Your Government Spies on You and Lies About It: Now What?

Human Rights

Now that Americans know the federal government domestically spies and lies about it—thanks to a litany of “misstatements” by top officials that have been debunked following disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden—very big questions emerge about what kind of country we are going to be.

Americans keep hearing more news reports about the national security state’s growing reach. Reuters just broke the story of more police efforts to use data collected in the NSA’s domestic digital dragnet for FBI drug investigations. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that other federal agencies are clamoring for the NSA’s data and are engaged in turf battles over it.

The parade of domestic spying stories has been met with a stream of official denials, which have been unmasked by the media as lies. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said that the NSA didn’t read Americans' emails, but Snowden’s disclosure of the XKeyscore program—including the user manual showing that functionality—disproved that. put together this video montage debunking six more domestic spying lies: Is the NSA spying on Americans? (The NSA said no.) Does it only collect data from bad guys? (The NSA said mostly). Does the NSA keep data on citizens? (The NSA said no.) Is NSA data collection any different from a local grand jury? (The Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman said no.) Is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court transparent? (Obama said yes.) And what other lies did the NSA present to Congress in “fact sheets” prepared for oversight committees? (It won’t say.)

The domestic spying and lying should not surprise anyone, given the growth of the national security state and a private sector that has been selling militarized gear and tactical training to local police ever since 9/11, according to the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin, who trace these trends in their series and more extensive book, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.

Priest and Arkin’s 2011 book—which doesn’t even discuss the NSA dragnets exposed by Snowden—details how law enforcement’s mindset has been hijacked by the post-9/11 belief that all levels of government can never have enough tools or firepower, which, in 2013 includes the ability to assemble digital dossiers on every American. For example, the military’s NorthCom command, based in Colorado, has its version of Google’s streetview camera and mapping for every block in America, which is eerie for privacy advocates and not even in the headlines.

What’s missing from today's jarring headlines is the big picture context: how the national security state has changed America. 

Before 9/11, the military was supposed only to operate overseas, Priest and Arkin note. Not anymore. Before 9/11, the military did not run covert operations for the CIA. Not anymore. Before 9/11, there was no joint FBI/Department of Homeland Security database filled with hundreds of thousands of citizens who were seen by police doing suspicious things, such as pulling their car over to take a picture of a pretty waterway near a bridge. Not anymore.  

These and other examples confirm a security state run amok. They're accompanied by a battlefield mentality and militarization of local police, which we see infiltrating protest groups, forcibly breaking up protected First Amendment speech, and treating protests like combat zones, all of which was already happening before Snowden’s disclosures about the digital dragnet.   

But even as Times runs reports titled, “Spy Agencies Under Heaviest Scrutiny Since Abuse Scandal of the ‘70s,” there’s little evidence that Congress is willing to rein in what looks like a cyber version of 1950s McCarthyism, where a paranoid federal government searched for a menace everywhere.

President Obama’s announcement that he would not meet Russian President Putin on the sidelines of an upcoming economic summit sounds like a script from the Cold War. Even if that posturing gives way, it reflects a mindset that hasn’t given way, that the government, from top federal agencies to local police, can and should use every tool, including intelligence, military tactics and weaponry, in its mission.

For example, the stalled federal immigration reform bill would turn the border with Mexico into a domestic version of the Berlin Wall, or the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, with contractors running a sizeable slice of the militarized no-man’s-land. 

Who has the power to say no to all of this? New civil liberties advocates such as RestoreTheFourth have emerged and organized protests. But what’s been happening in Congress largely seems like a parallel universe. The domestic spymasters respond narrowly and opaquely to questioning, and when pressed, all too frequently lie about what their agencies are really doing. 

And there’s more to this story than the headlines suggest. Priest and Arkin write in their book that there are so many top secret programs post-9/11 that the few people with security clearances to know about them all cannot keep them straight, or absorb what they are supposedly doing—even if some are acting redundantly or at cross purposes. That's the true state of congressional oversight.      

This new national security state adds up to a constitutional crisis. These top investigative reporters and whistleblowers are not just documenting that the surveillance state exists, is growing wildly, and is out of control. They are saying that no one really is in control, or that there are very few controls that meaningfully give more weight to constitutional privacy concerns than policing.

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” said California Rep. Jane Harmon, an intelligence hawk and otherwise liberal Democrat, in a March 2010 hearing cited by Priest and Arkin. “If homeland security intelligence is done the wrong way, then what we will have is… the thought police and we will be the worst for it.”

The solution, Harmon said in 2010, was “clarity and openness,” but that hasn’t happened. The privacy pendulum has swung the other way and that was before Snowden appeared. We have since learned that America’s spy agencies, military and select police units can assemble with a few keystrokes full profiles of our lives—phone calls, emails, texts, WiFi use, location information, bank accounts, biometrics, what our homes look like—without old-fashioned search warrants.    

It’s hardly comforting that some members in Congress are thanking Snowden for starting a "conversation" about balancing privacy and security.

Last December, the Democrat-controlled Senate defeated an effort to get the NSA to disclose its domestic spying activities. And before the current August recess, the GOP-controlled House narrowly defeated an amendment that would have barred bulk collection of citizens’ data under the Patriot Act. 

In contrast, almost no one in Congress is questioning giving the national security state (and its contractors) another blank check for the 2014 federal fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Instead, we are hearing some bipartisan calls for NSA disclosure of its domestic spying, but that won’t bar the NSA from compiling that data. And there are plenty of politicians calling Snowden a traitor and defending the NSA.

Meanwhile, at the top of national security pyramid sits Obama, who has canceled a meeting with Putin over Russia allowing Snowden to stay there, rekindling Cold War memories. And over what: unmasking a 21st-century dragnet that would make Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy smile.

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