Recently, syndicated columnist Richard Cohen, who has an undeserved reputation as a liberal, declared that he had changed his mind about Edward Snowden. Initially, he recalled, he called Snowden “ridiculously cinematic” and “narcissistic” and certainly no whistleblower. Actually, he also said Snowden would be remembered as a "cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood" and called journalist Glenn Greenwald "vainglorious" but we'll, let that pass because last week, Cohen said "time has proved my judgments were just plain wrong." Which is not at all surprising for Richard Cohen, but still the admission is welcome.
One of things that changed his mind is that, while he still maintains that much of what Snowden revealed had already been leaked, still, quoting him, "my mouth is agape at the sheer size of these data-gathering programs."
Even those of us who say that no, this was not, as the smug pundits would have it, old news to be ignored can agree with the jaw-dropping part. And the gaping just increases by the day.
For one example, we've heard about the spooks tracking information about the phone calls made by millions of Americans. We've heard about them tracking internet usage and emails. Now it turns out they are also harvesting hundreds of millions of e-mail address books along with “buddy lists” from instant messaging services around the world.
According to documents among those released by Snowden, on a single day last year, a day described in the documents as typical, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected nearly 690,000 e-mail address books, a rate of over 250 million per year, plus a half-million more buddy lists on that same day.
That is, rather than targeting individual users, the NSA is just swallowing up a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts. Such address books commonly include not only names and e-mail addresses, but also telephone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information while inbox listings of e-mail accounts stored in the “cloud” sometime contain content, such as the first few lines of a message.
This would all be blatantly and transparently illegal if it were done domestically, but because these contact lists are gathered through secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or other services that control Internet traffic, it's all supposed to be just swell.
Except, of course, for the fact that data does not know borders and many large tech companies maintain data centers in various places around the world - so that, for example, an email from one US-based gmail account to another US based-gmail account could easily be routed through a server outside the US - and, one NSA offical said, when information passes through “the overseas collection apparatus, the assumption is you’re not a US person.”
Which means that although the collection takes place overseas, two senior US intelligence officials acknowledged to the Washington Post that it sweeps in the contacts of millions, perhaps tens of millions, of Americans.
It also came out recently that the NSA has engaged in massive spying on the phone systems of European nations.
A couple of weeks ago, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that last December, in that one month, the NSA recorded over 70 million phone calls in France.
And according to an account in the Spanish daily El Mundo on October 28, the NSA recently tracked over 60 million calls in Spain, again in the space of a single month.
The NSA targeted the personal cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, uncovered when the German paper Der Spiegel showed her NSA documents with her cellphone number written on them. Confronted about this, White House officials insisted that the US "is not monitoring and will not monitor" Merkel's calls but carefully dodged saying they hadn't done so in the past.
Thomas Oppermann, who heads a German parliamentary committee that oversees the country's intelligence service, says his panel was "deceived" by the US about its intelligence activities in Germany.
And it wasn't just Merkel. Der Spiegel had previously uncovered NSA activity against the offices and communications of senior officials of the European Union.
And it wasn't just Europe: Der Spiegel also reported that the NSA has been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years, including hacking into the public email account of then-president Felipe Calderón, an email domain also used by cabinet members and which contained, the NSA documents proudly declare, "diplomatic, economic and leadership communications."
The NSA also monitored current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and others around him even when he was a candidate for president in the summer of 2012.
This came out not long after it was revealed that the US had been spying on Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, along with her key advisors as the NSA told itself there were "high-value targets" among her inner circle.
In fact, the NSA monitored the telephone conversations of at least 35 world leaders after obtaining their numbers from an official in another department of the federal government.
However, there was one world leader who didn't seem upset by all the spying: British Prime Minister and all-around freedom-of-the-press-hating David Cameron, who has repeatedly attacked the revelations, most recently by claiming that critics of the massive spying programs have a "la-di-da, airy-fairy" view of the world, and now is threatening to "act" against newspapers - specifically, the Guardian - if they don't "demonstrate some social responsibility." That is, if they don't just shut up.
It could be that part of the reason for his attitude is that unlike the case of Angela Merkel, in fact unique among leaders, the White House says not only that it doesn't and won't spy on Cameron, but also that it never has.
To top this off with one of those "laugh so you don't cry" moments, a source described as "a senior administration official" told the AP on Monday that the White House is considering no longer spying on the heads of state of US allies but they haven't made up their mind yet.
The thing of it is, all this massive intrusion on the privacy of, all this spying on, literally scores if not hundreds of people around the world is not only morally and politically offensive and profoundly anti-democratic, it becomes self-defeating. The director of the NSA, Starship Captain Keith Alexander, has defended a policy of what he called "collect it all" by saying that you can't find a needle in a haystack if you don't have the haystack.
(He actually said “You need a haystack to find a needle,” which sounds like a koan, but I'm pretty sure we got his meaning right.)
The problem is, though, the NSA's approach is less like trying to find a needle in a haystack than it is trying to find a needle while throwing huge handfuls of hay over it. In fact, the NSA is collecting so much information that it has occasionally threatened to outstrip even its own massive storage capacity, so much so that at times the agency has had to issue “emergency detasking” orders - that is, to tell its own programs busily sucking up data to "Stop. Just ... stop."
Oh, and one of the things causing the NSA to choke on its own data? Spam. Kinda nice in an odd way to know they're getting screwed up by the same thing the rest of us are.
But one clear result of this glut, this plethora, of data is that these programs are just not nearly as good, not nearly as efficient, as they're made out to be.
The NSA and its defenders, echoed by the media, like to make grandiose claims the programs are key to, vital to, absolutely indispensible in, stopping terrorists. Back on June 18, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing about NSA disclosures, during which Starship Captain Alexander claimed that on more than 50 occasions since 9/11 these programs have protected the US and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe, including more than 10 targeting the US.
But early in October, Alexander admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that such claims are essentially vapor. Sen. Pat Leahy charged that the claim of thwarted attacks was "plainly wrong. ... These weren't all plots, and they weren't all thwarted." In response, Alexander conceded that the examples were "not all plots" and, significantly, also admitted there were only "one or possibly two" cases of terrorist activity that would not have been prevented "but for" the massive spying. Which easily leaves us to wonder if even that figure is exaggerated.
Our privacy is being stripped, our rights undermined, power is being concentrated in fewer hands, official secrecy is expanding dramatically - and no one, when they are actually pressed, can give us a single damn good reason why.
So it's nice to know that there is some pushback on this. First, internationally, Germany, France, Spain, the European Union, Brazil, and to a lesser extent Mexico are all royally ticked off. Domestically, there are some legislative attempts being made to at least begin - empahsize begin - to address some - emphasize some - of the worst aspects of this.
On that, remember that in terms of domestic spying, there are two primary issues. One is Section 215 of the so-called PATRIOT Act, the one call the TRAITOR Act. This is the section used to justify the massive phone spying. The other is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which is what's used to justify the massive internet spying. There are some bills looking to go after Section 215, for example, by requiring that any warrant issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court must contain "specific and articulable facts" that the information is relevant to an investigation and the that the order "pertains to" an individual.
The are proposals to require the White House to release its legal justification for the spying. This to me is one of the most astonishing aspects of the whole business: The Bush gang and now the Obama gang claim they have the legal authority to do all the spying they are doing based on their own legal interpretation of the laws. Here's the kicker: That interpretation is secret and the White House has refused to release it. They say "we have to power to do this, the law says so." The public goes "uh, wait a minute, how do you get that from this," and they say "we won't tell you." Or, as Ring Lardner wrote in one of his stories, "'Shut up,' he explained."
There are also bills to change the FISA Court itself by requiring release of its findings and the manner of choosing its members. As of now, those members are chosen in secret by the Chief Justice - which right now means John "The Smirk" Roberts. There are a couple of proposals to make the process public and to spread around the authority.
Unfortunately, there is no bill in Congress with prospects of moving forward that tackles Section 702 of FISA, the section used for PRISM and other internet spying.
Some of the names attached to various of these bills are, in the Senate, Pat Leahy, Al Franken, Mark Udall, Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, Mike Lee, and Richard Blumenthal, and in the House, John Conyers, Justin Amash, Adam Schiff, Todd Rokita, Rick Larsen, Steve Cohen, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Jim Sensenbrenner, and Zoe Lofgren. You might make note both of those names - and of those names you don't hear in that list and maybe ask them why they aren't on it.
Potentially more important in the grander scheme of things is that there is also pushback in the streets. Last Saturday, October 26, thousands of people marched in Washington, DC under the banner of the Stop Watching Us coalition while "satellite" actions occurred in places like Austin, Chicago, and eight sites in Germany.
Billed by organizers as "the largest rally yet to protest mass surveillance", the march and rally was sponsored by an unusually broad coalition, everything from the ACLU, the Green Party, Color of Change, and Daily Kos to the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks and Young Americans for Liberty. Left and right agree on little, but we can agree on privacy.
The rally included presenting to Congress a letter demanding an end to blanket data collection, a letter that now has over 585,000 names attached.
The best couple of sentence summation came in a statement from Edward Snowden, which was read to the crowd.
Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands. Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They’re wrong.Amen to that. And if you are not deeply offended and profoundly outraged and even frightened by all this, you really need to ask yourself what's wrong with you.