The US is Spying on the Nation and the World

by Dennis Loo | June 7, 2013

The lead paragraph of this morning’s NYT (June 7, 2013) states as follows:

The federal government has been secretly collecting information on foreigners overseas for nearly six years from the nation’s largest Internet companies like Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple, in search of national security threats, the director of national intelligence confirmed Thursday night.

The article then proceeds to turn its attention to and spends the rest of the article discussing the simultaneous other revelation that Obama’s Administration is also spying on all domestic calls and Internet activity within the U.S.

“[T]he growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, … has clearly been embraced and even expanded under the Obama administration.”

Many readers might follow the NYT’s lead in neglecting to follow up on the meaning of its first paragraph – that the U.S. government is scooping up data on foreigners overseas for nearly six years (putting its inception at around 2007) - but let’s stay on that one for a few moments here and digest it. The U.S. government is spying on not just all of us here in the U.S., not just all communications between those of us here in the U.S. and anyone outside of the U.S., but the Internet activities of foreigners overseas. It’s trying to and or is collecting data on the world, in other words.

If you spend sometime doing research on surveillance and their “war on terror” and if you become familiar with the history of governmental surveillance and the spooks who do it within the inner sanctums of bureaucracies, you learn that the desire to scoop up everything they can, even when they have been strictly prohibited from doing so, let alone provided justifications to do so, as has been the case since the very beginning of Bush’s years seven months before 9/11 continuing on through today, then you should not be surprised to find that these practices have been going on. [1]

Like “torture drift” where those torturing a prisoner drift further and further into greater and greater levels of brutality, we could coin a term with respect to surveillance and name it “surveillance drift” – the taking of more and more information. Not only is this “surveillance drift” the norm among government spooks, but it also conforms to the premise of public order policies, which is the new model for governance: everyone is a suspect.

Under the new paradigm for governance present in capitols across the globe since the 1980s, you no longer have to have committed a crime or even be suspected based on some actual evidence that you have committed a crime, you only have to be alive to be suspected and tracked and have information collected about you. Further, you can be and many people are (see Bradley Manning and the prisoners at Guantanamo for example) tortured and detained and railroaded for crimes that you are suspected that you might do or might have done. This is known as preventive detention in the first case and in the second case punishment for what has not yet been proven that you have done. “First the sentence, then the verdict!” as the Alice in Wonderland’s Red Queen famously declared.

In trying to misdirect people who might be outraged about these practices, we have this from James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, cited in the NYT article:

“It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement, describing the law underlying the program. “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”

Their program of ubiquitous warrantless surveillance “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen” – that is supposed to make us feel reassured? "Thank god they're not tracking me intentionally! They're tracking me without specifically targeting me!" Of course the history of government spying shows that they are intentionally tracking some people and groups. But let’s set that to the side for the moment and take on his central claim that no one is being intentionally targeted and take it as true. The fact that they are putatively not intentionally targeting anyone means a) that they are gathering data on everyone’s relationships to others, their networks and places that they go to physically and virtually, and b) this protocol explicitly overturns the previous rationale for being given permission by the FISA Court to conduct electronic and other snooping such as breaking into people’s homes and offices and searching them (“Sneak and Peek”). The standard before under FISA was that government agents had to show the court that they had specific evidence that someone or some people were engaged in criminal and/or possible terrorist activities in order to be given a warrant to carry out snooping on them. According to Clapper’s words, intended to reassure the American public, they are gathering data on all of us without any specific reasons for targeting anyone in particular. Clapper’s stated rationale is, if anything, worse, not better.

Let’s now take the second part of his statement: “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.” If the U.S. government is collecting data on all of us and on the world, then how much data are they collecting in total? In Globalization and the Demolition of Society I wrote, citing the observations of an intelligence historian named Matthew Aid in a September 31, 2009 NYT article: “ the NSA receives four times as much data every day as is held in the Library of Congress. The intelligence community is, in other words, drowning in data.”

The question of how much they are gathering in data is relevant here because if you are making absolutely no distinctions between people and organizations that you have reasonable grounds to suspect – that is, there is some actual reason to suspect that they might be up to something bad, broadly defining might – and you are gathering up data on everyone, then you are going to be trying to do the equivalent in data terms as vacuuming up the entire matter of the earth in order to extract some gold. Your efforts, in other words, to work with that much data will overwhelm your efforts from the start to keep track of the truly relevant data.

This practice under both Bush and expanded under Obama to gather up everything matches Dick Cheney’s infamous statement memorialized in NYT writer Ron Suskind’s book about Cheney, “The One Percent Doctrine.”

“‘If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,’ Cheney said. He paused to assess his declaration. ‘It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of the evidence,’ he added. ‘It’s about our response.’” (From Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 62.

According to Mr. Cheney, then, what we do is what matters, not whether what we are doing is based upon a reasonable assessment of what it is we face. This is consistent with the “faith-based community” and the postmodernist community that both agree that what matters is not rationally assessing the objective world but deciding how we are subjectively going to act in the world based upon our preferred version of what is real.

I am going to excerpt a fairly sizable section from GDS that delves further into these questions that are deeply intertwined and cannot be understood properly independent of each other:

How can there be too much information? If you have too much data, then connecting dots becomes extremely difficult because you have too many possible threads to perceive and millions upon millions of irrelevant data points obscuring those threads. It is like trying to find multiple needles in a haystack while haystack after haystack after haystack is being dropped on you in an avalanche of hay. Obama and the bureaucracies’ efforts to approach total information awareness are doomed to fail again and again because they are based on an incorrect premise.

The notion that knowing that Mohammed Atta got a parking ticket somewhere will somehow send off alarm bells assumes that you have already determined that Atta is someone to whom you have to pay particular attention. What good would it have done to know that he got a parking ticket in Roselle, even if he was already known to be a terrorist, which he was? If you have a list of more than half a million people that are possible suspects (as the US government had as of late 2010) with the list growing longer every day, this task of focusing on the next Atta becomes more difficult than ever. You have to make choices all along the way about what is relevant information and what is not. As you amass more and more irrelevant information, you make it more difficult, not easier, to determine what is relevant and what is noise.

Moreover, US policies that provoke more and more people into opposition to them are creating a cacophony of threatening noise. Public order policies that track and observe everyone as a potential suspect foster greater and greater levels of pure noise. The noise is deafening because the potential terrorists are everywhere, and by their very nature and magnitude they are impossible to identify and track. Carrying out “national security” in this manner is like going out into a growing hurricane and trying to determine which flying objects are going to hit you and when. If what you are doing is fostering the hurricane in the first place, as the Bush White House did in ignoring global warming and weakening New Orleans in the face of a storm, then you better stop doing those things or you are inviting disaster. The insistence that everyone is a potential problem and that more information about everything is better means that actual terrorist plots are being covered up by avalanches of useless and irrelevant information. It is like taking a gourmet meal prepared by a four-star restaurant and mixing it with tons and tons of garbage. Now, your challenge is to find the haute cuisine in that pile of stench.

The overriding problem here, however, is not the plethora of unusable and illegitimately obtained information about all of us, as insuperable as that problem is. Even if that problem did not exist, there would still be a larger problem: intelligence failures do not discredit the existing policies of ubiquitous surveillance, war, occupations, indefinite detentions, torture, assassinations, and drone attacks. Failures of intelligence promote and justify the existing policies that are supposed to prevent terrorism. The longer the US goes without another successful or abortive terrorist incident, the harder it becomes to justify the security state’s measures. Thus, the security state has a stake in having at least some anti-state terrorist incidents occur. This is the security state’s dirty little secret.

When the dominant paradigm is the “War on Terror” and when the gains to be had from continuing this war are as extraordinary as they are — booty in the trillions of dollars overall and the reins of political power of an empire—then any strategically placed individual or group could take advantage of this condition by suppressing information about an upcoming terrorist incident, by allowing an incident to happen that could have been prevented, or by manufacturing a fall guy to carry out an attack, and get away with it. The GOP, Democrats, and the mass media, after all, have ruled raising questions about the wisdom or effectiveness of the “anti-terrorist” measures out of order. The traditional safeguards, such as the separation of powers that are supposed to prevent such a cynical ploy from being carried out have been eliminated.

If this sounds hard to believe, consider the fact that Bush and Cheney were caught red-handed fabricating the WMD excuse to invade Iraq, and they were still not impeached. They were caught red-handed torturing people, at least one hundred of them to death, and they were still not impeached or prosecuted. They were caught red-handed spying on every single American in felonious violation of the law, including every senator, congressperson, prosecutor and judge, and they were still not impeached or prosecuted. If these transgressive acts were not punished but were retroactively approved with their underlying excuses endorsed by both major parties, then it should be no surprise that these policies would then continue. Is it any wonder, then, that Obama has been continuing their policies and in some very important respects going even further? The wonder would be if he actually attempted to put a stop to it all.

A Disorderly New Order

Walmart’s rock bottom pricing and insistence on lowering prices every year on staples forces suppliers to employ the cheapest labor the globe offers. This produces job losses domestically and hollows out the economic activity and viability of Main Street businesses around the country. It accelerates deindustrialization and the consequent rise of illicit and gray— and black-market economic activities, since licit activities are disappearing. In Detroit, for instance, real estate depends heavily for its viability upon drug dealers who represent one of the only thriving economic activities around. In China, millions of involuntary migrants undergird the country’s race for economic power, even as the government treats them as hooligans. The drug trade in the US represents a highly profitable—and therefore violent—business because the drug war drives the value of the drugs up and therefore spawns drug dealers aplenty, both domestically and internationally. The drug war itself, therefore, has contributed substantially to the funding of anti-state terrorist groups that profit from the opium, for instance, of the poppy fields in Afghanistan.

Muslims’ antipathy for the West grows directly out of the policies being carried out, especially by the West and the US, not by the fact that “they hate our freedoms,” as Bush claimed. Neoliberalism, in other words, creates and expands the populations and activities that it then turns around to label as dire threats to its brave new disorderly order. Put another way, the forces insisting that order is under siege and that repression and extra-legal measures are necessary to cope with that disorder are the same forces creating disorder in the society by dispossessing increasing ranks of the people, endangering the planet’s biosystem, and provoking greater and greater levels of social insecurity. Neoliberal regimes’ ever-growing inequities produce dissension and dissatisfaction, not because the disaffected elect to feel disaffection—although the already privileged tend to see it that way, as if there is bounty for all if everyone would simply put their noses to the grindstone, there being no structural logic to the dispossession of so many for the wealth of the few. Rather, the disadvantaged’s status brings them into conflict with those that the system favors. The position of the disadvantaged is what makes them criminal, dangerous, and potential terrorists. As [Magnus] Hornqvist correctly notes:

[O]n the basis of the formulation contained in the [European Union] EU’s definition, it is difficult to determine which motivations are not of a terrorist nature. What, for example, does it mean to intend to “unduly compel a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act”? This will depend entirely on the political positioning of a particular observer.

The breathtaking universality of this EU definition of terrorism—those who compel the government to act in a certain way are by definition terrorists—is mirrored in the US’s definition, the subject of my next chapter. Government, according to this definition, can only do what it should do if the citizens do not try to influence it. A president calling on Congress to pass a piece of legislation in a State of the Union Address by this definition would constitute terrorism. Instead of Joe Wilson, Representative from South Carolina, yelling at the President, “You lie!” we could have him declare to the President: “You’re a terrorist!”

Just as the meaning of terrorism has been expanded so has the larger category of “crime,” so that acts that have never been considered criminal are now being proscribed as suitable for police and other social-control agents to repress. As Hornqvist puts it: “‘Crime,’ writes the [EU] com- mission, as well as ‘crime in the strict sense’ includes ‘anti-social conduct which, without necessarily being a criminal offence, can by its cumulative effect generate a climate of tension and insecurity.’”

In the neoliberal world not only do physical characteristics matter, but behaviors, dress, class background, attitudes, and so on, can create a sense of “insecurity” for others, justifying clampdowns. The law no longer represents the standard that people must abide by in order to avoid having police actions and prosecutions imposed upon them. The new standard is that one can be subjected to governmental or private social control measures simply for being a perceived threat or source of discomfort to some- one. This undermining of the rule of law is being carried out across the full spectrum of bureaucratic and corporate purview and policy making from top to bottom. As Hornqvist puts it:

“It may seem absurd that a single area of policy should cover everything from truancy and drug sales to acts of terror. But it is absurd only because so many of us have not yet learned to proceed from a concept of security that has broken away from the logic of the law.”

From this perspective, Bush and Cheney’s express violations of the rule of law are then not unique to them. They were merely on the cutting edge of that trajectory. And Obama’s perpetuation of their actions represents the further advance of that neoliberal project. This means that attempts to restore the rule of law will not succeed as a strategy separate from a fundamental challenge to the entire logic of the system itself.

Reinterpreting protest and poverty as terrorism is a trend that stretches across continents and that includes all of the major political parties in the world’s nations. This explains what for many people is otherwise inexplicable: the perpetuation, further elaboration, and institutionalization under Democrat Barack Obama of the national security state measures that Bush and Cheney spearheaded. Obama and the Democratic Party leadership are continuing on the path that was already underway before Bush, dating back to the late 1970s. What Bush and Cheney did that was different was openly breach the wall of the rule of law.

The sensitivity and momentousness of this breach explains why Obama ran on a platform of restoring the rule of law, restoring habeas corpus, and ending atrocities such as torture: Bush and Cheney’s practices had been so widely reviled and were so fundamental a rupture from the previous social contract of governments with their people that reviving people’s confidence in their government had to be done lest fracturing and resultant upheavals ensued. What Obama has in fact done has been the repackaging of these practices.

When running for office and after taking office, Obama made a point of saying that he believes in, and is implementing, transparency in government:

Just weeks after taking office, the Obama administration adopted an unprecedented policy of sunlight, directing bureaucrats across government to “apply a presumption of openness” regarding the release of documents to the public, according to a memo by Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.

Obama’s policy does not cover an important part of the White House: the Office of Administration, which oversees much of the day-to-day functions of the president’s own office and staff.

In 2007, then-president George W. Bush, whose penchant for secrecy was a reliable villain in Obama’s campaign speeches, became the first president to declare the White House Office of Administration off-limits to public inquiries. At the time, Bush was engaged in a heated court battle with good government groups over access to information about a massive batch of missing White House e-mails.

A federal court ruled in favor of the Bush administration, agreeing that the office was not technically an “agency” as defined by FOIA, and was not required to abide by the openness law.

Today, the Obama White House Web site announces that the Office of Administration “is not subject to FOIA and related authorities.”

In a May 21, 2009, speech at the National Archives, Obama said this about the “War on Terror”:

We’re going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who’ve received extensive explosives training at al-Qaida training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al-Qaida terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture—like other prisoners of war—must be prevented from attacking us again.

If the people he will not release cannot be released because the evidence against them is tainted—because they were tortured to obtain the “evidence”—then that is not the fault of the individual detainee; that is the result of criminal acts by the US government. This stands in direct contradiction to Obama’s campaign pledge that he would restore habeas corpus because holding innocents is “not what we do.” In his National Archives speech, Obama hastened to add that the decision to hold someone who has not been found guilty of any crimes should not be the action of the executive branch alone and that detention should not be open ended.

“That’s why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we do not make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.”

How does one square abridging habeas corpus with ensuring you are “in line with the rule of law?” How do you have “lawful standards” when you are breaking the law itself to do it? (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 151-157).

What is the upshot of all of this? “[A]ttempts to restore the rule of law will not succeed as a strategy separate from a fundamental challenge to the entire logic of the system itself.” You do not and cannot mount a successful challenge to the logic of the system itself by adopting the tortured logic of those who represent that system and you cannot successfully challenge what they are doing and going to be doing next that is even worse by operating within the parameters of what they tell us is acceptable. You have to step outside of their logic and their channels and challenge them on their policies, practices, immorality, and rationales, and show them to be not only viciously counter-productive but more importantly completely disingenuous and endangering us all, not only our civil liberties but our lives and that of others, Americans and non-Americans alike. This is a war of terror and a war on the people. That is what it is, not anything else.

The revelations that the NYT is reporting about come from an unidentified U.S. intelligence individual who is whistleblowing. Despite Obama’s vicious and vindictive retaliation against the heroic Bradley Manning in order to try to stem the tide of whistleblowers, Obama’s efforts based on this week’s fresh revelations have not worked in intimidating others from speaking the truth about the horrid lies and practices that this government and Obama in particular are committing.

[1] If you read Barbara Bowley’s chapter “The Campaign for Unfettered Power: Executive Supremacy, Secrecy and Surveillance” in Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney (2006), you will get a primer on the magnitude of the executive branch’s drive for unchecked powers and how it has, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, hidden its real actions under the guise of deceptive rhetoric.

This article originally appeared on

Main Police State Repression The US is Spying on the Nation and the World


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