Top-secret U.S. government surveillance of millions of citizens has zero checks of any kind

U.S. government out to destroy all remnants of individual privacy

No 770 Posted by fw, June 8, 2013

“What exactly is the government doing in how it spies on us and how it reads our emails and how it intercepts our chats? Let’s have that discussion out in the open. To the extent that these companies and the NSA have a conflict and can’t get their story straight, let them have that conflict resolved in front of us. And then we, as citizens, instead of having this massive surveillance apparatus built completely secretly and in the dark without us knowing anything that’s going on, we can then be informed about what kinds of surveillance the government is engaged in and have a reasoned debate about whether that’s the kind of world in which we want to live.”Glenn Greenwald

According to reports published in the Guardian and Washington Post, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has obtained access to the central servers of nine major Internet companies — including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Facebook. Details about the top-secret program, codenamed PRISM, were obtained from a 41-page training presentation for senior intelligence analysts. It explains how PRISM allows them to access emails, documents, audio and video chats, photographs, documents and connection logs.

But do Americans really care about this story? (See below for a SEE ALSO linked report, America the Passive).

Click on the following linked title to watch an interview with Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald and to access the complete transcript. Or scroll down to watch an embedded copy of the 14-minute interview and read an abridged version of the transcript with added subheadings and text highlighting.

“A Massive Surveillance State”: Glenn Greenwald Exposes Covert NSA Program Collecting Calls, Emails, interview with Glenn Greenwald, Democracy Now, June 7, 2013


Introduction by Amy Goodman — We’re joined by Glenn Greenwald, columnist, attorney, and blogger for The Guardian, where he broke his story headlined NSA Taps in to Internet Giants’ Systems to Mine User Data, Secret Files Reveal. This comes after he revealed Wednesday in another exclusive story that the “NSA has been collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers.” Glenn Greenwald is author of With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. Glenn, welcome back to Democracy Now! Lay out this latest exclusive that you have just reported in The Guardian.

[Unless otherwise indicated, Greenwald is the sole source for all passages below]

US Government’s “massively invasive system of surveillance worldwide that has zero checks of any kind”

Glenn Greenwald — There are top-secret NSA documents that very excitingly describe—excitedly describe, boast about even, how they have created this new program called the PRISM program that actually has been in existence since 2007, that enables them direct access into the servers of all of the major Internet companies which people around the world, hundreds of millions, use to communicate with one another. You mentioned all of those—all those names. And what makes it so extraordinary is that in 2008 the Congress enacted a new law that essentially said that except for conversations involving American citizens talking to one another on U.S. soil, the NSA no longer needs a warrant to grab, eavesdrop on, intercept whatever communications they want. And at the time, when those of us who said that the NSA would be able to obtain whatever they want and abuse that power, the argument was made, “Oh, no, don’t worry. There’s a great check on this. They have to go to the phone companies and go to the Internet companies and ask for whatever it is they want. And that will be a check.” And what this program allows is for them, either because the companies have given over access to their servers, as the NSA claims, or apparently the NSA has simply seized it, as the companies now claim—the NSA is able to go in—anyone at a monitor in an NSA facility can go in at any time and either read messages that are stored in Facebook or in real time surveil conversations and chats that take place on Skype and Gmail and all other forms of communication. It’s an incredibly invasive system of surveillance worldwide that has zero checks of any kind.

“Objective of the NSA and the U.S. government is nothing less than destroying all remnants of privacy”

I think the crucial thing to realize is that hundreds of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions—in fact, billions of people around the world essentially rely on the Internet exclusively to communicate with one another. Very few people use landline phones for much of anything. So when you talk about things like online chats and social media messages and emails, what you’re really talking about is the full extent of human communication. And what the objective of the National Security Agency is, as the stories that we’ve revealed thus far demonstrate and as the stories we’re about to reveal into the future will continue to demonstrate—the objective of the NSA and the U.S. government is nothing less than destroying all remnants of privacy. They want to make sure that every single time human beings interact with one another, things that we say to one another, things we do with one another, places we go, the behavior in which we engage, that they know about it, that they can watch it, and they can store it, and they can access it at any time. And that’s what this program is about. And they’re very explicit about the fact that since most communications are now coming through these Internet companies, it is vital, in their eyes, for them to have full and unfettered access to it. And they do.

Google caught in denial of a “government backdoor” to private user data, but now admitted to as true by government officials

After our story [about PRISM program] was published, and The Washington Post published more or less simultaneously a similar story, several news outlets, including NBC News, confirmed with government officials that they in fact have exactly the access to the data that we describe. The director of national intelligence confirmed to The New York Times, by name, that the program we identify and the capabilities that we described actually exist. So, you have a situation where somebody seems to be lying. The NSA claims that these companies voluntarily allow them the access; the companies say that they never did.

Citizens need to be informed about what’s going on

This is exactly the kind of debate that we ought to have out in the open. What exactly is the government doing in how it spies on us and how it reads our emails and how it intercepts our chats? Let’s have that discussion out in the open. To the extent that these companies and the NSA have a conflict and can’t get their story straight, let them have that conflict resolved in front of us. And then we, as citizens, instead of having this massive surveillance apparatus built completely secretly and in the dark without us knowing anything that’s going on, we can then be informed about what kinds of surveillance the government is engaged in and have a reasoned debate about whether that’s the kind of world in which we want to live.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Feinstein misinterprets PATRIOT Act, claiming top-secret court order to obtain phone records on millions of Americans is “lawful”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein video clip — As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the FISA court under the business records section of the PATRIOT Act, therefore it is lawful.

Glenn Greenwald — Well, first of all, the fact that something is lawful doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous or tyrannical or wrong. You can enact laws that endorse tyrannical behavior. And there’s no question, if you look at what the government has done, from the PATRIOT Act, the Protect America Act, the Military Commissions Act and the FISA Amendments Act, that’s exactly what the war on terror has been about.

But I would just defer to two senators who are her colleagues, who are named Ron Wyden and Mark Udall. They have—are good Democrats. They have spent two years now running around trying to get people to listen to them as they’ve been saying, “Look, what the Obama administration is doing in interpreting the PATRIOT Act is so radical and so distorted and warped that Americans will be stunned to learn” — that’s their words — “what is being done in the name of these legal theories, these secret legal theories, in terms of the powers the Obama administration has claimed for itself in how it can spy on Americans.”

When the PATRIOT Act was enacted—and you can go back and look at the debates, as I’ve done this week—nobody thought, even opponents of the PATRIOT Act, that it would ever be used to enable the government to gather up everybody’s telephone records and communication records without regard to whether they’ve done anything wrong. The idea of the PATRIOT Act was that when the government suspects somebody of being involved in terrorism or serious crimes, the standard of proof is lowered for them to be able to get these documents. But the idea that the PATRIOT Act enables bulk collection, mass collection of the records of hundreds of millions of Americans, so that the government can store that and know what it is that we’re doing at all times, even when there’s no reason to believe that we’ve done anything wrong, that is ludicrous, and Democratic senators are the ones saying that it has nothing to do with that law.

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence caught in “outright lie” when he said the NSA does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans

Sen. Ron Wyden — Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

James Clapper — No, sir.

Sen. Ron Wyden —It does not?

James Clapper — Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.

Glenn Greenwald — We know that to be a lie, not a misleading statement, not something that was sort of parsed in a way that really was a little bit deceitful, but an outright lie. They collect—they collect data and records about the communications activities and other behavioral activities of millions of Americans all the time. That’s what that program is that we exposed on Wednesday. They go to the FISA court every three months, and they get an order compelling telephone companies to turn over the records, that he just denied they collect, with regard to the conversations of every single American who uses these companies to communicate with one another. The same is true for what they’re doing on the Internet with the PRISM program. The same is true for what the NSA does in all sorts of ways.

More revelations to come about NSA’s spying activities that will shock a lot of people

We are going to do a story, coming up very shortly, about the scope of the NSA’s spying activities domestically, and I think it’s going to shock a lot of people, because the NSA likes to portray itself as interested only in foreign intelligence gathering and only in targeting people who they believe are guilty of terrorism, and yet the opposite is true. It is a massive surveillance state of exactly the kind that the Church Committee warned was being constructed 35 years ago. And we intend to make all those facts available so people can see just how vast it is and how false those kinds of statements are.

Feinstein – the most Orwellian official in Washington — says the leak of the top-secret program should be investigated. Clip from interview with Feinstein —

Sen. Dianne Feinstein — There is nothing new in this program. The fact of the matter is that this was a routine three-month approval, under seal, that was leaked.

Andrea Mitchell — Should it be—should the leak be investigated?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein — I think so. I mean, I think we have become a culture of leaks now.

Glenn Greenwald — I think Dianne Feinstein may be the most Orwellian political official in Washington. It is hard to imagine having a government more secretive than the United States. Virtually everything that government does, of any significance, is conducted behind an extreme wall of secrecy. The very few leaks that we’ve had over the last decade are basically the only ways that we’ve had to learn what our government is doing.

Feinstein is just one more Washington official out to create a “climate of fear”. and it will backfire

But look, what she’s doing is simply channeling the way that Washington likes to threaten the people over whom they exercise power, which is, if you expose what it is that we’re doing, if you inform your fellow citizens about all the things that we’re doing in the dark, we will destroy you. This is what their spate of prosecutions of whistleblowers has been about. It’s what trying to threaten journalists, to criminalize what they do, is about. It’s to create a climate of fear so that nobody will bring accountability to them.

It’s not going to work. I think it’s starting to backfire, because it shows their true character and exactly why they can’t be trusted to operate with power in secret. And we’re certainly not going to be deterred by it in any way. The people who are going to be investigated are not the people reporting on this, but are people like Dianne Feinstein and her friends in the National Security Agency, who need investigation and transparency for all the things that they’ve been doing.

[Threats like this are] actually going to embolden me to pursue these stories even more aggressively.



  • Mass Surveillance in America: A Timeline of Loosening Laws and Practices by Cora Currier, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica, June. 7, 2013 – That the National Security Agency has engaged in such activity isn’t entirely new: Since 9/11, we’ve learned about large-scale surveillance by the spy agency from a patchwork of official statements, classified documents, and anonymously sourced news stories.” ProPublica traces the chronology of surveillance from 1978 through to the Guardian story presented above.
  • America the passive by Joan Walsh, Salon, June 7, 2013 – “And I think there’s more to the indifference, even by a lot of liberals, to this latest news than just ‘it’s OK when our guy does it.’ Partly, we blame ourselves. Probably every one of us has thought from time to time about how exposed we all are, from our cellphones to email to the Internet ‘cloud’ to all of social media — and then we go about our business using all of it because it’s all so damn awesome. And so, on some level, we feel partly culpable. We always knew, or suspected, all of this was possible — and went on doing it anyway.”
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1 comment

  1. The order is to Verizon Business Network Services through MCI, a provider for many small businesses and perhaps for individual customers, too. It may well not be the only one: Greenwald’s previous reporting , and the veiled warnings about surveillance that have been coming from Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, suggest that the government is collecting data from other companies as well. “[T]here is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” Wyden and Udall wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year, as Greenwald points out.

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