Denouncing NSA Surveillance Isn’t Enough—We Need the Power to Stop It

— by Norman Solomon

For more than a month, outrage has been profuse in response to news about NSA surveillance and other evidence that all three branches of the U.S. government are turning Uncle Sam into Big Brother.

Now what?

Continuing to expose and denounce the assaults on civil liberties is essential. So is supporting Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers—past, present and future. But those vital efforts are far from sufficient.

At the core of the surveillance state is the hollowness of its democratic pretenses. Only with authentic democracy can we save ourselves from devastating evisceration of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

imageFor a moment, walk a mile in the iron-heeled shoes of the military-industrial-digital complex. Its leaders don’t like clarity about what they’re doing, and they certainly don’t like being exposed or denounced—but right now the surveillance state is in no danger of losing what it needs to keep going: power.

The huge digi-tech firms and the government have become mutual tools for gaining humungous profits and tightening political control. The partnerships are deeply enmeshed in military and surveillance realms, whether cruise missiles and drones or vast metadata records and capacities to squirrel away trillions of emails.

The enormous corporate leverage over government policies doesn’t change the fact that the nexus of the surveillance state—and the only organization with enough potential torque to reverse its anti-democratic trajectory—is government itself.

The necessity is to subdue the corporate-military forces that have so extensively hijacked the government. To do that, we’ll need to accomplish what progressives are currently ill-positioned for: democratic mobilization to challenge the surveillance state’s hold on power.

These days, progressives are way too deferential and nice to elected Democrats who should be confronted for their active or passive complicity with abysmal policies of the Obama White House. An example is Al Franken, senator from Minnesota, who declared his support for the NSA surveillance program last month: “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people.”

The right-wing Tea Party types realized years ago what progressive activists and groups are much less likely to face—that namby-pamby “lobbying” gets much weaker results than identifying crucial issues and making clear a willingness to mount primary challenges.

Progressives should be turning up the heat and building electoral capacities. But right now, many Democrats in Congress are cakewalking toward re-election in progressive districts where they should be on the defensive for their anemic “opposition” to—or outright support for—NSA surveillance.

Meanwhile, such officials with national profiles should encounter progressive pushback wherever they go. A step in that direction will happen just north of the Golden Gate Bridge this weekend, when House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi appears as guest of honor to raise money for the party (up to $32,400 per couple) at a Marin County reception. There will also be a different kind of reception that Pelosi hadn’t been counting on—a picket line challenging her steadfast support for NSA surveillance.

In the first days of this week, upwards of 20,000 people responded to a RootsAction.org action alert by sending their senators and representative an email urging an end to the "Insider Threat Program"—the creepily Orwellian concoction that, as McClatchy news service revealed last month, “requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.”

Messages to Congress members, vocal protests and many other forms of public outcry are important—but they should lay the groundwork for much stronger actions to wrest control of the government away from the military-industrial-digital complex. That may seem impossible, but it’s certainly imperative: if we’re going to prevent the destruction of civil liberties. In the long run, denunciations of the surveillance state will mean little unless we can build the political capacity to end it.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License (Photo Credit: David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” and "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State".

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Dancing Around the First and Fourth Amendments

The government can keep us safe from terrorism without stifling free speech, invading everyone’s privacy, and seizing our data.
By 

Timothy  KarrWhether you think spying is OK or not depends on your relationship to the information being collected.

If you’re on the gathering end, the invasion of someone else’s privacy doesn’t seem like a big deal. But if you’re the one whose private life is being pried into, this kind of surveillance seems like a very big deal indeed.

This dynamic is at work with the unfolding story about National Security Agency programs that vacuum up the telephone and Internet data of millions of people.

Free Press-Surveillance-The COM Library

To President Barack Obama, such wholesale spying is a necessary evil. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy,” he said. Senators Saxby Chambliss, Dianne Feinstein, and Lindsey Graham were among many in Congress who came forward to defend the programs.

Maybe they spoke too soon. Hundreds of thousands ofAmericans are responding in anger and demanding an end to Washington’s widespread surveillance.

This is why protections like the First and Fourth Amendments were enshrined in our Constitution in the first place — to shield people from such abuses of power.

But Americans aren’t being protected right now — because the people signing off on the laws are on the receiving side of the information divide. Many of them have lost touch with the privacy needs of the people they’re sworn to serve. To those in power, the intrusion into our lives is a tiny price to pay for a full-field view of the communications of all Americans.

And the range of data being mined is pretty staggering. According to reports in the Guardian and The Washington Post, the U.S. government is extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents, and phone-connection “metadata” that allow authorities to track any person’s movements and contacts over time.

This information includes data about people both abroad and at home who haven’t committed any crimes and have no connections with terrorist groups.

The Obama administration’s supposed authority to spy on all of us stems from its loose interpretation of the controversial USA PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act lets the government obtain a secret court order to collect “tangible things” that could be relevant to an investigation from businesses that hold user records. This vague wording has freed up intelligence officers to go after nearly any piece of information from anyone, including our Internet-search data, website-browsing patterns, telephone-contact lists, and even Facebook “likes.”

Section 215 does an official dance around the Fourth Amendment — which protects Americans from the warrantless search and seizure of property — by dispensing with the government’s burden of establishing probable cause before obtaining a search warrant. And FISA, which was reauthorized in 2012 under the FISA Amendments Act, allows the government to monitor the contents of foreign communications traffic — without showing that any particular individual is actually suspected of criminal conduct.

The resulting dragnet also threatens our First Amendment rights. People will be less likely to express themselves on popular services offered by Facebook, Google, and Yahoo if they know these companies are cooperating with government-surveillance schemes.

A coalition of privacy, Internet freedom, and free speech advocates has launched a nationwide campaign to stop the spying and clarify the laws that are supposed to keep our private lives private. The coalition has also called on Congress to launch a special investigation that would reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying program.

While keeping Americans safe from terrorism is a noble objective, it can be accomplished without stifling free speech, invading everyone’s privacy, and seizing our data. We shouldn’t have to choose between security and our constitutional rights.


Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy for Free Press. FreePress.net.  Photo Credit to:  The COM Library/Flickr  Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)