The War on Terror is Still Everywhere

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This post first appeared in The American Prospect.

Free Barrett Brown posters posted online.

Photographs of 'Free Barrett Brown' posters at

In May of this year, Barack Obama gave a speech effectively declaring the end of the “War on Terror.” Like many people, I was pleased. The War on Terror, which embodies the idea that terrorism is such an existential threat that all other threats the United States has faced pale before it and therefore we had permission abandon every moral standard we ever held to and wage a global military campaign that never ends, has been a poison coursing through our national bloodstream. Its effects can be seen in things that don’t on their surface seem to have almost anything to do with terrorism. And despite Obama’s speech, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

It was only a few weeks after that speech that Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance began to come out, and it wasn’t as though President Obama said, “You know what? This just shows how things have gotten out of hand. We’re going to be dialing this stuff back.” He defended every bit of it as necessary and proper. Why do we need this positively gargantuan apparatus of surveillance? The answer is always terrorism. Oh, we’re using it to spy on state actors too — both enemies and friends — but it’s harder to argue that Chinese officials or the president of Brazil want to kill your children, so when challenged, the justification inevitably turns back to terrorism.

The War on Terror perspective, where the most extreme overreactions become the ordinary way of doing business, has infected all kinds of government actions. I point you to this story in yesterday’s New York Times by David Carr, which on first glance doesn’t look like it’s about the WoT, but I think in some ways it is. It’s about Barrett Brown, a journalist who has reported on the activities of Anonymous, the internet hacking group. If prosecutors have their way, Brown will spend the rest of his life in prison because he posted a link. I kid you not:

From all accounts, including his own, Mr. Brown, now 32, is a real piece of work. He was known to call some of his subjects on the phone and harass them. He has been public about his struggles with heroin and tends to see conspiracies everywhere he turns. Oh, and he also threatened an F.B.I. agent and his family by name, on a video, and put it on YouTube, so there’s that.

But that’s not the primary reason Mr. Brown is facing the rest of his life in prison. In 2010, he formed an online collective named Project PM with a mission of investigating documents unearthed by Anonymous and others. If Anonymous and groups like it were the wrecking crew, Mr. Brown and his allies were the people who assembled the pieces of the rubble into meaningful insights…

In December 2011, approximately five million e-mails from Stratfor Global Intelligence, an intelligence contractor, were hacked by Anonymous and posted on WikiLeaks. The files contained revelations about close and perhaps inappropriate ties between government security agencies and private contractors. In a chat room for Project PM, Mr. Brown posted a link to it.

Among the millions of Stratfor files were data containing credit cards and security codes, part of the vast trove of internal company documents. The credit card data was of no interest or use to Mr. Brown, but it was of great interest to the government. In December 2012 he was charged with 12 counts related to identity theft. Over all he faces 17 charges — including three related to the purported threat of the F.B.I. officer and two obstruction of justice counts — that carry a possible sentence of 105 years, and he awaits trial in a jail in Mansfield, Tex.

According to one of the indictments, by linking to the files, Mr. Brown “provided access to data stolen from company Stratfor Global Intelligence to include in excess of 5,000 credit card account numbers, the card holders’ identification information, and the authentication features for the credit cards.”

Yes, that’s right. He’s facing 12 counts of identity theft and a possible jail sentence of over a century because he published a link to a site on the Internet. And I’m just curious: Why does Stratfor, an intelligence contractor whose business seems to be doing analysis of global events to help government and corporate clients make decisions, have credit-card information for thousands of people? I guess there’s something I’m missing here.

So while the Obama administration is coming down hard on leakers, this prosecutor is doing the same to linkers. It’s hard not to think of the parallels between this case and that of Internet entrepreneur and activist Aaron Swartz, who downloaded a cache of academic journal articles and was treated by federal prosecutors as though he had murdered a busload of schoolchildren. Facing those relentless prosecutors and a possible sentence of 50 years in prison for things like wire fraud, Swarz committed suicide.

This isn’t the only ongoing “war” in which the invocation of the word becomes the excuse for previously unimaginable sacrifices of privacy and law-enforcement agencies coming to believe they can do anything they like. In the name of the War on Drugs, millions of Americans are still turning over their bodily fluids to employers, while police and prosecutors literally steal innocent people’s money, cars, and anything else they can get their hands on, all with the Supreme Court’s blessing. How can they do that? Well it’s a war, isn’t it? And in case you don’t recall, the Obama administration said it was going to end that war, too.

Maybe Barack Obama is sincere about his desire to move past the War on Terror. We don’t have an official torture program like we did during the Bush years, so that’s something. But the institutional apparatus of the war is still there, and we now know that it’s bigger than we could have imagined. Had Edward Snowden not revealed what he did, Obama would have been happy to keep it all secret. Meanwhile, prosecutors see “cyberthreats” in a journalist posting a link, and bring every ounce of their considerable power to bear. The mindset hasn’t changed, and the war goes on.

Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success. Follow him on Twitter @paulwaldman1.
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  • Anonymous

    I don’t know about what Snowden disclosed, but I saw a film that Bradley Manning made public. The US is a killing machine and I want it to stop. Under Ike we were the Bread Basket of the World, not the Terminator. Can we make a change happen?
    Can we get off oil? I lived near NASA in FL and I have learned that they can accomplish anything. Could we be off oil in 20 years? I think that we can.
    My next vehicle will be all electric, not hybrid that is suppose to get 50mpg. Know what? They had a car in the ’40’s that got 50 mpg and it didn’t have to breed with anything!
    The solution is simply to vote out incumbents, wholesale, unless you have one of the rare handful that represent the people instead of the corporations. We need new directives.

  • Maryann Terillo

    I have to say that where was everyone when Reagan and the Bushes were in the White House. Bill Moyers should be aware of how bad this was before 9/11. Now when we face a chance of this happening again we are all enthusiastic to tie Obama’s hands. I think he is trying to be transparent but we only make anything he does too little, too late.

  • Anonymous

    We can get off oi, gas and nuclear – we need Congress to lead and not continue subsidies to fat gas, oil and utility companies – we are already ( the taxpayer) ultimately responsible for all the contamination and waste of nuclear — NO MORE — copy and share. We need to demand alternative infrastructure now!

  • Anonymous

    1980 onward… increased deregulation — utilities like home heat and basic telephone has become outrageously expensive and all the innovation is not worth it for the poor;

    deregulation of supply energy, gas oil and ongoing nuclear proliferation has produced Chernobyl and Fukushima… count em 3 meltdowns… one nuke is EMPTY and so is one of the spent fuel pools… Fukushima is HERE

    Iran Contra – Influence in Central America — yes, many were screaming for mainstream media to pay attention

    and deregulation of financial corporations led to the financial meltdown in 2008, just to name one.

    CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM is imperative to reduce corporate influence in public officials behavior and voting records and we DO need a return of our Civil Rights — too much BS has gone too far

  • Dave

    “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
    Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759
    US author, diplomat, inventor, physicist, politician, & printer (1706 – 1790)”

  • Anonymous

    congress isn’t going to sh*t anymore……we the people need to lead and we can do that by first using our money in ways that is conducive to “starving” these industries by not using or underutilizing them

  • Proud Primate

    Miss Terillo should watch Bill Moyers’ masterpiece, ” The Secret Government: the Constitution in Crisis” to learn the answer to her question. The real question is, while Moyers was speaking so eloquently, what was/is wrong with the Cocker Spaniel-brained American Electorate?

  • Proud Primate

    You’re right that it’s up to us. No one else can or will or is interested in pulling our chestnuts out of the fire. If the general population at large would get out in the street and holler like to French do, they have much more what they want. What will it take? How bad will have to get before they get off their butts?

  • Maryann Terillo

    I know and applaud Bill Moyers work
    That is why I ask the question of the lack outrage from everyone, especially the media for all these decades. The article questions someone’s right to post info that can be used for nefarious purposes. That is not about the right of the people to know. This person (I will not call him a journalist) is a destructive person who due to his publishing of private info deserves to be arrested.
    As for my last comment. I do believe that the president has enough haters do we always have to pile on. Liberal voices are never as loud as when there is someone who they should support.

  • Kevin M. Gallagher
  • Mary Johanna

    In the mean time the bankers that launder Mexican Drug Cartel Money are simply fined and not prosecuted.

  • Proud Primate

    Begging your pardon, ma’am, but the article is lamenting the wildly excessive punishment of Barrett Brown, Aaron Swartz, and others, not recommending it. I suggest you read through it again.

  • Brian Hanley

    “Why does Stratfor, an intelligence contractor whose business seems to be doing analysis of global events to help government and corporate clients make decisions, have credit-card information for thousands of people?”

    Um, Stratfor sells subscriptions to their service. It’s their business model. If you sign up, your email and CC info will be on file with them. Just like Amazon, NYT, etc.

  • Russell Scott Day

    In the spy movies we see how when a credit card is used it shows where and when and what for it was used. Hence this explains why cash is being eliminated. The rich don’t need it except for crimes, and not even in the commission of crimes since they own the bank that owns the credit card. The poor need cash because they can’t afford the theft of the money by the layers of people working at stealing from them.

  • Brian Hanley

    It was 5,000 credit cards, not tens of thousands. The company was founded in 1996. By 2011, of course they had 5,000 or so subscribers who had at least signed up for one month before lapsing. 5,000 subscribers isn’t very many, but it is enough to support a news service.

    There were 18,000 state and local police departments in the USA in 2008. ( 12,501 of those were local departments with one or more officers. Stratfor would be a good service for them to stay current. There are private individuals, and thousands of corporations as well.

    Yes, governments do pay with Visa for small amounts. In fact, these days Visa and debit cards are increasingly the only way they pay for what used to be called petty cash. Why? Simple. It’s automatically tracked without the agency doing anything. How often have you read a story in the news about a government worker (state, or local) who got caught abusing an agency credit card?

    It costs $299 a year to sign up, or $39.95 a month. ( Let’s be generous and say that half of that 5,000 are regular, live subscribers. That is $747,500 per year. That will pay for a salary or two to keep a daily newsfeed going, plus pay for a small office.

  • Brian Hanley If every bequerel of the highest unofficial claimed release total from Fukushima (15 quadrillion) was one molecule of sugar, it would be roughly one-ten thousandth of one grain of sugar in size.

  • Tiffany

    The fact that force-feeding Gitmo prisoners isn’t considered illegal doesn’t make it any less torturous. As is illustrated so mind-blowingly well by Obama, among too many others, talk is cheap. Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you say.