President Obama Revealed as Spymaster Extraordinaire

The massive surveillance program of the Obama administration first came to general public attention with the revelation that the Department of Justice obtained telephone records from more that twenty separate telephone lines, which the Associated Press (AP) described as “unprecedented” and an extraordinary action” — over 100 AP journalists had their phone records seized. The Newspaper Association of America, a leading trade group, declared: “These actions shock the American conscience and violate the critical freedom of the press protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” [1]

Next came revelations about data-mining of Verizon Business Network Services, based on an order from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requesting “all call detail records” for calls from the U.S. to locations abroad, or all calls within the U.S., including local calls.

The surveillance did not involve only teleprone calls, as a program called “PRISM”  allegedly empowers the National Security Agency (NSA) access to all the private data stored by major Internet companies, like Microsoft, AOL, Skype, Google, Apple and Facebook, including email, video chats, photos, files transfers and more. [2]

Besides these two massive data-mining operations, there is a program called “Boundless Information,” which creates a global “heat map” detailing the source countries of intercepted electronic records. Amy Goodman says that 97 billion interceptions occurred in March 2013 alone. [3]

The hero or villain of the exposure of this surveillance operation occurring globally and, most controversially, on almost all, if not all, U.S. citizens, is Edward Snowden, a former CIA staffer and analyst for the private intelligence consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden spoke to and provided documentation to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman in Hong Kong.

Reaction to Snowden ranged from ridicule and astonishment that someone who didn’t graduate from high school could pull off such a coup; to calls for a criminal indictment of Snowden; and to a claim by Daniel Ellsberg, made famous by his release of the Pentagon Papers, that Snowden’s whistleblowing provides an opportunity to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an “executive coup” against the U.S. Constitution.

The ACLU has taken the most direct action against the legality of the NSA’s collection of customers’ “metadata,” including the phone numbers dialed and the length of the calls. The ACLU’s suit asks the court to end the program, purge any records collected and to declare that the surveillance is unconstitutional. The ACLU charges that the program’s scope is “akin to snatching every American’s address book — with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long and from where.” The ACLU added that the government “is given a comprehensive record of our associations and movements… .”

Assurances are being given that snoopers in both government and private employment will not be reading the contents of records they seize; however, it is a virtual certainty that if any phone calls, or other electronic communications raise suspicions, they will be read in full. Furthermore, assurances are being given that surveillance programs are subject to very careful oversight, particularly, the Congress, is kept fully informed. Congressional oversight takes place behind closed doors in the House and Senate intelligence committees. None of the members of these committees may reveal classified information discussed in secret committee meetings, under pain of being dismissed from the committee or even a criminal indictment. As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus puts it: “Yet, for the most part, lawmakers must face down intelligence officials, and assess their urgent claims of national security without the benefit of expert staff. In this way, Congress can serve more as useful cover for the executive branch than a true check on it. Once briefed, lawmakers are captive of their classified information: They cannot disclose what they have been told.” Of President Obama, Marcus says: “his administration has been more of an obstacle than an enabler of effective oversight and reasonable transparency. Declining to publicly reveal operational details is understandable; refusing to reveal even its legal analysis of surveillance and other anti-terrorism activities is not.” [4]

We would be better off if the intelligence committees were abolished and any nefarious actions of our government were subject to open democratic debate.

During the past two weeks, CBS Evening News played a 2007 video clip of Barack Obama lambasting the Bush administration for warrantless wiretapping. Defenders of Obama are claiming that Obama differs from George W. Bush, because he, Obama, obtains a warrent for every surveillance act; yet the FISA court is a legal figleaf, because of the past 1,700-plus requests, zero have been denied. Moreover, Obama had pledged, even in his initial presidential campaign, that he would run the most transparent administration in history. Most of what Obama has done in his anti-terrorism programs has been covered in secrecy. I recently learned that Obama has publicly praised the transparency of the secretive FISA court.

It is typically Barack Obama to announce the formation of a committee composed heavily of civil libertarians to assess the surveillance programs and make recommendations for changes. As in his recent speech on anti-terrorsm policy, Obama raised critical questions about policies his administration has implemented since he began his presidency and then he makes recomendations for changes that are more superficial and cosmetic than real.

At this point, I am disposed to consider Edward Snowden to have rendered a great public service by blowing the whistle on the massive surveillance program. I am not yet ready to label him a hero, because he has continued to talk and raise questions about his motivations.

When Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. was asked by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March 2013 if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper responded, “No, sir.” If he was under oath, he should have been prosecuted for perjury. If he was not under oath, he should have been fired for telling such a blatent lie., misleading one and all about a major governmental program. Clapper’s response is much more reprehensible than anything Edward Snowden has done.

Has this surveillance program affecting so many millions home and abroad prevented any acts of terrorism? When NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander and Sean Joyce, the deputy director of the FBI, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee, they spoke of the surveillance program stopping 50 violent plots, 10 of them domestic in nature. Joyce identified four: 1) the bombing of the NYC subway; 2) the bombing of the NY Stock Exchange; 3) the bombing of the Mubai, India hotel; and 4) the financing of al-Shabab in Somalia. 3) involving a Chicagoan named David Headly, was actually the result of a tip from British intelligence. 2) may also have been the result of a tip. In the absence of solid documentation, some intelligence analysts are skeptical that this mass data-mining operation prevented any terrorist plot from succeeding. 

As for domestic plots, most of them have been initiated by the FBI. The FBI has a virtual army of informers, who frequent places where Muslims tend to gather — mosques, coffee houses and the  like — and when they hear persons making very disparaging remarks about the United States, the FBI sets up a scenario for an act of violence, into which the targeted individual or group is pulled in and the trap sprung just before the act is to be carried out. This devising of plots has long been called “entrapment” is legal circles. A major investigation carried out by Mother Jones magazine chronicled the FBI modus operandi.

Finally, we owe Edward Snowden a debt of gratitude for releasing Presidential Policy Directive 20 — a top-secret memo from President Barack Obam directing U.S. intelligence agencies to draw up a list of targets for U.S. cyberattacks. It revealed Obama’s hypocrisy, since he has been such a fiece opponent of other nations — especially China — conducting cyberattacks against the U.S.

Footnotes

[1] Greg Mitchell, “Noted,” The Nation, June 3, 2013.

[2] Amy Goodman, “Leak reveals coup on Constitution,” The Albuquerque Journal, June 15, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ruth Marcus, “James Clapper’s ‘least untruthful’ answer,” The Washington Post, June 13, 2013.

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