PRISM: The US Government is mad at Bradley Manning for doing to it what it is Doing to All of us

Bradley Manning, who spilled the beans on the US blowing away of unarmed Iraqi journalists and overlooking war crimes by the US military and allied Iraqi troops, released thousands of low-level cable messages. He has been charged by the US government with thereby being a traitor, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It is not clear which enemy benefited from the catty remarks in some embassy cables, or how exactly their revelation harmed national security. What did happen was that millions of people in the US and around the world discovered some of the more egregious sins of commission and omission of the US government, especially with regard to Iraq. The treason charge against Manning is outrageous, and has been pursued because otherwise what he did is not obviously very serious and even a military judge might not return a severe sentence. While the scatter shot character of his revelations may be troubling, some of what he revealed was government crimes, for which Americans should thank him.

It turns out that Manning, in making government correspondence available for us to read, was just turning the tables on the US government, which The Guardian and the Washington Post today reveal has a back door called PRISM into all our internet communications (emails, over-the-internet phone calls, browser search history, etc.) with 9 major companies, including Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! (but not, interestingly, Twitter). The program is detailed in a Powerpoint slide presentation for initiating new NSA employees into its workings.

The sordid police states that have a paltry few tens of thousands of domestic spies monitoring the activities of ordinary citizens turn out to be minor players in this game compared to the home of the brave and the land of the free. Eat your hearts out, North Korean secret police and Baathist mukhabarat in Syria!

The NSA is supposed to use the back door only for communications going abroad or originating abroad, but it only has to be 51% certain that there is a foreign component. That is a low bar. But anyway nowadays how many of us have no email or social media communication with people living overseas? In practice, domestic communications will inevitably be swept up in this program. And, someone should explain to me why Americans’ correspondence going abroad is suddenly without Fourth Amendment protections? The FBI appears to be deeply involved in the operation, and how likely is it that, say, Occupy Wall Street activists or environmentalists haven’t been subject to surveillance? Apparently, unlike with the case of the Verizon phone call records, the NSA has access to the content of emails, not just records of to whom they were sent. In any case, meta data like who you are talking to is in most cases *more* important than content, as Jane Mayer explains.

Apparently the back door was installed under the provisions of the misnamed USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 that allow for requisition of “business records,” and the FBI and National Security Agency interpreted that language to allow installation of the equipment allowing direct access to the companies’ servers. The large internet companies’ spokespeople are puzzled by the news and denying it, but there is every reason to think that the CEOs and other authorities at these companies were strictly enjoined against revealing what had been done, and so the rest of the company and the world hadn’t known about it. One of the ways the anti-PATRIOTic Act subverted American norms of public life is that it allows the FBI to not only request your records without a warrant but to forbid the provider of the records from ever revealing that the request was made. In other words, it turned librarians and internet company officials into liars and stool pigeons and mafiosi, under a goonish seal of silence.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has known about PRISM for some time and been appalled, but could not speak openly about it because it is classified, and has pleas to fellow senators to do something about it were shamefully deep-sixed by his colleagues. Me, I have dark suspicions that PRISM and telephone record surveillance has allowed the FBI, NSA and other agencies to accumulate damaging information on our representatives’ private lives so as to be able to blackmail them into not rocking the boat. At least, these programs make such a way of proceeding entirely possible at any time.

It isn’t just the government. PRISM is only using the resources of private companies, and we cannot depend on them always being upright. We know that billionaire Rupert Murdoch has deployed his “news” organizations to hack into people’s voice messages and has attempted to use his known surveillance capacity to intimidate high-level politicians into accepting his policy diktats.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has made a timeline of NSA domestic spying and the EFF’s own so far fruitless attempts to get the courts to enforce the Constitution.

One reason Eric Holder should be fired is that his likely response to the revelation of PRISM will be to pull out all the stops to find and punish the NSA employee that turned the Powerpoint slides over to the Guardian and WaPo. Stepping back from this massive incursion against the Constitution? On past evidence, that won’t be on his agenda.

In any case, the US Government has been gleefully getting access to your private correspondence and that gave the Government Class an inherent superiority over ordinary Americans. Manning announced that turnabout is fair play, and we should be able to see their correspondence, too, especially given the war crimes in Iraq. That’s why they’re trying to execute him.

21 Responses

  1. just don’t interfere with the broacast of “Dancing with the Stars,” and the ordinary citizen will be OK with this.

    What did Diane Feinstein say ? They are doing it for our own good ?
    Good enough for me.
    How ’bout them Spurs ?

  2. Why is it likely that some NSA employee turned a PowerPoint slide over to the Guardian and the Washington Post? Remember that the Chinese Army has a massive electronic spying operation. Presumably they are reading the same documents as the NSA people.

    Of course the Chinese are using these backdoor entry points to spy on all of us too. Since the Chinese can do it so can the Russian FSB. After that it is the Russian mafia, the US mafia, black hat hackers, teenage boys, the Republican Party (of course the Democrats will not be left behind), and American marketing firms. However, the public is strictly excluded!

    Once these backdoor entry points are provided, it becomes hard to control who enters.

  3. National Security is a joke because first International corporate power is in charge along with conjoined bank system worldwide in a race to the bottom and to prop up the 1% top..
    Second because Earth is past point of emission reductions to slow rate of temperature increase and feedback of methane release. The Money grubbers have been at it for a while now.
    The economic system presently on Earth externalizes harms to the biologic capacity of Earth’s systems that keep temp down.
    The whole thing is set up for profit and the lie is tumbling down, cast down by the very going after of truth tellers now. It is my estimation some at head of intelligence have joined.
    Joined in an effort to expose the corruption of world enterprise.. To do what they can to keep peace and change the world for the better and perhaps undo a race to extinction.. For heavens sake I hope so at least..

    • Agreed. CLIMATE CHANGE is far more dangerous to the whole human race (and thus to international capitalism in the long run, that is, in the time-frame they do not appear to care about) than TERRORISM, WAR, FAILED ECONOMIES, etc.

      BIG MONEY (corporate and private) is “selling the farm” here due to its absolute control of governments and complete lack of concern for human welfare.

  4. Defenders of ever more intrusive government surveillance who just a day or two ago were saying “Nah it was limited, wasn’t that bad, don’t be silly’ must rely on people not remembering the next time they say “Nah it was limited, wasn’t that bad, don’t be silly”. And in America today they usually get their wish.

    The rapid dynamic and ever extending reach of secret government intrusion via technology into everyday lives is nothing less than a tsunami flowing around every person 24/7/366 faster than humans can mentally run. We can be certain that we do not know all there is to know about how Americans are being surveilled. There is no planned cessation of surveillance overreach, no sunset laws or even intention, no public oversight, no motivation whatever for secret organizations in cooperation with corporations having profit as their fundamental morality to do anything except seek more information, power, money, and secrecy. Those who feel that current intrusions and those to come are somewhere in the distant future, safe, controllable, unbiased, legal, constitutional, and American as apple pie suffer from an exceptionalist delusion that THEY are on the right side and THEY will never be a target, though they already are. No one becomes safer with secret intrusions. There is no less safe situation than not knowing but being suspicious of one’s neighbor.

    With the surveillence systms already in place, not to mention next year’s improvements and extensions, all that America needs to become the greatest fascist nation in the human history is a ruthless charismatic–a more handsome Hitler–and some international contention (oil, weapons, water, resources, technology, drugs, food, monopoly) to make fire with.

    Compared to the ancient America of 1960 (not to mention 1860) being in no way constrained by fact is today an asset to presidential seekers. One should indeed dwell on the many ways the current and future US surveillance web would be asked to serve the wisdom, experience, knowledge, equanimity, generosity of spirit, and humbleness toward all human-kind of charismatics Bachman and Palin, or the generation of hopeful charismatics now jockeying to become B&P’s more successful successors.

  5. The Verizon and Prism government spying have been widely reported over the last couple of days. But I’ve hardly seen anything on a report of even more government intrusion which appeared in the Wall Street Journal this morning (June 7) that the federal government also has access to all Americans’ credit card information, every purchase every one of us makes.

    • If this were not true, it would still only be one National Security Letter away.

      But before Visa/MC, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a bot that collected your reading/shopping habits off Amazon? It’d only be looking for patterns, of course, or maybe that you happen to have shown interest in some suspect book, God Forbid in Arabic. I think this would be more probable… fact, likely.

      As the for the technology, the constraints are more in server space, access letters (a trivial nuisance), and the constantly refined algorithms to burb-up general “people of Interest,” when there isn’t some malcontent like you, me, or Prof Cole, that some power drunk politico or bureaucrat wouldn’t rather take a special look at.

      The next step, again hardly constrained, is mining/monitoring your line-item purchases. That would be every coded item you see on the receipt they just handed you down at the grocery store. Let’s see now…….apparently Steve is really into a high-fiber diet, but it isn’t doing him much good (judging from his prescriptions), so we (the algorithm) won’t flag him JUST YET, but will schedule a return check to see how he’s doing in a couple weeks. All automated, and nothing for YOU to worry about….and no need for a court order in that case by the current thinking.

      Beautiful thing about THIS scenario is that it is NOT even a hop, skip, and jump away: It may already be in-place. The great thing is that businesses will at some point maintain their own database storage of buyer information like this, so the Feds can mine that stuff without investing in the server space: just the bots which stand to be continuously refined. Its a reasonable bet Amazon has already been compromised in this way: its just too juicy a target for these guys to ignore.

      It will all become ever-more pervasive and efficient, and you really will have to shut yourself down as an involved person to avoid it…..thereby flagging yourself as someone who is resisting and deserving to have a special eye kept on them.

      The choice we will all be forced into making is being and nothingness.

  6. The American government recently wanted the extradition of a young man over here in England for hacking into a government web site. I don’t remember which one. Anyhow, much to the annoyance of the Americans the British courts refused the application for extradition on medical grounds of the accused young man. The point is, can the people of Britain now demand the extradition of say, Obama or the head of the pentagon or whatever as clearly the the email accounts and much more will have been accessed by the American state ?

  7. This is about the 1% keeping tabs on the “troublemakers” in the 99%: given how broadly the 1% likes to stretch their definitions, all 99% of us may be a part of their concept of “troublemakers.”

    Eventually these abuses will come home to roost with the wealthy. They will use them to purge one another; certainly there are enough haters among them that wealthy Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Gays, Atheists and Powerful Women should have concerns.

    • In practical terms I think you’re getting close to it: The People, or any one person, can potentially become an Enemy of the State, so at some level EVERYONE must be watched.

      Therefore, the system needs to be able to flesh-out a dossier on any individual as their tendencies coalesce, so they can be entrapped before setting off a bomb, or just become effective in some venue like this one. These trouble-makers can then be tracked, co-opted if possible, or otherwise intimidated at places like customs to keep them in their place. The thing is, all this stuff can NOW be automated and administered with a far lower profile.

      It becomes a highly robust and flexible form of surveillance, that can tract absolutely EVERYONE to the extent appropriate for their level of evolving “danger” to the System.

    • A bit of an odd list. No Muslims need be concerned?

      And somehow, no white Catholics, Protestants or heterosexuals either. So, Assange himself can rest easy.


  8. Well said Juan. I think this is why they passed the privacy act, to put the brakes on the government’s collection of data about people.

    Also I think their argument is basically semantic. They collect everything like a vacuum cleaner but only access the data in certain ways, using whatever critera that make something ‘relevant’ to terrorism and whatever else. It reminds me of quantum mechanics where the particle doesn’t have a position until you measure it. The fact is, they are collecting as many of the communications as possible, and archiving them, maybe forever, and now we’re just talking about the rules for searching the database.

    I also agree that your privacy rights should include a right to communicate with people in other countries without fear of it going into your Department of Homeland Security file. That kind of thinking comes from the cold war when the communists were thought to be infiltrating social movements and building fifth columns. We should have government policies that promote international friendships on a personal level, which is good not only for US foreign relations in those places, but also world peace.

  9. We have a president that was supposedly a constitutional law professor.

    While Holder is the AG, ultimately the buck stops on Obama’s desk. It is Obama’s shameful responsibility for PRISM and Patriot Act renewal and expansion.

    The fish rots from the head.

  10. Why haven’t the people that machine gunned the reuters journalists, the people in the “keep shooting” video that was released by Bradley Manning

    been charged with murder?

  11. Why should members of Congressional oversight committees be confident that they are being fully informed by the DIA/CIA/NSA/etc in their classified briefings? How could they know whether or not these various agencies are not withholding information about programs and procedures?

    If I were in college now, I might consider the intelligence community for a career. What other industry has a revenue stream guaranteed by our politicians’ focus with the never-ending war on terror and no real oversight by or reporting to our esteemed elected representatives?

  12. I don´t recall when was the last time any government did not try its best to spy and control the population backing from the ancient Greek. It is just that the technology the better it is the thiner is the line between the level of secrecy of the government and the level of secrecy of the population. Back in the days when first telephone lines appeared the operator not only used to listen to the discussion but it used to intervene if someone used obscene language giving a warning to the parties or shutting down the connection. The better the technology of surveillance the more the population will know about the politicians.
    if the level of surveillance will be hard to accept then people will create super LANs and all kind of wireless Intranets where you are not required to give any confidential information to connect to super wireless networks using wireless broadband routers, and there will evolve peer to peer messaging services and will be a new level of connectivity making harder than ever for the gov to control it. And I did not even start to talk about the various encryption methods like those using pages of texts that are acknowledged by people in the real world and which are unbreakable unless you know what book or wall of text they use for the cypher.

    You cannot beat the Internet, it is designed to win, how ironic that the officials are going to accelerate the evolution of individual secrecy through their unstopping sniffing.

  13. Many thanks for this brave article. It is amazing that the countries that shout loudest about human rights, the rights of the citizens and free and open society are the worst offenders. President Obama justified this unbelievable level of surveillance by saying that PRISM only spied on non-American nationals. As a non-American national I take great objection to being spied on for no reason at all. We are moving towards a world – no, we are already living in a world – that Orwell could not even dream of.

    Taking this post with the other one on this page about Bradley Manning, it is strange that those who expose criminal activities are severely punished while the real criminals, including those who fired on unarmed Iraqi civilians and journalists, go unpunished. Condemning these excesses is not enough. It is time for the civil society to get together and try to find ways of countering these abuses. Otherwise, the Big Brother will become more powerful and more invasive, and we will become even more powerless than at the present to be able to do anything about it.

  14. I support B Manning’s actions, but the situation is hardly analagous to PRISM’s data collection. In one case we have theft-and-release; in the other, extortion-and-retention. The government uses its authority to pressure companies into compliance with demands for information that may at some point be used against its own citizenry. Manning released information detailing such misbehavior and other issues of murky legality (like firing on unarmed civilians for sport) in order to curb it through exposure. The cases are closer to being opposite than congruent, and this is a key point; how we deal in information is arguably more important than what that information actually is when it comes to forming a society of laws grown out of sound ethical reasoning.

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