by BJW Nashe
It’s bad enough knowing that we are all being secretly spied on by our own government. Now, to add insult to injury, we learn that the journalists who brought that dirty little secret out into the open are being targeted and harassed as if they were potential terrorists. This week’s news regarding journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, as well as Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, presents us with a disturbing snapshot of imperial power run amok.
The whole story is disgusting. I feel like getting on a plane to Fort Meade, Maryland, putting on a dress and a wig in support of Bradley Manning, and marching straight over to National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters to stand outside and shout gibberish at anyone who will listen.
Why all the outrage? Let’s be crystal clear: if you use a computer or a cellphone, you are currently under government surveillance, and you have been for several years now. The NSA has been collecting and observing every digital move you make — every message sent, every web search, every phone call. Everything you do online — all of your web searches, all of your email, and all of your social media interaction — is being captured and stored for surveillance purposes. Every phone call is being logged and potentially recorded. The location where each call is made, and the location of each call’s recipient, is being logged and tracked.
If none of this bothers you, if it makes you feel more “safe,” then read no further. Maybe ignorance is bliss, and denial offers some form of short-term consolation. Or perhaps, oddly enough, the feeling that one is being continually watched over by “machines of loving grace,” to borrow a phrase from poet Richard Brautigan, provides a comforting sense of “security.”
Far from being comforted, however, many of us are horrified and outraged. Not that we are all that surprised. We know that the NSA has been spying on Americans for decades — reading letters and telegrams, tapping phone lines, bugging offices and homes – we just didn’t know things had gone so far quite this fast. And given the rapid growth of current technology and the rise of “big data,” we shudder to think about the implications of the NSA’s unprecedented access to our information. It’s bothersome enough knowing that corporations such as Google and Facebook are data-mining us to help other large corporations try to sell us products we are rarely interested in. To further learn that the NSA has been secretly scooping up all of our online activity into giant databases, which they can troll through whenever and however they see fit, with little or no oversight — this is too much to take. Even if we figured that life in the digital age would involve some revision to our notions of “privacy,” we didn’t look forward to the concept being completely obliterated. We didn’t think the constitutional right to privacy no longer applied. Yet this seems to be the case, unfortunately. So much for democratic freedom.
The NSA’s widespread spying program, which seems to cast its net across the whole damn internet, is in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. It has to be, doesn’t it? Am I missing something? The government states that just because they are storing all of this information, they are not necessarily spying on all of it. They argue that they will only look at targeted bits of information, after obtaining a proper warrant. The problem with this argument is that it ignores a crucial fact, namely, that the initial storing of information is itself an unconstitutional seizure. Never mind what they do with the information after they have it stored in a database. Seizing it in the first place is unwarranted and illegal. Isn’t it?
Aside from the constitutional problems involved, the potential for future abuse of the NSA surveillance program is mind-boggling. What’s to stop the government from targeting anyone they consider to be an enemy, and then monkeying around with their data in order to haul them up on charges? If Senator X or Senator Y doesn’t vote a specific way, or if certain journalists don’t follow the official position on certain stories, what’s to stop someone at NSA from planting a bunch of child porn in their email records? This may be a gross hypothetical… But who’s to say what will be out of bounds in the new digital security state, especially if the whole operation is top secret? Unless some serious changes are made, we can’t help but fear the worst kind of dystopian scenario. Think of “V for Vendetta” on steroids.
Change will not be easy. The War on Terror which began after the 9/11 attacks has resulted in a vast expansion of imperial might. The Patriot Act has granted sweeping powers to the executive branch of government, and the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with those in power, rather than with the people. It’s easy enough at this point for opponents of President Obama to dump all of this in his lap. But the problem is bigger than any individual president, and it’s absurd to expect the president himself to be the one limiting executive power. If Obama scaled back U.S. intelligence operations, he’d be impeached the next time someone set off a bomb anywhere in the country. No, limiting executive power is the job of Congress. Unfortunately, our current Congress shows little inclination of taking on the NSA or repealing the Patriot Act. Meanwhile, the government’s crackdown on those who dare to reveal its secrets continues to be a blatant show of force — a pure intimidation tactic that has very little to do with “keeping us safe.”
During the past several days we have seen Bradley Manning, the former U.S. Army Private who leaked a vast trove of information to WikiLeaks, appearing in court as a broken man pleading for leniency, while the judge ponders a 60 year sentence. We know that Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who leaked information about the agency’s spying program to the press, now one of “America’s most wanted” men, has been forced to live in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum. And we have several news reports detailing how the journalists who were contacted by Snowden — Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras — have been subjected to harassment, basically treated as if they are no better than “terrorists.”
The most recent incident involves Glenn Greenwald’s civil union partner, David Miranda. On Sunday, at London’s Heathrow Airport, Miranda was detained by officials for nine hours of questioning. All of his electronic devices — his computer, flash drives, discs, cell phone, camera, etc. — were seized. The legal justification for his detention was Schedule 7 of Britain’s Terrorism Act, which is used for the capture and interrogation of suspected terrorists.
David Miranda was flying to the home he shares in Brazil with journalist Glenn Greenwald, following a meeting with Laura Poitras in Berlin. Poitras is an American filmmaker who has been working with Greenwald to produce reporting on the NSA’s secret domestic spying programs. Normally, British authorities need probable cause to detain someone for hours at Heathrow airport in London, deny them access to an attorney and confiscate their belongings. But not if they say you are suspected of being involved in terrorism. Schedule 7 allows British authorities to stop and search anyone without warrant or reasonable suspicion. Miranda was eventually released but officials are holding onto his electronic gear.
Greenwald made the following statement in response:
“This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic.”
The New York Times reports that Miranda was carrying flash drives containing unpublished documents from the Snowden trove of NSA evidence. Miranda was acting as a courier from Poitras in Berlin back to Greenwald in Brazil. For obvious reasons, the documents cannot simply be emailed. In any case, Miranda was clearly not targeted because he was a suspected terrorist — but rather because he was linked to investigative journalists working to expose the unconstitutional spying programs at NSA. Invoking the anti-terrorism law was merely a convenient way to detain him for questioning with no attorney present, and to seize his possessions without a court order. This amounts to a clear abuse of power, dressed up in legal travesty.
In the wake of Miranda’s detention, Amnesty International made the following charge:
“It is utterly improbable that David Miranda, a Brazilian national transiting through London, was detained at random, given the role his partner has played in revealing the truth about the unlawful nature of NSA surveillance… The only possible intent behind this detention was to harass him and his partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, for his role in analyzing the data released by Edward Snowden.”
The incident is far from an isolated occurrence. We can see an escalating war being waged on journalists and whistleblowers in the U.S. and Great Britain, a hell-bent-for-leather high tech cavalry charge designed to either arrest and imprison these folks, or intimidate and silence them, before they continue with any more damaging leaks or investigations. Officials in the U.S. have been quoted calling for whistleblowers such as Manning and Snowden to be executed as traitors, for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be assassinated, and for Greenwald to be arrested. Even fellow journalists such as NBC’s David Gregory have been heard on the air blithely chatting about whether Greenwald should be charged with a crime.
By sheer coincidence, on the morning of Miranda’s detention in England, the New York Times ran an altogether fascinating in-depth piece on Laura Poitras, which explored her career as a documentary filmmaker and her role in working with Greenwald on the Snowden NSA revelations. One of the most striking features of this story is the amount of harassment Poitras has been subjected to over the years. Since 2006, when she was placed on a heightened security status list, she has been detained at airports dozens of times. Her requests for an explanation as to why she was being targeted were met with silence. Her only conclusion was that her troubling security status was simply due to the fact that she is a journalist working to expose the truth in areas (such as Iraq) where the U.S. government would prefer to maintain secrecy.
Laura Poitras has not been intimidated or silenced by all of the harassment. On the contrary, she has become an expert at maintaining her own level of security in the face of the government’s attempts to monitor her information, steal her data, and put a stop to her work, which includes a documentary film on surveillance she’s been making for the past two years. Her life has turned into a John Le Carre novel. Among other things, the New York Times piece on Poitras shows us what resistance will look like moving forward, as journalists and activists seek to avoid the traps set by the forces of the new digital totalitarianism. The Times reports:
“After being detained repeatedly, Poitras began taking steps to protect her data, asking a traveling companion to carry her laptop, leaving her notebooks overseas with friends or in safe deposit boxes. She would wipe her computers and cellphones clean so that there would be nothing for the authorities to see. Or she encrypted her data, so that law enforcement could not read any files they might get hold of. These security preparations could take a day or more before her travels.
“It wasn’t just border searches that she had to worry about. Poitras said she felt that if the government was suspicious enough to interrogate her at airports, it was also most likely surveilling her e-mail, phone calls and Web browsing. ‘I assume that there are National Security Letters on my e-mails,’ she told me, referring to one of the secretive surveillance tools used by the Department of Justice. A National Security Letter requires its recipients — in most cases, Internet service providers and phone companies — to provide customer data without notifying the customers or any other parties. Poitras suspected (but could not confirm, because her phone company and I.S.P. would be prohibited from telling her) that the F.B.I. had issued National Security Letters for her electronic communications.
“Once she began working on her surveillance film in 2011, she raised her digital security to an even higher level. She cut down her use of a cellphone, which betrays not only who you are calling and when, but your location at any given point in time. She was careful about e-mailing sensitive documents or having sensitive conversations on the phone. She began using software that masked the Web sites she visited. After she was contacted by Snowden in 2013, she tightened her security yet another notch. In addition to encrypting any sensitive e-mails, she began using different computers for editing film, for communicating and for reading sensitive documents (the one for sensitive documents is air-gapped, meaning it has never been connected to the Internet).”
Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s far-reaching domestic (and international) spying operation only underscores the need for a strong and independent press to help expose abuses of power at the highest levels of our government and to provide the public with information that is necessary in order to hold our government accountable to the Constitution.
No democratic society should tolerate any use of the government’s security apparatus to intimidate a journalist investigating government abuse. The U.S. government’s harassment of Poitras is reprehensible. And the U.K.’s targeting of a journalist’s spouse under the guise of an anti-terrorism investigation is clearly an intolerable escalation of the security state’s war on journalism.
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