Mass surveillance is damaging enough; but the capabilities we have handed to the surveillance agencies create a different kind of opportunity for the empire-building surveillance bureaucrat.
The constant claim is that Americans are not “wittingly” “targeted” under the dragnet; it’s just that their communications are vacuumed up “incidentally” because they are one, two, or three “hops” from a given “target”, a category that includes a shifting set of millions of people at a time. But even that face-saving statement is a lie. American citizens are “targets” themselves, and there’s an obvious category of people it would make strategic sense for the surveillance agencies to target: Namely, the set of people with authority over the budgets and remits of the surveillance agencies themselves.
NSA whistleblower Russell Tice is much less well known than Edward Snowden, but his testimony is just as explosive. Here’s an interview he gave in 2013, with a partial transcript:
Okay. They [the NSA] went after members of Congress, both Senate and the House, especially on the intelligence committees and on the armed services committees and judicial. But they went after other ones, too. They went after heaps of lawyers and law firms. They went after judges. One of the judges [Samuel Alito] is now sitting on the Supreme Court that I had his wiretap information in my hand. Two are former FISA court judges. They went after State Department officials. They went after people in the White House–their own people. They went after antiwar groups. They went after U.S. companies that that do business around the world. They went after U.S. banking firms and financial firms that do international business. They went after NGOs like the Red Cross that that go overseas and do humanitarian work. They went after a few antiwar civil rights groups. So, you know, don’t tell me that there’s no abuse, because I’ve had this stuff in my hand and looked at it.
Tice was a much more senior figure than Snowden, but unlike Snowden did not bring with him a cache of government documents proving his allegations of political intelligence collection. His lack of documentary proof hurt him. The NSA retroactively declared him mentally unstable. The O’Reilly Factor gleefully called it “disgraceful” that he would make such accusations without proof. Now that many more stories have come out on surveillance, however, it’s easier to confirm Tice’s story.
It’s confirmed, for example, that the NSA has no reservations about targeting American attorneys or communications that have attorney-client privilege. It’s confirmed that the CIA is so willing to target major US companies and subvert the security of their products and communications that it holds conferences on how to do it. It’s confirmed that the fusion centers continue to target anti-war groups. And we already know, of course, that the surveillance agencies used to do exactly this kind of targeting, and that the NSA merrily and without compunction does it to the political leadership of Germany, Turkey, and 120 other countries. Why not to us?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Everything the US government inflicts on foreigners abroad, Americans will eventually do to each other at home. It’s deeply in the NSA’s interest to do this, and if they were doing it, we would, for example, expect to see serious efforts to reform the surveillance agencies enjoying majority support in Congress being quietly weakened or derailed at the last minute by key individuals.
So on what basis should we disbelieve Tice’s testimony regarding the targeting of key US decision-makers? Even if there weren’t evidence this was actually happening, we’d have to ask ourselves what it is, in practice, that would stop it?
The NSA likes to claim that employees caught doing this would be disciplined, and that their training discourages it. Possibly. They certainly wouldn’t be fired, exposed publicly, or prosecuted. If the NSA’s internal sense of professional conduct is the only real brake to this, then we are indeed in trouble. Because an NSA that holds every secret of every decision-maker and major political candidate in the country, is an NSA with a stranglehold on our democracy.
Yes. Exactly like that.
I’ve met Russell Tice. I believe him. Do you?