Book Excerpt: Spying on Democracy

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Bill spoke with Heidi Boghosian about the NSA spying program and her book Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance. The following in an excerpt from her book.

“Like a pint-sized brain surrounded by a heavily protected, half-million-square-foot body, a diminutive Dell computer in the basement of the National Counterterrorism Center is at the core of the Bush administration’s war on terror. ” — James Bamford, The Shadow Factory

In describing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), best-selling author James Bamford, whose reporting in the 1980s revealed the existence of the NSA, calls the database used to store names gathered from the federal eavesdropping programs a disaster. The advent of digital communications and mass storage, he says, coupled with a failure of law and policy to keep abreast of technological advancements and an NSA “where the entire world’s knowledge is stored, but not a single word understood,” yields “the capacity to make tyranny total in America.”

Much of the information in government databases such as TIDE is collected with the cooperation of corporations. Although the US surveillance state is colossal in scope, Americans need not be complicit in sustaining it. Tethered to electronic gadgets, under watchful corporate and government command, Americans have a choice about the amount of information afforded to authorities. We can embrace the positive aspects of technology while electing to actively resist and dismantle its invasive and anti-democratic aspects.

To do so, it is essential to reject outright the premise on which a domestic surveillance grid has been erected: that it makes us safer. Comprehensive monitoring and the targeting of certain individuals and social networks for greater observation, is demonstrably ineffective in its purported function of making Americans more secure.

Surveillance Does Not Make Us Safer

As illustrated in this book’s examples — FBI targeting of environmentalists, animal rights advocates, lawyers representing politically active clients and members of the press — a great deal of the bureau’s focus is not on investigating specific acts of violence or plans for violent attacks, but rather on monitoring communities and individuals holding particular political and religious ideologies. This approach is ineffective and likely makes the nation less secure by deflecting attention from legitimate law enforcement.

Aside from the impractical scope of monitoring all religious and ideological adherents for prospective acts of violence, this strategy encourages stereotyping that diverts intelligence agencies from uncovering actual threats that may not fit a particular law enforcement paradigm. In Terrorism and the Constitution, David Cole and James X. Dempsey argue that stifling dissent — a basic vehicle by which we question authority and bring about social change — may encourage individuals who don’t value peaceful change. And when entire communities are targeted as enemies, stigmatized groups become less likely to cooperate with law enforcement in pursuing real leads.

In addition to possibly making the country more vulnerable to terrorist acts, the fixation of the FBI and other intelligence agencies on fighting terrorism has worsened an already compromised economy. Indeed, a direct correlation can be found between a focus on high-profile counterterrorism initiatives and the quality of life for Americans, civil liberties concerns notwithstanding. Describing an unforeseen consequence of the bureau’s anti-terrorism agenda, Tim Weiner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for his work on national security and intelligence issues, wrote, “The investigation and prosecution of white-collar crime plummeted, a boon to the Wall Street plunderings that helped create the greatest economic crisis in America since the 1930s.”

With resources diverted to the so-called war on terror, staffing for such white-collar crimes as predatory lending and mortgage fraud investigations was slashed to 26 percent of 2001 levels, a loss of 625 agents as of 2008. Prosecutions against financial institution fraud dropped 48 percent from 2000 to 2007, insurance fraud cases dropped 75 percent and securities fraud cases declined 117 percent. Syracuse University estimates that the number of FBI white-collar crimes fell by 50 percent. While thousands of Americans have gone to jail for protesting that banks must be held accountable for causing massive national economic damage and loss, not a single banker has been arrested for defrauding, evicting and repossessing the homes of millions of American families. In light of the devastation brought on by the plunder, it’s only reasonable to ask what has posed the greater material threat to our national security, freedom and liberties: predatory bankers or the protesters who have camped out to insist that these predatory bankers be held accountable? That the US government and its corporate partners have overwhelmingly chosen to act as if the latter and not the former, have harmed the nation speaks volumes about the real priorities and alliances of those in power today.

In addition to diverting resources from prosecuting white-collar crime, huge sums spent on surveillance gadgets contribute little, if anything, to public safety. As cities invest hundreds of millions of dollars in surveillance cameras, no evidence exists that they deter crime. A New York University (NYU) study analyzing data from 2002 to 2005 of two large housing complexes in Manhattan concluded that no persuasive evidence existed that cameras reduced crime in the two complexes. A 2008 San Francisco study concluded that public surveillance cameras served no deterrent function whatsoever. In addition to the NYU study, as of 2009, four additional studies had been conducted to determine if closed-circuit televisions were effective in deterring crime. Only one case showed success, a study of East Orange, New Jersey, where a multi-pronged approach involving cameras, instant police reports and electronic listening devices saw a crime reduction of 50 percent from 2003 to 2006. Despite this, New York City has devoted millions of dollars to installing a “ring of steel,” modeled after London’s system by the same name, in midtown and lower Manhattan with cameras, license plate readers, explosive-trace detection systems and armed officers.

Four Minutes to Redefine Values

Much of the modern surveillance state can be traced back to World War I propaganda, when the Committee on Public Information (created by President Woodrow Wilson to influence public opinion about US participation in the war), deployed volunteer “four minute men” to deliver short pro-war propaganda to captive audiences in movies, churches, labor union halls and other venues. Pointers on how to frame the short speeches advised sparseness of words, with fifteen-second openings and final appeals. Speakers were encouraged to look for new slogans and ideas to continuously perfect their speeches.

Later, Edward L. Bernays would further refine techniques of propaganda. Acknowledging the deceptive nature of public relations campaigns, Bernays himself said, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” Political and social strategies that helped define the course of history have relied on many of Bernays’s techniques. One of the best-known public relations firms, Hill & Knowlton, was instrumental in molding public opinion through its representations of several influential industries, including tobacco, steel and aviation.

It would be refreshing if Americans could offer their own four-minute versions on how individuals can reclaim free speech, community, personal autonomy, liberty and happiness. Some modern-day equivalents already exist, as described below: the pupils who resisted carrying Radio-frequency identification (RFID)-embedded student identification cards, or those who refused to have their biometrics gathered in palm scans at the school cafeteria. They are the modern-day equivalents of “four minute men.” Each time these women, children and families take a principled stand against intrusive surveillance, they make it easier for others to do so.

Just as public relations firms and corporate marketing departments know the power of online advertisements and 30-second television spots, so should Americans become independent and outspoken experts in redefining — re-branding — our core values. We can shift from state and corporate propaganda to publicly created narratives. Articulating social realities and delivering the message with care and creativity helps counter the coercion and control we are subjected to daily and builds a diverse culture of resistance.

Instead of the “conscious and intelligent manipulation” of the public by state authorities and corporations, nonprofit efforts to improve society can work with the powerful real-life stories of people overcoming adversity, of confronting corporate and government authority and of mobilizing vibrant communities. Doing so would counter the numbing daily barrage of commercial messages. The act of sharing of facts, art, creative interpretations, dramatizations and stories of community and humanity is a far more interesting reflection of society than are the profit-obsessed messages of corporate America. Community narratives that are spontaneous, emotional and unvarnished should be readily available for others to hear and emulate.

When armed with the facts and when unafraid to speak out against governmental and corporate authorities, people in the United States have been able to organize to resist and reverse policies and practices that infringe on civil liberties, freedom and democracy.

Americans interested in staving off a cyber-surveillance state should familiarize themselves with the initiatives of organizations and individuals actively working to protect civil liberties across the country. Many have made noteworthy progress in holding government and corporate intelligence agencies accountable for constitutional infractions. Litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Lawyers Guild, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund in Washington, DC, the People’s Law Office in Chicago and other organizations exposes and challenges government policies that infringe on First and Fourth Amendment rights. In the case of surveillance, these organizations go a long way toward holding federal intelligence agencies accountable and reminding the judiciary and legislators that they have not kept pace with technology that changes day to day. The very act of bringing litigation serves an important function in drawing attention to injustices and educating the public about issues that impact their privacy.

Because these individuals and groups defend the most precious elements of our society — our basic rights and liberties — they are literally the custodians of democracy.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance, © 2013 Heidi Boghosian. Published by City Lights. All rights reserved.

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  • Marie4662

    I’m resigned to the fact: that everything I say, everywhere I surf, every place I go, any comment I post, and any acquaintance I make, will be used against me, at any time the government sees fit.
    A decade ago, I would have thought my own comments to be that of a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Thanks to the Patriot Act, the rapid advancement of technology, and abuse of power, big brother is more fact than theory.
    Without public notice, my own city has installed surveillance cameras along the public beach. The police are training with small drones. Cameras are perched at every intersection and light post. We are told not to worry. These are tools for our own protection. Yet when one of our houses are burgled, or someone is assaulted, not one frame from these cameras can be used as evidence. Why?
    How does one fight something no one will admit exists?

  • Eg Reckley

    Exactly. “How does one fight something no one will admit exists?” Thank you for sharing this Marie4662. I’ve been a victim to this for several years now. I “know” it exists. You too?

  • Aggie L

    They should have a sand pounding contest between NSA(have a nice day!) and TSA. Now they want to ‘fast track’ VIP travelers who don’t need to take off their shoes, etc. What if one of them were being blackmailed with the threat that the ‘mission is accomplished’ or your family back home gets it? What would YOU do? They should have more trained dogs in public places such as airports, train stations, even the Boston Marathon. At least dogs are half way effective!

  • Eg Reckley

    I wasn’t, but per your response I’ll just go ahead and assume you’re perceiving me as one. I apologize.