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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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In 2010 the Washington Post published a three-part series called "Top Secret America" written by their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin. The first installment in that series looked at the National Security State and the Surveillance State, how it functions in the United States, and this was one of the sentences that appeared in this article. Listen to this, it said, “Every day -- every day, collections systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, and other types of comunication.” 

That’s every day, they intercept and store, and keep for as long as they want, 1.7 billion e-mails and other forms of telephonic communications.

William Binney is a NSA official, who is a high-ranking NSA official for decades, and he resigned in the wake of 9/11 because he was so outraged that the NSA was starting to be turned against the American people. And he resigned, and recently he has begun to speak out about the NSA’s abuses and he gave an interview on Democracy Now! three weeks ago, and this is what he said about surveillance under the Obama administration. He said,

“Surveillance has increased every year since 9/11. In fact, I would suggest that they’ve assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens: 20 trillion transactions have been assembled by the NSA and its related agencies about U.S. citizens interacting with other U.S. citizens."

He then went on to add that, that’s only e-mails and telephone calls, and not things like financial transactions or other forms of video surveillance. So that pretty much tracks with the Washington Post report as well -- if you’re storing 1.7 billion e-mails and telephone calls each and every day, it’s likely that you’ll fairly quickly reach the 20 trillion level that William Binney identified.

Now the most amazing thing about the Surveillance State given how incredibly liquidated it is and how incredibly menacing it is, is that we actually know very little about it. We’re almost back to the mid-1970s when nobody even knew what the NSA was. The big joke in Washington whenever anyone would mention the NSA is that the “NSA” stood for “No Such Agency.” It was something that you were not permitted to talk about, even in government. No one knew what it did.

We’re basically at that point. We get little snippets of information like the two statistics that I just described that give us a sense of just how sprawling and all-encompassing the surveillance state is. But we don’t know very much about who runs it, how it’s operated, at whom it’s directed and who makes those decisions. And in fact, so clear is that lack of knowledge that there is an amazing controversy right now about the Patriot Act.

You may remember, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Patriot Act was something that was really controversial. And mid-September, October of 2001, Congress enacted this law and everyone went around warning that it was this massive expansion of surveillance that was unlike anything we had ever seen before -- became the symbol of Bush-Cheney radicalism. Now, the Patriot Act is completely uncontroversial. It gets renewed without any notice every three years with zero reforms, no matter which party is in control.

There are two Democratic senators that are very, kind of, mainstream, loyal, Democratic Party supporters. They’re President Obama supporters [ ... ] One is Ron Wyden of Oregon and the other is Mark Udall of Colorado. And what these two Democratic Party senators have been doing for the last three years is running around warning that the Patriot Act is so much worse than anything that any of us thought all that time when we were objecting to it. And the reason it’s so much worse is because the U.S. government has secretly interpreted it -- what the Patriot Act admits it to do in terms of surveillance on American citizens, is completely unrelated to what the law actually says, and it’s something that almost nobody knows.