in Articles, Corporations, Europe, Human Rights, North America, Repression, United States

Snowden Exposes Vast U.S. Surveillance Empire: Americans Find Out How Much Their Government Spies on Them

By Asad Ismi

Edward Snowden, a contract employee (until May) at the U.S. National Security Agency, revealed in June that the NSA was spying on hundreds of millions of Americans by collecting their phone, e-mail, and Internet records. The agency was also secretly compiling similar information on Europeans.

The NSA is the largest and most secretive surveillance agency in the world. It is authorized by U.S. law to monitor communications of foreigners, but not those of Americans. The agency collected close to three billion pieces of intelligence from American computer networks over just a 30-day period that ended in March.

Snowden took thousands of secret files from the NSA and made some available to The Guardian (U.K.) newspaper. His historic whistleblowing has revealed a vast U.S. surveillance empire, alarming in its reach and menacing in its intentions. The U.S. government has turned the Internet into a massive spying system, clearly showing contempt for its own people and acting like a police state in violating their civil liberties.

As Jonathan Freedland writes in The Guardian: “[Snowden showed that] the NSA has cracked open our online lives, that can it can rifle through your e-mails, listen to your calls on Skype, ‘watching your ideas form as you type,’ as a U.S. intelligence officer put it — apparently in cahoots with the corporate titans of the web… [This] confirms all the conspiracy theories about governments and corporations colluding to enslave the rest of us.”

The NSA boasts in one leaked document that its PRISM spy program gives it direct access to the servers of Google, Microsoft, Apple, AOL, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and PalTalk. These companies claim that they had no choice but to follow secret court orders; but this is a flimsy excuse since it is against U.S. law to spy on its citizens, so the companies had solid legal grounds for defying the Obama administration. Instead they chose to collaborate with Washington, perhaps because they too want to continue using the Internet with impunity to gather the same kind of private information for their own commercial profit.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington D.C., explains: “American Internet companies are the architects of a digital media system that continually expands in its ability to stealthily gather, analyze, and make actionable our information. They know what we do online and offline; where we are and the places we go; what we buy; our health and medical concerns; who our friends and social connections are; and much more… They have purposely developed a system of commercial surveillance on individuals that is unprecedented.

“Google, Facebook, and the others may claim to be hamstrung regarding NSA demands for our digital profiles — but they are also clamoring for the Obama administration to help them expand without restraint the data they can collect from European Union (EU) citizens. They now seek a bevy of favorable policies on e-commerce, trans-border data flows, and data protection as an outcome of the recently launched Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.

“U.S. tech companies want the TTIP to sanction a bypassing of the EU’s data protection rules. They also want it to undo any EU policy requiring local oversight or control over data processing practices. In a letter sent to the U.S. Trade Representative in June by the Internet Association, a lobbying group that includes Yahoo, AOL, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and many others, they laid out their goal: the creation of ‘a single global digital information marketplace,’ with no ‘impediments’ or ‘offline barriers’.”

Corporate collusion with Washington is even more extensive than Snowden has shown. According to author William Blum, who wrote the best book on the CIA, “In September 1999 it was revealed that NSA had arranged with Microsoft to insert special ‘keys’ into Windows software, in all versions from 95-OSR2 onwards. An American computer scientist, Andrew Fernandez of Cryptonym in North Carolina, had disassembled parts of the Windows instruction code and found the smoking gun: Microsoft’s developers had failed to remove the debugging symbols used to test this software before they released it. Inside the code were the labels for two keys. One was called ‘KEY,’ the other was called ‘NSAKEY.’

“Fernandez presented his finding at a conference at which some Windows developers were also in attendance. The developers did not deny that the NSA key was built into their software, but they refused to talk about what the key did, or why it had been put there without users’ knowledge. Fernandez says that NSA’s ‘back door’ in the world’s most commonly used operating system makes it ‘orders of magnitude easier for the U.S. government to access your computer.’”

Blum adds that the Strategic Affairs Delegation (DAS), the intelligence arm of the French Defense Ministry, confirmed in a 1999 report that “NSA had helped to install secret programs in Microsoft software.” The DAS report stated: “It would seem that the creation of Microsoft was largely supported, not least financially, by the NSA, and that IBM was made to accept the [Microsoft] MS-DOS operating system by the same administration.” According to the report, there had been a “strong suspicion of a lack of security fed by insistent rumours about the existence of spy programs on Microsoft, and by the presence of NSA personnel in Bill Gates’s development teams… The Pentagon”, the report continued, “was Microsoft’s biggest client in the world.”

Snowden, who was recently given temporary asylum in Russia, worked at the NSA for four years. He was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, a military company under contract to the NSA. He had formerly been a technical assistant at the CIA. Snowden had a comfortable life with a $200,000 salary, a girlfriend and a house in Hawaii. “I am willing to sacrifice all that,” he said, “because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.

“I had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications — anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of both American and international law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice – that it must be seen to be done. The immoral cannot be made moral through the use of secret law.”

The courageous Snowden has been hailed as a hero by people all over the world. His revelations show an out-of-control U.S. National Security State corrupt to its core. As former U.S. President Jimmy Carter put it when talking about the NSA scandal: “America has no functioning democracy at this moment.” Carter criticized Washington’s intelligence methods as undemocratic and said that Snowden’s leak was “beneficial” for the country. Many Americans were outraged at the sweeping scale of the violations of their civil liberties.

Snowden’s whistle-blowing follows that of ex-Army Private Bradley Manning, who leaked 750,000 secret U.S. government documents, the biggest such disclosure of classified material in U.S. history. Public reaction to the revelations of both whistleblowers show considerable opposition to U.S. policies among Americans themselves, even many employed in the country’s monstrous security services.

The arrogance of the U.S. National Security State and its undemocratic nature are also exposed by the Obama administration’s reaction to the NSA scandal. Obama has widely extended the surveillance program that President George W. Bush had previously enlarged. Instead of apologizing for and terminating the illegal spying practice, Obama tried to justify it by claiming (inaccurately) that he had full congressional approval and blaming “leaks” and media “hype.” But strong public condemnation of his Orwellian methods have continued to rise, even from some Democratic Party Senators and European leaders who denounced American spying on their citizens as “unacceptable, illegal, and a violation of basic rights.” The New York Times declared that “the Obama administration has now lost all credibility [on this issue].”

The scandal assumed such large proportions that Obama was compelled to make a speech on August 9 in which he again attempted to justify the NSA’s massive surveillance activities. specifically about the NSA spying. The Atlantic, a prominent U.S. magazine, called the speech “a low point in Obama’s presidency… His tone was inappropriately dismissive… He proceeded as if the widespread objections to his policies can be dispatched like a parent answers an eight-year-old who has formally protested her bedtime… The disinformation should bother the American people most. The weasel words. The impossible-to-believe protestations. The factually inaccurate assertions… Obama is still lying, obfuscating, and misleading the American people.”

The most shocking part of this speech was Obama’s proposed response to the scandal: the setting-up of a “review panel” to determine if the U.S. “employs its technical collection capabilities in a manner that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust.”

Obama’s choice to head this review panel is James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, who in March lied to Congress about the NSA’s huge surveillance network. Clapper was asked by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper guaranteed it did not, a statement soon proved false in June by Snowden’s disclosures. Clapper was then compelled to apologize to Congress for what he called a “clearly erroneous” statement. Republican Representative Justin Amash called for Clapper’s resignation; his party colleague Rand Paul accused the director of breaking the law; and Senator Wyden proclaimed that “This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”

As Glenn Greenwald, a Guardian journalist, put it: “Only in DC! James Clapper, instead of being prosecuted or fired for lying to Congress, will now lead the review of the programs he lied about.” Obama’s ludicrous “review panel” is another insult to the American people’s intelligence. It is as if he told them: “I’ll keep spying on you and lying about it as much as I want. What are you going to do about it?”

The NSA scandal reveals a corrupt, autocratic U.S. political system that makes a mockery of democracy and operates a rampant Orwellian police state whose endless wars, drone killings, tortures, and other brutal violations of human rights have now been exposed for all the world to see.


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, September 2013

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is an expert on U.S. foreign policy and has published more than a hundred articles on this subject. He is also author of the book Informed Dissent: Three Generals and the Vietnam War available from ten booksellers on the internet.