This week may be seen as a turning point in the fight back against NSA spying by creating new systems to overcome the surveillance state.
There have been protests against the NSA’s spying program but they focus only on legislative solutions. While legislation is needed, many of the technological solutions lie within our own power and often merely require the government to get out of the way.
President Obama’s independent commission is anything but independent. We are not going to get a “Church Committee” in the current Congress. The leadership of both parties and President Obama are too tied to the surveillance state – or, perhaps too afraid of it – to challenge it. The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper was not even reprimanded or forced to resign when he committed perjury before Congress about surveillance on Americans.
Protests against the surveillance state continue to grow. There is a mass protest planned for October 26th in Washington, DC against NSA surveillance. Public opinion is on our side and the people need to show Washington, DC that there is growing anger about spying on Americans as well as abusive spying on countries and diplomats who are not threatening the United States.
Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation and long-time advocate, wrote an important article which asks the question: “How much surveillance can democracy withstand?” He provides an analytical framework as well as some solutions to surveillance by security cameras, smart meters, corporations in commerce, travel on airplanes, trains and roadways, as well as in the major area of communication on telephone and the Internet.
He urges that we consider “surveillance [as] a kind of social pollution” and consistently seek to limit the “surveillance impact of each new digital system.” The key to solving the surveillance crisis is recognizing that once data is collected it will be misused, so we need to shut down data collection at the outset through a combination of law and technology. He begins his essay discussing an area where we saw a lot of progress this week:
“The current level of general surveillance in society is incompatible with human rights. To recover our freedom and restore democracy, we must reduce surveillance to the point where it is possible for whistleblowers of all kinds to talk with journalists without being spotted. To do this reliably, we must reduce the surveillance capacity of the systems we use.”
To start, a first-ever report on press freedom in the United States was issued last week by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which described the Obama administration’s attack on the Freedom of the Press and attacks on whistleblowers. The report, authored by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, Jr., found that government officials were afraid to talk to the media because of the aggressive felony prosecutions and the NSA spying program.
There is big news on two fronts regarding these issues this week.
First, a technological breakthrough: the Freedom of the Press Foundation announced that it is completing development of an open source software system that will allow whistleblowers to submit documents to the media securely and anonymously. One of the beautiful ironies of the SecureDrop system is that it was originally developed by the late Aaron Swartz who committed suicide due to prosecutorial abuse against his transparency activism. The New Yorker is the first news organization to use the SecureDrop through its StrongBox project.
Second, the major leak about Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras teaming up with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to form a new media outlet. The new outlet, which has not yet been clearly defined, will be a general audience media source. Greenwald et al. will focus on the security state and investigative reporting built on the philosophy that journalism should expose the lying of the powerful rather than be subservient to it. A week before this story was leaked Greenwald and Scahill announced they were working together on a major investigation of the NSA. As the Columbia Journalism Review points out, the combination of three established, dissident journalists joining with one of the first Internet-era billionaires is “the best news journalism has seen in a long, long time.”
This project has truly amazing potential. There are many important stories that the establishment, mass media does not cover and having an independent, well-funded media outlet will be a very good thing for democracy. We spend a lot of time on Popular Resistance reporting on news that is not covered in the establishment media, like protest movements throughout the nation, the crisis at Fukushima that is a grave risk to the world, the continued pollution from open pit uranium mines which are America’s secret Fukushima (these are few examples among many, you can sign up for our daily digests here, better than a daily newspaper!).
We believe that the first step to mobilizing people is making sure they get the information they need to understand what is going on around them. The corporate, mass media does more to mislead and create myths than to actually report critical news. As we noted in one of our series of stories on Columbus Day, “The US is a myth filled country where citizens have to make a conscious effort to find the truth.” This new venture is an opportunity for reporting reality, rather than creating myth.
Another part of the security state is the use of police to attack protesters and suppress dissent, rather than to protect our freedoms of speech, assembly and our right to petition the government for redress of grievances. This week a new coalition, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations, issued a report, “Take Back the Streets: Repression and Criminalization of Protest Around the World,” a collection of case studies showing patterns of police crackdown and abuse against peaceful assembly, accompanied by concrete recommendations to expand free speech. The report begins its recommendations saying:
“Participation in protest and public assembly should be viewed not as a ‘necessary evil’ in democratic countries, but as a healthy democratic exercise that ensures good governance and accountability. It is a social good that is a vital part of a vibrant democracy. Unfortunately, however, the case studies profiled in this publication highlight that, whether through violence, criminalization or unnecessarily obstructionist laws, protest is being stifled rather than encouraged.”
When viewed as a social good the appropriate policies, laws and regulations become evident, i.e. government should be facilitating the right to protest rather than undermining it, they should recognize the human rights of people to protest their government with or without a permit and they should restrict the use of force by police including lethal and non-lethal force, e.g. tasers, tear gas, water hoses.
This abuse of police power was on display Thursday, October 17, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police launched an attack on peaceful protesters of the Elsipogtog First Nation who were blockading hydro-fracking on their tribal lands. The police sent in hundreds of troops, with camouflaged sharpshooters and lethal weapons to attack the indigenous people protecting their land from extreme energy extraction. The next day solidarity actions were held in more than two dozen locations in North America.
The attack on the Elsipogtog protesters occurred two days after the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights left Canada. After spending nine days in Canada he issued preliminary observations that said: “From all I have learned, I can only conclude that Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country.”
The abuse of power in the United States has been evident against the occupy movement, climate justice, economic justice, antiwar, animal rights and so many others who are seeking to create a better world. Since the late 1990’s when Bill Clinton added 100,000 police and the military began to provide civilian police with equipment, gear and training, police abuse, a long-term problem, has become routine. It infects not just police but prosecutors who are using grand juries to intimidate protesters, a phony court proceeding for mass deportations of immigrants and the unjust treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. When an officer who was arrested in a motorcycle gang attack was found to have been undercover in the Occupy Movement, it led the New York Times to write – undercover police are everywhere. October 22nd is a national day of protest against police abuse.
We can expect conflicts in the United States to continue as the government moves toward an austerity budget that is likely to cut basic social services like food stamps, healthcare and Social Security. People know, as Joseph Stiglitz wrote this week, that inequality is a choice elected officials are making. While partisans cheer the Democrat’s victory over the abusive shut down of the government by the Republicans, the reality is this was no victory for the people. Part of the agreement requires a new budget that begins with the austerity budgets of the House, based on Rep. Paul Ryan’s extreme plan, and the less extreme but still austere Senate budget. This debate among two neoliberal budgets will result in more protest as the people lose but banks continue to be bailed out. At the local level people see examples like in Philadelphia where the city closed 23 schools and laid off thousands but is building a huge prison.
Cutbacks in government combined with corporations that do not even provide their employees a wage on which they can live – paying them so poorly that they require $7 billion annually in public assistance – as well as unsafe working conditions will stoke unrest. And, the continued privatization of government services which puts America’s poor and working class at risk, will fuel citizen anger. The corruption of the economy and government by the rule of money is more evident to more Americans. On November 2nd there will be an international day of protest against corruption caused by money-dominated government and a corrupt economy.
Fred Branfman, who recently completed a five-part series on the abuses of executive power in the United States, wrote in concluding his series:
“For those alarmed by the steady growth of lawless, violent and authoritarian U.S. Executive power for the last 50 years, the events of the past few months have been exciting. The emergence of a de facto coalition of progressives and conservatives opposing the National Defense Authorization Act giving the Executive the right to unilaterally detain or execute American citizens without a trial, and NSA mass surveillance of phone and Internet data, has been unprecedented, and offers the first hope in 70 years that Executive power can be curbed.”
He writes that citizens must unite across the political spectrum in a “Coalition for Freedom” to make the United States a functioning democracy. We need to demand transparency, real congressional and judicial oversight, protection for whistleblowers and journalists (including citizen and independent journalists) as well as create new technologies that protect our privacy. The beast of the national security state can be controlled, but it will take millions of Americans demanding that our nation become a functioning democracy to end this tyranny.