The surveillance state
June 28, 2012
available from Alternative Radio
You can listen to Glenn Greenwald speak for himself here.
Glenn Greenwald is an attorney and the author of How Would a Patriot Act?, Great American Hypocrites, and Liberty and Justice for Some. He is the recipient of the Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media for his “pathbreaking journalistic courage and persistence in confronting conventional wisdom, official deception, and controversial issues.” He also received an Online Journalism Award for Best Commentary for his coverage of U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning. Greenwald is a columnist and blogger at Salon.com and his articles appear in various newspapers and magazines.
The surveillance state hovers over any attempts to meaningfully challenge state or corporate power. It doesn’t just hover over it. It impedes it and deters it and chills it. That’s its intent; it does that by design. So understanding what the surveillance state is, how it operates and, most importantly, figuring out how to challenge it and undermine it and subvert it really is an absolute prerequisite to any sort of meaningful activism, to developing strategies and tactics for how to challenge state and corporate power.
To start this discussion, I want to begin with a little story that I think is illustrative and significant in lots of ways. The story begins in the mid-1970s, when there were scandals that were arising out of the Watergate investigation and the Nixon administration, and there were scandals surrounding the fact that, as it turned out, the Nixon administration and various law enforcement officials in the federal government were misusing their eavesdropping power. They were listening in on people who were political opponents, and they were doing so purely out of political self-interest, having nothing to do with legal factors or the business of the nation. This created a scandal.
Unlike today, the scandal 40 years ago, in the mid-1970s, resulted in at least some relatively significant reactions. In particular, a committee was formed in the Senate, and it was headed by Frank Church. He was a Democrat from Idaho and had been in the Senate as of this time for 20 years or so, was one of the most widely regarded senators, and was chosen because of that. He led the investigation into these eavesdropping abuses and to try to get to the bottom of the scandal.
One of the things he discovered was that these eavesdropping abuses were radically more pervasive and egregious than anything that had been known at the start of the investigation. It was by no means confined to the Nixon administration. In fact, it went all the way back to the 1920s, when the government first began developing the technological capability to eavesdrop on American citizens and heightened as the power heightened, through the 1940s, when World War II justified it, into the 1950s, when the Cold War did, and into the 1960s, when the social unrest justified surveillance. What Senator Church found was that literally every single administration, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, had seriously abused this power, not in isolated ways but systematically. This committee documented all the ways in which that was true. And the realization quickly emerged that allowing government officials to eavesdrop on citizens, without constraints or oversight, to do so in the dark, is a power that vests so much authority and leverage in those in power that it is virtually impossible for human beings to resist abusing that power. That’s how potent of a power it is.
But the second thing that he realized beyond just the general realization that this power has been systematically abused was that there was an agency that was at the heart of this abuse, and it was the National Security Agency. What was really amazing about the National Security Agency was that it had been formed 25 years before, back in 1949, by President Truman, and it was formed as part of the Defense Department, and was so covert that literally for two decades almost nobody in the government even knew that it existed, let alone knew what it did, including key senators like Frank Church. Part of his investigation—and it was actually a fairly radical investigation, fairly aggressive, even looking at it through cynical eyes and realizing that the ultimate impact wasn’t particularly grand, but the investigation itself was pretty impressive—was that he forced his way into the National Security Agency and found at as much as he possibly could about it.
After the investigation concluded, he issued all sorts of warnings about the surveillance state and how it was emerging and the urgency of only allowing government officials to eavesdrop or surveil citizens if they had all kinds of layers of oversight with courts and Congress. But he issued a specific warning about the National Security Agency that is really remarkable in terms of what he said. This is what he said, and you can find this anywhere online, in The New York Times, everywhere. He said it as part of a written report and then in an interview.
The National Security Agency’s capability could be turned around at any time on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.
There would be no place to hide. If a dictator ever took over the United States, the NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.
There are several things that I find extraordinary about that statement. For one, the language that he uses. This is not somebody who is a speaker at the Socialism 2012 conference saying these things. This was literally one of the people who was one of the most established institutional figures in American politics. He was in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party but very much in its mainstream for many years. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And here he is warning the country about the dangers not just of the U.S. government but specifically about the national security state and using words like dictator and total tyranny and warning of the way in which this power could be abused such that essentially it would be irreversible. That once the government is able to monitor everything we do and everything we say, there’s no way to fight back because fighting back requires doing it away from their prying eyes.
If you look now, 30 years later, to where we are, not only would you never, ever hear a U.S. Senator stand up and insinuate that the national security state poses this grave danger or use words like tyranny and dictator to describe the United States the way that Frank Church did only 30 years ago, but now it’s virtually a religious obligation to talk about the national security state and its close cousin, the surveillance state, with nothing short of veneration.
Chris Hayes, who is an MSNBC host on the weekends, used the opportunity of Memorial Day to express the view, in a very tortured, careful, and pre-apologetic way, that maybe it’s the case that not ever single person who has ever served as an American soldier or enlisted in the American military is a hero. Maybe we can think about them in ways short of that. And this incredible controversy erupted. Condemnation poured down on him from Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals alike, and he was forced in multiple venues over the course of the next week to issue one increasingly sheepish apology after another. That’s how radically our discourse has changed, so that you cannot talk about the national security state or the surveillance state in these kinds of nefarious terms the way that Frank Church, who probably knew more about it, did just a few decades ago.
The second remarkable aspect of Church’s quote to me is that the outcome of that investigation was a series of laws that were grounded in the principle that, as I said earlier, we cannot allow government officials to eavesdrop on American citizens or in any way to engage in surveillance without all kinds of oversights and checks, the most illustrative of which was the FISA law, that said that no government official can eavesdrop on our communications without first going to a court and proving to a court that we’re actually doing something wrong and getting the court’s permission before they can eavesdrop.
There was a similar controversy in the mid-2000s, in 2005, when The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been using the NSA to do exactly what Frank Church warned against, which is spying on the communications of American citizens. The outcome of that was not new laws or new safeguards to constrain these sorts of abuses; it was exactly the opposite. In 2008, the Democratic-led Congress, with the support of President Obama and most of the supporters of his in the Democratic Party, as well as almost all Republicans, basically gutted that law, repealed it in its core, and made it much, much easier for the government to eavesdrop on American citizens without constraints, and then immunized the nation’s telecoms that had participated in that illegal program. So you see the radically different attitudes that the U.S. has to surveillance just from 30 years ago, when abuses result in a whole variety of weak but still meaningful legal constraints, versus what we do now when we find out that the government is lawlessly spying on us, which is to act as quickly as possible to make it legal.
But the third part of why I think Frank Church’s statement is so remarkable is also the most important. If you look at what he said, he phrased his warning in a conditional sense. He said if A happens, then B. A was, if the NSA starts using its eavesdropping capabilities and not directing them at foreign nationals whom we suspect of spying but instead at the American people, then B will happen, B being we’ll essentially live under a dictatorship, there will be total tyranny, where the American people will be unable to fight back because this net of surveillance will cover what we do. What’s really remarkable is that that conditional that he warned against, the apparatus of the NSA being directed domestically and inwardly rather than outwardly, has absolutely come to pass. That is the current situation, that is the current circumstance of the United States.
The NSA, beginning in 2001 under George Bush, was secretly ordered to spy domestically on the communications of American citizens. It has escalated in all sorts of lawless, and now lawful, ways such that it is now a normal part of what that agency does. Even more significantly, the technology that it has developed is now shared by a whole variety of agencies, including the FBI, so that this surveillance net that Frank Church warned so stridently about in a way that if you stood up now, you would be immediately branded as sort of a shrill, self- marginalized radical, has come to be in all sorts of entrenched and legal ways.
There are a few ways to think about the surveillance state and to try to understand its scope and magnitude. I think the most effective way to do that is just to look at a couple of numbers and to use the most mainstream sources to do that as to where we are in terms of the American surveillance state. In 2010, the Washington Post published a three-part series called “Top Secret America,” written by their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Dana Priest, and William Arkin. The first installment in that series looked at the national security state and the surveillance state and how it functions in the U.S. One of the sentences that appeared in this article—listen to this—said,
Every day collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communication.
That’s every day they intercept and store, they keep for as long as they want, 1.7 billion emails and other forms of telephonic communications.
William Binney was a fairly high-ranking NSA official for several decades. 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. Recently he’s begun to speak out about the NSA’s abuses. He gave an interview on Democracy Now! three weeks ago, and this is what he said about surveillance under the Obama administration:
Surveillance has increased every year since 9/11. In fact, I would suggest that they have assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens.
Twenty 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 emails and telephone calls, and not things like financial transactions or other forms of video surveillance. So that pretty much tracks what the Washington Post reported as well. If you’re storing 1.7 billion emails and telephone calls each and every day, it’s likely that you will fairly quickly reach the 20 trillion level that William Binney identified.
The most amazing thing about the surveillance state, given how incredibly ubiquitous 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, was that NSA stood for No Such Agency. It was just 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.
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 used to be something that was really controversial. In September-October of 2001, Congress enacted this law, and everyone ran around warning that it was this massive expansion of surveillance that was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It became the symbol of Bush-Cheney radicalism. Now the PATRIOT Act is completely uncontroversial. It gets renewed without any notice every 3 years, with zero reforms, no matter which party is in control.
There are two Democratic senators who are mainstream, loyal Democratic Party supporters. They’re President Obama supporters. They’re like Frank Church but even a little bit more mainstream within the Democratic Party. One is Ron Wyden of Oregon and the other is Mark Udall of Colorado. What these two Democratic Party senators have been doing for the last 3 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 what the PATRIOT Act permits it to do in terms of surveillance on American citizens in a way that’s completely unrelated to what the law actually says, and it’s something that almost nobody knows.
Just listen to these two quotes that they gave The New York Times a month ago. Senator Widen said,
I want to deliver a warning this afternoon. When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the PATRIOT Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.
Now, he’s talking about a different American people than the one that I know, but the point that he’s making is that if you were paying attention and cared about these things the way you should, you would be stunned and angry to learn about what the government is doing, even under this already broad act. Senator Udall said,
Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out.
They are two, as I said, establishment Democrats warning that the Democratic-controlled executive branch is massively abusing this already incredibly broad PATRIOT Act.
One of the things that they’re trying to do is to extract some basic information from the NSA about what it is that they’re doing in terms of the surveillance aimed at American people, because even though they’re on the Intelligence Committee, the committee that the Church committee created to oversee the intelligence community, they say they don’t even know the most basic information about what the NSA does, including even how many Americans have had their emails read or telephone calls intercepted by the NSA. So one of the things they did a couple months ago was they wrote a demand to the NSA saying, We don’t want you to tell us anything sensitive. We just need to know the basic information about what it is that you’re doing. For example, the thing we really want to know is, how many Americans citizens on U.S. soil have had their emails read by you and their telephone calls listened to by you? That’s what we want to know most of all.
The NSA responded 2 weeks ago by saying—and I’m not exaggerating, I’m not saying this to be humorous, I’m not being ironic, I’m not snippeting out a part of it to distort it—their answer was, Look, we can’t tell you how many millions of Americans are having their emails read by us and their telephone calls listened in on by us, because for us to tell you that would violate the privacy of American citizens. Just so you believe me, because if I were you, I would be thinking, Oh, that’s ridiculous, whatever he’s saying can’t be true, I just want to read to you from the letter that the head of the NSA wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee. They said,
The NSA Inspector General and NSA leadership both agree that a review of the sort you are suggesting would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.
I think the important thing to realize is how little we know about what it is that they’re doing. But the little that we do know is extraordinarily alarming in exactly the way that Frank Church described.
I just want to make a couple other points about the surveillance state that don’t get enough attention but that really are necessary for completing the picture about what it really is and what it does. We talk a lot about things like the NSA and federal government agencies like the FBI, but it actually expands well beyond that. We really live in a culture of surveillance. If you even go into any normal American city or even, increasingly, small and mid-sized towns, there are all kinds of instruments of surveillance everywhere that you probably don’t even notice. If you wake up in the morning and drive to your local convenience store, you’ve undoubtedly been photographed by all sorts of surveillance cameras on the street. If you go to the ATM to take out money to buy things, that will be then recorded. If you go into a convenience store to buy the things you want to buy, you have your photograph taken and it will be recorded.
An article in Popular Mechanics in 2004 reported on a study of American surveillance, and this is what it said:
There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States, shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. Americans are being watched, all of us, almost everywhere.
There’s a study in 2006 that estimated that that number would quadruple to 100 million surveillance cameras in the U.S. within 5 years, largely because of the bonanza of post-9/11 surveillance money.
And it’s not just the government that is engaged in surveillance but, just as menacingly, private corporations engage in a huge amount of surveillance on us. They give us cell phones that track every moment where we are physically and then provide that to law enforcement agencies without so much as a search warrant.
Obviously, credit-card and banking transactions are recorded and tell anyone who wants to know everything that we do. When we talk about the scandal of the Bush eavesdropping program, that was not really a government eavesdropping program so much as it was a private-industry eavesdropping program. It was done with the direct and full cooperation of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and the other telecom giants. In fact, when you talk about the American surveillance state, what you’re really talking about is no longer public government agencies. What you’re talking about is a full-scale merger between the federal government and industry. That is what the surveillance state is. They are equally important parts of what the surveillance state does.
I think the most interesting and probably revealing example that I can give you about where we are in terms of surveillance in the U.S. was a really ironic and unintentionally amusing series of events that took place in mid-2011. What happened in mid-2011 was that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which, as we know, are very, very oppressive and hate freedom, said that what they were going to do was to ban the use of BlackBerrys and similar devices on their soil. The reason was that the corporation that produces BlackBerrys was either unable or unwilling to guarantee that Saudi and UAE intelligence agencies would be able to intercept all communications. The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were horrified by the prospect that people might be able to communicate on their soil without their being able to intercept and surveil that communication, and in response they banned BlackBerrys.
This created huge amounts of condemnation in the Western world. Every American newspaper editorialized about how this showed how much these governments were the enemies of freedom. The Obama administration issued a stinging denunciation of both governments, saying that they were engaged in the kinds of oppression that we couldn’t tolerate. And yet 6 weeks later The New York Times reported that the Obama administration was preparing legislation to mandate that
all services that enable communications, including encrypted email transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook, and software that allows direct peer-to-peer messaging like Skype, be designed to ensure government surveillance.
It was exactly the same principle that everybody condemned the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for—the principle being that there can be no human interaction, especially no human communication, not just from foreign nationals and between foreign nationals but by American citizens, on American soil, that is beyond the reach of the U.S. Government.
This was the mindset that in 2002 led the Bush administration to dredge up John Poindexter from wherever it was that he was—he was actually working for defense contractors—to start the program that they called the Total Information Awareness program. The logo, which I actually looked at in the last couple of weeks, which you should go and look at just because you won’t believe how creepy it is, has a pyramid with this huge eye hovering over it, this eye that was going to be theawaall- seeing eye. [You can see it here.]
The only problem with the Total Information Awareness program was that they put a name on it that was too honest about what it was, and it freaked everybody out. So they had to pretend that they weren’t going to go forward with it. But, of course, what they did was they’ve incrementally and in very clear ways recreated the Total Information Awareness program under a whole variety of different legislative initiatives.
This idea that every single form of technological communication by law must be constructed to permit government backdoor interception and surveillance is an expression of what this surveillance state mindset is—that there can be no such thing as any form of privacy from the U.S. Government. That is the mindset that has led the surveillance state to be the sprawling, vast, ubiquitous, and always expanding instrument that state and corporate power users employ in order to safeguard their power.
The one other point that’s worth making about how the surveillance state works and how powers exercise through it—and this, I think, is probably the most pernicious part—is what I refer to as the government’s one-way mirror. At exactly the same time—this is really so remarkable to me—that the government has been massively expanding its ability to know everything that we’re doing, it has simultaneously erected a wall of secrecy around it that prevents us from knowing anything that they’re doing.
There was this amazing controversy when the documents from WikiLeaks were disclosed, and the American media had to rush to assure everybody simultaneously (1) that this was both a completely meaningless act and (2) that it was a completely horrible act. So the two claims that were made were, this horrible, traitorous organization of WikiLeaks has severely damaged American national security, but at the same time we want you to know, there’s nothing new in anything that they’ve disclosed, there’s nothing worth knowing. Those were literally the two claims that were made, and nobody ever bothered to reconcile those.
But what was true is that of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pages that WikiLeaks disclosed—it’s actually in excess of a million now—the vast bulk of it contained very banal content. It was stuff that really wasn’t particularly interesting, that didn’t reveal very much about anything that was worth knowing. And what was actually so scandalous about that was that very fact, because every single page that WikiLeaks disclosed was stamped “Classified,” which made it a crime to disclose any of it, even though so much of it was banal and revealed nothing worth knowing. What that reflected was that the U.S. Government reflexively labels everything that it does of any conceivable significance as classified and secret.
The government keeps everything that it does from us at the very same time that it knows more and more about what we’re doing. And if you think about what a radical reversal of how things are supposed to work, it’s really startling. The idea is supposed to be—and this is just basic political science, basic design of the founding of the country—that there’s supposed to be transparency for government. We’re supposed to know virtually everything that they do. Individuals, on the other hand, are supposed to live in a sphere of privacy: Nobody is supposed to know what we’re doing unless there’s a demonstrated good reason to invade that wall of privacy. We’ve completely reversed that so that the government now operates with complete secrecy and we have none.
The reason this is so disturbing is, you just look at the famous aphorism typically attributed to Francis Bacon that
knowledge is power.
If I’m able to know everything about you—what you do, what you think, what you fear, where you go, what your aspirations are, the bad things you do, the bad things you think about—and you know nothing about me, I have immense leverage over you in all kinds of ways. I can think about how to control you, I can blackmail you, I can figure out what your weaknesses are. I can manipulate you in all sorts of ways. That is the state of affairs that this surveillance state, combined with the wall of secrecy, has brought about.
I just want to talk a little bit about the mechanisms by which this has been done and the reasons why this loss of privacy matters so much in relationship to the government, and the corporate component of the surveillance state.
If you look at the way in which the “war on terror” functioned in the first, say, 5 to 7 years after it was declared and the civil liberties abuses that it ushered in, predictably and inevitably, you will find that almost without exception—there are a few exceptions but almost without exception they were directed toward foreign nationals, not American citizens but foreign nationals, who were on foreign soil, not on U.S. soil. The reason for that is that governments, when they want to give themselves abusive and radical powers, typically first target people whom they think their citizens won’t care very much about because they’ll think they’re not affected by it. That’s pretty much what happened. We detained without charges and without trials a bunch of Muslims who remain nameless, whom we picked up in places that nobody really knew about or cared much about. We sent drones to assassinate them. All of these powers were directed at foreign others.
But what has happened over last 3 to 4 years is a radical change in the war on terror. The war on terror has now been imported into U.S. policy. It is now directed at American citizens on American soil. So rather than simply sending drones to assassinate foreign nationals, we are now sending drones to target and kill American citizens without charges or trial. Rather than indefinitely detaining foreign nationals at Guantánamo, Congress last year enacted and President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, that permits the detention without trial indefinitely of American citizens on U.S. soil. Rather than sending drones only over Yemen and Somalia and Pakistan, drones are now being approved at an alarming rate, not just surveillance drones but increasingly possibly weaponized drones that will fly over American soil watching everything that we do, in ways that, say, police helicopters could never possibly accomplish.
Even when President Obama promised to close Guantánamo—and lots of his defenders will say, not inaccurately, that he was prevented from doing so because Congress blocked the closure—the plan that he had was not to close Guantánamo and eliminate the system of indefinite detention that made it so controversial. The plan was to take that system of indefinite detention, close Guantánamo, because it had become an upsetting symbol, and import it, move it onto American soil in Thomson, Illinois. That was the plan that the Obama administration had for indefinite detention.
So what you see is the gradual importation of all of the abuses of the war on terror so that now they are entrenched and not just aimed at foreign nationals but U.S. citizens on U.S. soil as well. That’s the mechanism by which this is being done. If you listen to U.S. intelligence and defense officials talk about terrorism, what they emphasize now is not al-Qaeda in Pakistan, which they will largely acknowledge has been eliminated, or even al-Qaeda in Yemen, which isn’t really much of a threat to anybody. What they will talk about is the threat of home-grown terrorism. This is now the grave menace that American terrorism officials will warn needs to be restrained. And the solution to that has been the gradual transference, importation, of all of these abuses that we let take root because they weren’t happening to us but were happening to people over there, into domestic powers.
The reason that that’s being done is not very difficult to see. American policymakers know that the financial unraveling that took place in 2008, that’s even more visible in European states like Spain and Portugal and Greece, has never really been rectified, and it can’t be rectified because these are structural problems. The way in which oligarchs in the U.S. monopolize wealth and then use that wealth to control our political processes ensures that this is not going to change, it’s only going to worsen. Mass unemployment, mass foreclosure, all of these income-inequality pathologies are here to stay. The future that American policy makers see is visible if you look at what happened in London for a brief period of time, what happens all the time in Athens, what is happening with increasing frequency in Spain. Huge amounts of social unrest. You see lots of that happening. I think that’s what the Occupy movement in many ways is. And the elite in the U.S., both corporate and government, are petrified about that type of unrest.
What people in power always do when they fear unrest is they start consolidating power in order to constrain it, in order to suppress it. This is what this surveillance state is designed to do. It’s justified in the name of terrorism, of course. That’s the packaging in which it’s wrapped. But it’s been used extremely and in all sorts of ways since 9/11 for domestic application. That’s happening even more. It’s happening in terms of the Occupy movement and the infiltration that federal officials were able to accomplish using PATRIOT Act authorities. It’s happened with pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S. and all other dissident groups that have themselves been targeted with surveillance and law enforcement, using what was originally these war-on-terror powers.
I want talk about why I think this matters, because the attitude that you will typically encounter—and it’s not a very easy mindset to address or to refute, and it’s one that government has sold continuously and peddled—is, privacy in the abstract, I can understand why it’s something to value, but ultimately, if I’m not really doing anything wrong, if I’m not one of the terrorists, if I’m not plotting to bomb a bridge, I don’t really have much reason to care if people are invading my sphere of privacy and watching and learning what it is that I’m doing. So I think it’s worth talking about the reasons why that is such an ill- advised way to think, why it absolutely matters that privacy is being invaded in these systematic ways.
One obvious answer is that any kind of social movement needs to be able to organize in private, away from the targets of the organization. So if you look at the revolutionary movements in the Arab world, one of the greatest challenges that they had was that the governments sought all sorts of ways to prevent them from communicating with one another, either at all or in privacy. The fact that the Internet was not nearly as pervasive in those countries actually turned out to be a blessing, because it enabled them to organize in more organic ways. But if the government is able to learn what we speak about and know who we’re talking to and know what it is that we’re planning, it makes any kind of activism extremely difficult, because secrecy and privacy are prerequisites to effective activism.
But I think the more difficult value of privacy, the one that’s a lot harder to think about, is also the one that’s much more important than just the one I described. And that is that it is in the private realm exclusively where things like dissent and creativity and challenges to orthodoxy reside. Only when you know that you can explore without external judgment or you can experiment without eyes being cast upon you is the opportunity for creating new paths possible.
There are all kinds of fascinating studies that prove this to be the case. There are psychological studies where people have sat down at their dinner table with family members or friends and they are talking for a long time in a very informal way, and then suddenly one of them pulls out a tape recorder and puts it on the table and says,
I’m going to tape-record our conversation, just for my own interest. I promise I’m not going to tell anybody, I’m not going to show it to anybody, no one is ever going to hear it. I’m just going to tape-record it because I want to go over all the wisdom that you’ve given me.
It’s an experiment psychologically to assess what the impact of that is. Invariably what happens is the people who are now being recorded radically change their behavior. They speak in stilted sentences, they try and talk about much more high-minded topics, they’re much stiffer in their expression of things, because they now feel like they’re being monitored.
There was a pilot program in Los Angeles 6 or 7 years ago that was in response to a couple of exaggerated news stories about rambunctious elementary-age schoolchildren on buses who had apparently been bullying and abusing other students. And the solution that they came up with was that they were going to install surveillance cameras in every single public school bus in Los Angeles County, which is the second or third largest county in the U.S. The response, when it was ultimately disclosed was, Well, this is going to be extraordinarily expensive. How can you have tens of thousands of working surveillance cameras with people monitoring them or recording them every single day for every school bus in Los Angeles County?
The answer that they gave was, Oh, no, we’re not going to have working cameras in these buses. There may be a few buses that have working cameras, just so nobody knows which buses have those. We’re going to have faux cameras, because we know that if we put cameras up, even though they’re not working, that will radically change the behavior of students. In other words, we are training our young citizens to live in a culture where they expect that they are always being watched. And we want them to be chilled and we want them to be deterred. We want them not to ever challenge orthodoxy or to explore limits or to engage in creativity of any kind. This type of surveillance by design breeds conformism. That’s its purpose. And that’s what makes this surveillance so pernicious.
One of the things about the surveillance state, one of the things that happens is that the way in which it affects how people think and behave is typically insidious. It’s something that’s very potent, and yet it’s very easy to avoid understanding or realizing, even as it affects you. Sometimes people do know about the effects of the surveillance state and the climate of fear it creates, and it affects them. I went on a book tour last October and early November, and I went to 15 different cities. In each of the cities I really didn’t care honestly about the book events; I was much more interested in going to the Occupy encampments in each city and spending time there. It was much more enlightening and energizing. Literally almost the entirety of my book tour was taken up by talking about the Occupy movement. It was what everyone was thinking about, I had written about it many times, and I thought it was by far the most significant political development in many years. And I still think that.
And everywhere I would go that I would talk about the Occupy movement, literally all the time I would get people who would say things like—and I would be on radio shows and people would call in and say this— “Look, I’m really supportive of the Occupy movement. I want to go down there and be a participant in it. But I’m a woman who has a small baby,” or “I’m a man who has a bad leg.” And “given all the police abuse that’s taking place there, and all the infiltration, I’m just afraid of going and participating in these movements.” That was definitely part of the effect that this infiltration and the police abuse had. It created this climate of fear and a way that people knew.
I spent a lot of time with American Muslims and in American Muslim communities because of what I do and the work that I do and where I go and speak. One of the things that emboldens me and keeps me very energized and engaged about these issues is, if you go and speak to communities of American Muslims, what you will find is an incredibly pervasive climate of fear. The reason is that they know that they are always being watched. They know that they have FBI informants who are attempting to infiltrate their communities. They know that they have people next to them, their neighbors, their fellow mosque goers, who have been manipulated by the FBI to be informants. They know that they are being eavesdropped on when they speak on the telephone, they know that they are having their emails read, that they are eavesdropped on when they speak or communicate to anybody. What they will say all the time is that it has created this extreme suspicion within their own communities, within their own mosques, to the point that they’re even afraid to talk to any new people about anything significant, because they fear, quite rightly, that this is all being done as part of a government effort to watch them. And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true in a particular case or it isn’t true. This climate of fear creates limits around the behavior in which they’re willing to engage in very damaging ways.
But I think what this surveillance state really does, more than making people consciously aware of the limits—in those two examples that I just described, people not wanting to go to Occupy movements and people in Muslim communities being very guarded—is it makes people believe that they’re free even though they’ve been subtly convinced that there are things that they shouldn’t do that they might want to do.
I always use dog examples. I have 11 dogs, so it’s one of the things that I know best. I know you probably think I’m crazy, and maybe I am, but they’re all rescue dogs. It’s just one of the things that we do. I know dog behavior really well, so I draw lessons a lot from dogs. One of the things that’s really amazing about dog behavior is, if you don’t want dogs to go into a certain place because it’s dangerous for them, one of the things that you can do is put a fence around the area where you want to confine them. But eventually you can remove the fence and you don’t need the fence anymore, because they will have been trained that the entirety of their world is within the boundaries that you first set for them. So even once you remove the fence, they won’t venture beyond it. They’ve been trained that that’s the only world that they want or are interested in or know.
There are studies in what was formerly East Germany, which was probably one of the most notorious surveillance states of the last 50 years, where even once their boundaries were removed, once the Stasi no longer existed, once the wall fell, the psychological effects on the East German people endure until today, because the way in which they’ve been trained for decades to understand that there are limits to their lives, even once you remove the limits, they’ve been trained that those are not limits they want to transgress.
That’s one of the things that constantly surveilling people and constantly communicating to them that they’re powerless before this omnipotent government/corporate institution does to people, it convinces them that the tiny little box in which they live is really the only box in which they want to live, so they no longer even realize they’re being imprisoned. Rosa Luxemburg put that best. She said,
He who does not move does not notice his chains.
You can acculturate people to believe that tyranny is freedom, that their limits are actually emancipation. That is what this surveillance state most insidiously does: By training people to accept their own conformity, believing that they are actually free, they no longer even realize the ways in which they’re being limited.
There are just a few quick points that I want to make about that. One is that you can do things that remove yourself from the surveillance matrix, not completely but to the best extent you can. There are people who only engage in transactions using cash. As inconvenient as that is, it at least removes that level of surveillance. There are ways to communicate on the Internet using very effective forms of anonymity, which I will talk about in a minute. There are ways of educating yourself about how to engage in interaction and activism beyond the prying eye of the U.S. Government, to stay, in essence, a step ahead.
There are important ways to educate yourself about the rights you have when directly interacting with government agents. So much of what the government learns is because people let them learn that without having any legal obligation to do so. Much of government searches or government questioning is done under the manipulative pretext of consent, where people thought they had to consent or didn’t know they had the right not to, and give up information they didn’t need to give up. And you can educate yourself about what your rights are by going to the Center for Constitutional Rights Web site or the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms or the ACLU. Lots of places online will tell you how to do that.
A very important means of subverting this one-way mirror that I’ve described is forcible radical transparency. It’s one of the reasons that I support so enthusiastically and unqualifiedly groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks. I want holes to be blown in the wall of secrecy, because the way in which this ends up operating effectively is only because they’re able to conceal what they do. That’s why they consider these unauthorized means of transparency so threatening.
A final point I want to make about things that can be done is that there are groups that are pursuing very interesting and effective forms of anonymity on the Internet. There’s things like the Tor Project and other groups which enable people to use the Internet without any detection from government authorities, that has the effect of preventing regimes that actually bar their citizens from using the Internet from doing so, since you can no longer trace the origins of the Internet user. But it also protects people who live in countries like ours, in which the government is constantly trying to monitor what we do, by sending our communications through multiple proxies around the world in a way that can’t be invaded.
There’s really a war taking place, an arms race, where the government and these groups are attempting to stay one technological step ahead of the other in terms of technological ability to shield Internet communications from the government and the government’s ability to invade them. Participating in this war in ways that are supportive of the good side are really critical, as is availing yourself of the technology that exists to make what you do as private as possible.
I really don’t think there are many more important fronts of battle, if there are any, than combating the surveillance state. That’s why I’m so interested in the topic and why I’m so happy to be able to speak with you about it. Thanks very much.
Let me just address a few of those questions. The comment about Bradley Manning is one that really resonates for me, because one of the things that I’ve been able to do in this work is get to know Daniel Ellsberg pretty well, who, before Bradley Manning, was probably one of my greatest political heroes. He knowingly risked his liberty and even potentially his life just out of the conscience of needing to do something that he could to stop the Vietnam War.
One of the amazing things about Daniel Ellsberg is that if you stand up, even in mainstream Democratic liberal venues, and you mention the name Daniel Ellsberg, people will stand up and cheer, and they treat him like he’s a hero. It’s just like part of the dogma of being an American progressive or whatever that you’re supposed to cheer for Daniel Ellsberg. If you mention the name Bradley Manning in those same venues, there will be dead silence. And if you call for his prosecution and even his execution, that’s the far more likely way that you will get cheers in those kinds of places.
The thing that is so disturbing about that is that Manning is every bit the hero that Daniel Ellsberg was, if he did what he’s accused of. If you read the chat logs that are purportedly his, what he says about why he did what he is accused of doing is that he was horrified by the extent of the evil that his own government was doing, something that he never knew when he went to Iraq, and it wasn’t just in Iraq but the way in which his country and its allies operate in the world, and that he felt it was urgent that this information be liberated because he thought that that would lead to reforms. He even talked about the way in which he was willing to sacrifice his life and go to prison for a long time in order to achieve that end. That to me is the classic definition of hero.
And yet not just conservatives but even most mainstream progressives view him as a villain. Part of that is because it’s the Obama administration rather than the Republican administration prosecuting him. But I think the much bigger part of it is that we’ve really changed how we think, not just about surveillance, as I talked about earlier, but even authority, and the idea that you can challenge authority by nicely going into the voting booth and picking one of the two little holes that they’ve given you, but that anything more disruptive than that is inherently illegitimate. It’s not just that surveillance is more accepted, but so, too, is the idea that those who challenge authority in a meaningful way should be punished.
Just the last point I want to make is the two excellent comments that we just heard about the virtue and power of mass movements to defeat this. I certainly didn’t mean to stand up—and I actually said this last year—you can go into a room like this and you can talk about all the sort of forces that you face and you can just produce this kind of horrible gloominess, this defeatism. Oh, my God, I just listened to this guy for an hour and a half. He talked about all these horrible things. I think I want to go jump off a bridge or take a bunch of Xanax and play video games for the rest of my life or whatever. I definitely don’t want to suggest to anybody that this surveillance state is something that anyone should fear in the sense of driving you into inaction. But the reason why I didn’t emphasize that is that I assume that anybody, by virtue of your attendance here, is somebody who has already decided that you don’t the fear that. But, yes, absolutely overwhelming the surveillance state by just having too many people engage in too much prohibited conduct is definitely their vulnerability.
And the reason why they want to collect more and more is not because they want to read it all or they can read it all. They can’t. And the more they collect, in some senses, as this gentleman alluded to, the harder it is for them to find what they’re looking for. But the reason they want to cover and blanket everything with surveillance is because of what I talked about earlier. It’s that knowledge that the Los Angeles County had that if you make people think they’re being watched, that in and of itself will change behavior, even if you’re not really able to monitor what they do.
But I’m not here to discourage anybody from engaging in disruptions and mass movements. Quite the opposite. I just think it’s important to be aware of what these challenges are, not to hide under your bed in fear of them but to figure out how to defeat them.
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