OPINION | Living in the surveillance state


Glenn Greenwald had the scoop of the century, so far, with his reporting on the trove of documents taken by computer security systems contractor Edward Snowden from the National Security Agency (NSA). His stories for the Guardian newspaper in London greatly embarrassed the Obama administration by revealing the extent to which all of our cell phone metadata, e-mail correspondence and Web searches are being vacuumed up and stored by a military agency of the federal government.

The title of Greenwald’s recently released new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (Metropolitan Books), refers to a 1975 statement by Sen. Frank Church, who headed the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. (Minnesota Sen. Walter F. Mondale also served on the committee.)

Church said, “The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air… That capability at any time could be turned around 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.”

The reference to “telegrams” sounds quaint now, in the Internet age. But the senator’s warning was prescient, and the plot sickens as digital technology advances and erodes the personal privacy of every American, not to mention that of everyone else in the world.

We now know that what Greenwald refers to as a “radical interpretation” of a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, which was passed in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks, provided the opening for the U.S. government to collect our most highly personal documents, “in bulk and indiscriminately,” as Greenwald writes. In a fascinating account – especially compelling from a journalistic point of view – Greenwald pores over documents from the Snowden trove on his way to meet the mysterious whistleblower in Hong Kong. On the flight he opens his laptop and finds a copy of the top-secret FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court order to Verizon, compelling the telecom firm to turn over all of its call records to the NSA.

“That meant the NSA was secretly and indiscriminately collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, at least,” writes Greenwald. “Virtually nobody had any idea that the Obama administration was doing any such thing. Now, with this ruling, I not only knew about it but had the secret court order as proof.”

After reaching Hong Kong and meeting Snowden, Greenwald was shocked to find himself in the presence of a 29-year-old computer wizard who did not even possess a high school diploma. Greenwald assumed that Snowden, with access to such important top-secret NSA documents, would be a person in his 60s, perhaps, at the end of a long career in the intelligence field.

Greenwald first spent five straight hours interrogating Snowden in his hotel room, trying to determine who he was and his motives for stealing the NSA’s secret documents. Greenwald, a lawyer and journalist who has focused on civil liberties issues, needed to be convinced that Snowden had engaged in his perilous enterprise “with full autonomy and agency, with a real grasp of his purpose.”

“Finally, Snowden gave me an answer that felt vibrant and real. ‘The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs,’ he said. ‘If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real.'”

Of course, the U.S. government is going after Edward Snowden, who was interviewed in Moscow last week by NBC’s Brian Williams. The hour-long show, excerpts from the extended interview, was broadcast on network prime time. The focus on Snowden prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to taunt Snowden, to tell him to return to the U.S. and “make his case.” Kerry said on NBC that if Snowden wants to return to the U.S., “we’ll have him on a flight today.” (Snowden is stuck in Russia, after the State Department revoked his passport.)

And Kerry told CBS that Snowden should “man up” and return to the U.S.

While the top U.S. diplomat resorts to locker room-type language, the fact remains that the U.S. is violating the Constitution in a massive and unprecedented way. Our elected representatives are mostly AWOL on the job of reining in the runaway NSA – except for Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, and the son of Holocaust survivors from Germany.

For many years, Wyden has attempted to get answers from the NSA and other government officials about the scope of the surveillance regime. Wyden finally got an opportunity to ask James R. Clapper, Obama’s director of National Intelligence, a question last year about the NSA’s surveillance program.

As recounted by Ryan Lizza in a lengthy article in The New Yorker (March 12, 2013), Clapper appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Wyden asked him: “What I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question ‘Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

“No, sir,” Clapper replied. Pressed by Wyden, he added, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

Now we know that Clapper lied. And I think that we should press our representatives in Congress, the House members and Sens. Franken and Klobuchar to do whatever they can to put an end to the NSA’s intrusion into our lives. In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “the makers of our Constitution… sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone.”