The top secret court order that wound up in the hands of the Guardian on Thursday requires Verizon to hand over “metadata” information from all telephone calls to the National Security Agency. In response to the revelation, the Obama administration stated the order was “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”
It's an appropriate moment — among many appropriate moments in recent weeks — to ask what is really going on here in the way of government surveillance and what is becoming habitual unconstitutional overreach.
As most Americans continue to struggle through the rough economic times that were foisted on us by the financial elite, our government and politicians have once again taken it upon themselves to protect us even further from something the 99 percent don’t even think about on a daily basis: terrorism.
The court order is an extension of an already sweeping piece of legislation known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which gave government the authority to wiretap communications without warrant outside of the United States. The court orders issued under FISA typically include records of a specific target identified with a certain terrorist organization, whereas the current court order is a mandate to harvest all data.
The administration also defends its right to seize private communications without warrants because the court order does not explicitly require the collection of personal information from phone users, or the contents of the conversation itself. Rather than communication-based data per se, the collected information is merely termed “transactional.” This includes: the “originating” and “terminating” number, the duration of each call, the location of the call, telephone calling card numbers, and trunk identifiers.
But Thomas Drake, the former senior NSA official who was charged under the Espionage Act with leaking information, said the value “metadata” actually goes much further:
“You get incredible amounts of information about subscribers. The ability to forward profile, as well as look backwards, on all activities associated with those phone numbers... we’re talking about a phenomenal set of records that is continually being added to, aggregated, year after year on what have now become routine orders. None of this is probable cause. This is simply the ability to collect,” Drake said.
Yet even more troubling than this is the secrecy surrounding the court order. When approached to provide details about the court order, both the Obama administration and Verizon declined to comment on specifics. In fact, the court order actually bans Verizon from discussing any details.
Why would a court order, or the government that created it, or the major telecommunication company that enforced it, have a problem discussing details of the agreement if their intentions were as sacred as they claimed? It’s all about fighting terrorism, isn't it?
Equally disturbing is Verizon's and other telecom companies’ complicity with our government in the violation of our Constitutional rights. Though it isn't as if it's new; after all, Visa and Mastercard had no problem cancelling all financial transactions with the whistleblower organization Wikileaks.
But wait, it gets better. A few hours after the court order leak was exposed, the Guardian learned that the NSA “has direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple, and other U.S. internet giants” as part of a program known as PRISM, which allows NSA officials to gather material such as search history, the content of e-mails, file transfers and live chats (such as Skype).
When asked to comment on the revelations, the companies that responded claimed they had no knowledge of PRISM or similar programs. But the revelations should not be surprising to anyone willing to listen. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who both serve on the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, have been warning Americans for some time about the crass misinterpretation of the PATRIOT Act and FISA which are used to justify the data collection schemes.
The two senators asked the NSA a simple question: under the powers granted in the 2008 expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, how many persons inside the United States have been spied on?
An NSA official's response:
“The NSA IG [Inspector General] provided a classified response on June 6 2012. I defer to his conclusion that obtaining such an estimate was beyond the capacity of his office and dedicating sufficient additional resources would likely impede the NSA’s mission. He further states that his office and NSA leadership agreed that an IG review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”
It should be clear to Americans by now, if it hasn't been already for some time, that the term terrorist has become synonymous with anyone or anything that legitimately threatens the power base of the economic elite. California Senator Dianne Feinstein was quick to offer her opinion on what, in her words, surveillance means:
“This is called protecting America. People want the homeland kept safe,” she said.
The question is: who are we really unsafe from — those from outside, or those who are operating within?