleaner surveillance. We don’t know what the court’s legal reasoning was in granting the authority. We don’t know whether the court considers other laws so elastic.

We do know that the court’s secret hearings are not adversarial, meaning that there is no push-back from advocates of civil liberties. And we know that since its inception the court has approved more than 30,000 government requests for surveillance warrants and refused only 11.

I accept that the administration officials, Justice Department lawyers, federal judges, FBI agents and NSA analysts involved in the phone surveillance and other programs are acting in good faith. The same is true of members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who are supposed to be providing oversight. But honorable intentions are not enough — especially when we know that much of what these honorable officials have told us is false.

The biggest lie of all? That the American people don’t even deserve to be told what their laws mean, much less how those laws are being used.

Congress has abrogated its oversight powers, choosing instead to blame the present Administration which has simply continued the policy of its predecessors.  One of the reasons why the progressive movement was so vigorous in its opposition to the Bush administration’s surveillance measures  ramped up during the fictitious war on terror was because of the common government practice of never relinquishing power of secret enforcement measures once they have been imposed.  We’ve talked about that here and here among other places.  Rather, governments tend to embellish those practices and make it even more difficult to rescind them.  Such is the case now with the Obama administration; he has doubled down on what Bush gave America.  That’s not what you call change, but it’s no different a federal policy than any other president either.  It’s probably accurate to assume that ANY president will take this position of intrusive national spying on American citizens regardless of his/her campaign promises and especially a lame duck president not faced with re-election who can disregard the wishes of the electorate no matter how progressive it may be.  The solution therefore is in oversight and congress members who will take that responsibility seriously.  At the moment there are none like that in Washington.  Fix this America!

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More Guantanamo Bay news


Proponents of Guantanamo Bay have always maintained it’s necessary to keep that base open to house the meanest of the mean; black/brown Muslim terrorists who have the ability to swim from Cuba to the mainland, fashion knives out of paper products and invade the homeland causing death and destruction.  To substantiate their claim to keep the facility eternally open, they have put forward some really astonishing claims about recidivism, which we have addressed on the pages of Miscellany101 here and here.

It appears Obama will not be able to close Guantanamo down anytime soon, nor does he appear to be up for the fight, having been effectively betrayed by members of his own party during a lame duck session after the congressional elections, and facing an ever more combative new Congress who no doubt will use this recidivism issue again to underscore their desire to keep Gitmo open.  So here’s another study which “refudiates” that claim making it the third different one to do so which really begs the question why do the supporters of the facility bother with erecting false claims and figures in the first place.

On the ninth anniversary of the first detainee’s arrival at the infamous prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a Washington think tank challenged intelligence estimates suggesting that large numbers of former detainees have taken up arms against the United States.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed in December — without offering any evidence — that 13.5 percent of former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed, and an additional 11.5 percent are suspected of “reengaging” in terrorist or insurgent activities after their release.

The conservative media embraced the storyline that as many as one in four former detainees had returned to the battlefield, up sharply from the prior year.

But three scholars with the New America Foundation are out with a new report — this one backed up with data — concluding that only 6 percent of released detainees engaged or are suspected of having engaged with insurgents aimed at attacking U.S. interests. Another 2 percent engaged or are suspected of having engaged against non-U.S. targets.

It appears that America is perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones and keep the facility even though for now it serves no useful purpose.  Perhaps some hope it will house the millions of American Muslims who will be sent there after the King committee hearings?