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Glenn Greenwald: How America's Surveillance State Breeds Conformity and Fear

Once the government is able to monitor everything we do and say, we will be unable to fight back.

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The second remarkable aspect of that story, of that quote to me, is that the outcome of that investigation was a series of laws that were grounded in the principle that, as I said earlier, that we cannot allow government officials to eavesdrop on American citizens or in any way to engage in surveillance without all kinds of oversights and checks. The most illustrative of which was the FISA law, which said that no government official can eavesdrop on the occasion without first going through a court and proving to a court that we’re actually doing something wrong and getting the court permission before they can eavesdrop.

There was a similar controversy in the mid 2000s and in 2005 when the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been using the NSA to do exactly what Frank Church warned against -- which is spying on the communication of American citizens. And the outcome of that was not new laws or new safeguards to constrain these sorts of abuses, it was exactly the opposite. In 2008, the Democratic-led Congress, with the support of President Obama, most of his supporters in the Democratic party and almost all Republicans basically gutted that law. Repealed it in its core and made it much, much easier for the government to eavesdrop on American citizens without constraint, and then immunized the nation’s telecoms that had participated in that illegal program.

So you see the radically different attitudes that the United States has to surveillance just some 30 years ago, when abuses resulted in a whole variety of a weak, but still meaningful legal constraint, versus what we do now when we find out that the government is lawlessly spying on us, which is act as quickly as possible to make it legal.

But the third part of why I think Church’s statements are so remarkable and important: If you look at what he said, he phrased his warning in a conditional sense. He said, If A happens, then B. A was: If the NSA starts using its eavesdropping capabilities and not directing them at foreign, nationals we suspect of spying, but instead at the American people, then B will happen. B being, we’ll essentially live under a dictatorship. There will be total tyranny where the American people will be unable to fight back because this net of surveillance will cover what we do.

And what’s really remarkable is that that conditional that he warned against -- the apparatus of the NSA being directed domestically and inwardly rather than outwardly -- has absolutely come to pass. That is the current situation, that is the current circumstance of the United States. The NSA, beginning 2001, was secretly ordered to spy domestically on the communications of American citizens. It has escalated in all sorts of lawless, and now lawful ways, such that it is now an enormous part of what that agency does. Even more significantly, the technology that it has developed is now shared by a whole variety of agencies, including the FBI, so that this surveillance net that Frank Church warned so stridently about, in a way that if we stood up now, we’d be immediately be branded a sort of shrill, submarginalized radical, has come to be, in all sorts of entrenched and legal ways.

Now there’s a few ways to think about the Surveillance State and try to understand its scope and magnitude. I think the most effective way to do that is to look at a couple of numbers. And to use the most mainstream sources to do that in terms of where we are, in terms of the American Surveillance State.