[Update: Today the Associated Press reports that the CIA monitoring everybody’s tweets, Facebook pages, chat rooms, etc. as well.]
Via reader Jeff, I came across this excellent article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker on whistleblower Francis Drake and the vigorous attempts by the Obama administration to prosecute him.
At the heart of its case is the attempt by the government to invade people’s privacy. The government claimed that it needed the ability to gather information on people’s communications as a way to fight the war on terror. But spying on the conversations of Americans in America is against the law. Some people at the National Security Agency developed a program called ThinThread that collected information while people’s identities were kept secret. It was only if terrorism was flagged that the identifiers would be revealed. This, they felt, would at least partially preserve the privacy of innocent people by identifying only those against for whom there were serious grounds for suspicion. Thus ThinThread was a way to collect data while preserving privacy. But this tool was ignored because apparently what the government wants to do is be able to single people out by name and snoop on all their communications. This makes Richard Nixon’s plumbers and enemies list seem quaint by comparison.
Mayer’s article reveals the extent to which the government spies on all of us all the time.
[Matthew] Aid, the author of the N.S.A. history [The Secret Sentry, 2009], suggests that ThinThread’s privacy protections interfered with top officials’ secret objective—to pick American targets by name. “They wanted selection, not just collection,” he says.
[N.S.A. crypto-mathematician Bill] Binney, for his part, believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later. In the past few years, the N.S.A. has built enormous electronic-storage facilities in Texas and Utah. Binney says that an N.S.A. e-mail database can be searched with “dictionary selection,” in the manner of Google. After 9/11, he says, “General Hayden reassured everyone that the N.S.A. didn’t put out dragnets, and that was true. It had no need—it was getting every fish in the sea.”
In December 2005, the N.S.A.’s culture of secrecy was breached by a stunning leak. The Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that the N.S.A. was running a warrantless wiretapping program inside the United States. The paper’s editors had held onto the scoop for more than a year, weighing the propriety of publishing it. According to Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, President Bush pleaded with the paper’s editors to not publish the story; Keller told New York that “the basic message was: You’ll have blood on your hands.” After the paper defied the Administration, Bush called the leak “a shameful act.” At his command, federal agents launched a criminal investigation to identify the paper’s source.
The Times story shocked the country. Democrats, including then Senator Obama, denounced the program as illegal and demanded congressional hearings. A FISA court judge resigned in protest. In March, 2006, Mark Klein, a retired A.T. & T. employee, gave a sworn statement to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was filing a lawsuit against the company, describing a secret room in San Francisco where powerful Narus computers appeared to be sorting and copying all of the telecom’s Internet traffic—both foreign and domestic. A high-capacity fibre-optic cable seemed to be forwarding this data to a centralized location, which, Klein surmised, was N.S.A. headquarters. Soon, USA Today reported that A.T. & T., Verizon, and BellSouth had secretly opened their electronic records to the government, in violation of communications laws. Legal experts said that each instance of spying without a warrant was a serious crime, and that there appeared to be hundreds of thousands of infractions.
Mark Klein, the former A.T. & T. employee who exposed the telecom-company wiretaps, is also dismayed by the Drake case. “I think it’s outrageous,” he says. “The Bush people have been let off. The telecom companies got immunity. The only people Obama has prosecuted are the whistle-blowers.”
Note how Bill Keller, then editor of the allegedly liberal New York Times, withheld the story for more than a year at Bush’s request until after Bush was re-elected in 2004.
The government went after Thomas Drake, a senior executive at the NSA, as the suspected leaker and used the 1917 Espionage Act against him, basically accusing him of being a traitor.
Finally the case against Drake collapsed and he was let off with a minor punishment. This was reported as a setback for the government but the idea of such prosecutions is two-fold: to win if possible and punish the whistleblower but even if they lose important cases, their goal is to let all potential whistleblowers know that the government will make their lives hell if they told outsiders what the government was up to, even if it was illegal. But as Glenn Greenwald points out with case after case, Obama’s hypocrisy on whistleblowers is matched by some in Congress who feel free to lecture other countries about the need to protect whistleblowers while advancing draconian legislation at home to punish them. Now the FBI is seeking even greater surveillance powers.
As this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow points out, although Obama on the 2008 campaign trail praised whistleblowing as “acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, [and] should be encouraged rather than stifled”, once in office he has been one of the most vicious prosecutors. His cruel treatment of Bradley Manning for his alleged leaking to WikiLeaks is unforgivable. All this goes on while the public’s attention is diverted elsewhere on relatively trivial government intrusions.