Is Government Just Spying Like a Giant Peeping Tom … Or Is It Actively USING that Information in Mischievous Ways?
You know that the NSA and other government agencies are spying on all Americans.
But is the government just passively spying on us like some giant peeping Tom? Or doing something with that information?
While the NSA is the best-known spy agency at the moment, the IRS, FBI, and many other agencies also conduct their own mass spying on Americans.
Reuters recently broke the story that information gained through spying on Americans is funneled through a special unit within the Drug Enforcement Agency, and then distributed to federal, state and local agencies nationwide.
The agencies are instructed to “launder” the information by pretending that they got it from normal gumshoe investigations, and not spying.
Reuters notes that laundered information gained through spying is being used to prosecute petty crimes, including taxes and drugs … and neither the defense attorneys or even the judges are being told the real source of the information
Top NSA whistleblower William Binney – the former head of the National Security Agency’s global digital data gathering program, and a 32-year veteran of that agency who was a “legend” among NSA workers – says that the NSA database is used to harass and even frame anyone the government doesn’t like.
Another high-level NSA whistleblower (Russell Tice, who worked on satellite spying for the agency for two decades) says that the NSA is spying on – and blackmailing – top government officials and military officers (and see this; and this PBS interview).
Indeed, because government spying has always focused on crushing dissent, it is safe to assume that the government will use the information it gathers.
The Guardian reported in 2011:
The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.
A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries”.
Once developed, the software could allow US service personnel, working around the clock in one location, to respond to emerging online conversations with any number of co-ordinated messages, blogposts, chatroom posts and other interventions. Details of the contract suggest this location would be MacDill air force base near Tampa, Florida, home of US Special Operations Command.
Centcom’s contract requires for each controller the provision of one “virtual private server” located in the United States and others appearing to be outside the US to give the impression the fake personas are real people located in different parts of the world.
It also calls for “traffic mixing”, blending the persona controllers’ internet usage with the usage of people outside Centcom in a manner that must offer “excellent cover and powerful deniability”.
Centcom confirmed that the $2.76m contract was awarded to Ntrepid, a newly formed corporation registered in Los Angeles. It would not disclose whether the multiple persona project is already in operation or discuss any related contracts.
The army told the Guardian that it was not targeting Americans:
Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”
He said none of the interventions would be in English, as it would be unlawful to “address US audiences” with such technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was always clearly attributed. The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.
Centcom said it was not targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any other language, and specifically said it was not targeting Facebook or Twitter.
(Of course, the government has also repeatedly said it’s not spying on Americans … but we know that’s untrue.)
But things have changed dramatically since the Guardian article was written in 2011.
An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences is being inserted into the latest defense authorization bill, BuzzFeed has learned.
The amendment would “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of propaganda material produced by the State Department and the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors, according to the summary of the law at the House Rules Committee’s official website.
The tweak to the bill would essentially neutralize two previous acts—the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987—that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government’s misinformation campaigns.
The bi-partisan amendment is sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington State.
Thornberry warned that in the Internet age, the current law “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way.”
The bill’s supporters say the informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online.
“I just don’t want to see something this significant – whatever the pros and cons – go through without anyone noticing,”
The new law would give sweeping powers to the government to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”
According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon spends some $4 billion a year to sway public opinion already ….
The evaporation of Smith-Mundt and other provisions to safeguard U.S. citizens against government propaganda campaigns is part of a larger trend within the diplomatic and military establishment.
In December, the Pentagon used software to monitor the Twitter debate over Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing [the Federal Reserve is monitoring the web for criticism as well]; another program being developed by the Pentagon would design software to create “sock puppets” on social media outlets; and, last year, General William Caldwell, deployed an information operations team under his command that had been trained in psychological operations to influence visiting American politicians to Kabul.
A U.S. Army whistleblower, Lieutenant Col. Daniel Davis, noted recently in his scathing 84-page unclassified report on Afghanistan that there remains a strong desire within the defense establishment “to enable Public Affairs officers to influence American public opinion when they deem it necessary to “protect a key friendly center of gravity, to wit US national will,” he wrote, quoting a well-regarded general.
Foreign Policy reported last month that the bill passed … and propaganda within the U.S. is now legal:
But if anyone needed a reminder of the dangers of domestic propaganda efforts, the past 12 months provided ample reasons. Last year, two USA Today journalists were ensnared in a propaganda campaign after reporting about millions of dollars in back taxes owed by the Pentagon’s top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan. Eventually, one of the co-owners of the firm confessed to creating phony websites and Twitter accounts to smear the journalists anonymously. [Background.]
Additionally, just this month, The Washington Post exposed a counter propaganda program by the Pentagon that recommended posting comments on a U.S. website run by a Somali expat with readers opposing Al-Shabaab. “Today, the military is more focused on manipulating news and commentary on the Internet, especially social media, by posting material and images without necessarily claiming ownership,” reported The Post.
So if it seems like there are disruptors everywhere on the Internet defending the “official” view … you might not be imagining it.
Non-mainstream liberal and conservative websites have both been complaining for years that trolls are defending mainstream government policies.
A high-level intelligence source said, “we hack everyone everywhere”.
While Edward Snowden’s revelations so far have focused on hacking foreign countries, it is worth asking whether the government is hacking political dissenters in the U.S. For example, the largest German newspaper – Süddeutsche Zeitung – alleges that the U.S. government helped Monsanto attack the computers of activists opposed to genetically modified food.
Track ‘Em and Whack ‘Em
The NSA is also helping to assassinate people. The Washington Post reports:
On the line with the SEAL was the drone operator and a “collector,” an NSA employee at the agency’s gigantic base at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. The collector was controlling electronic surveillance equipment in the airspace over the part of Afghanistan where the CIA had zeroed in on one particular person. The SEAL pleaded with the collector to locate the cellphone in Afghanistan that matched the phone number that the SEAL had just given him, according to someone with knowledge of the incident who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The collector had never before done such a thing. Before even intercepting a cellphone conversation, he was accustomed to first confirming that the user was the person he had been directed to spy on. The conversation would then be translated, analyzed, distilled and, weeks later, if deemed to be interesting, sent around the U.S. intelligence community and the White House.
On that day, though, the minutes mattered.
“We just want you to find the phone!” the SEAL urged. No one cared about the conversation it might be transmitting.
The CIA wanted the phone as a targeting beacon to kill its owner.
The NSA collector in Georgia took what was then considered a gigantic leap — from using the nation’s most sophisticated spy technology to record the words of presidents, kings and dictators to using it to kill a single man in a terrorist group.
The revolutionary significance of that and other similar operations was quickly grasped by intelligence officials. With analysts and technicians from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the NSA subsequently assembled a team in the basement of its headquarters called the Geolocation Cell, or Geo Cell. Its purpose was to track people, geographically, in real time.
A motto quickly caught on at Geo Cell: “We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em.”
At the same time, the NSA supported a parallel effort by CIA paramilitary units and clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) teams tasked with capturing or killing al-Qaeda leaders, deemed “high-value targets.” NSA analysts and collectors moved into the JSOC commander’s new and growing operational headquarters in Balad, Iraq, which also serviced Afghanistan.
By September 2004, a new NSA technique enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off. JSOC troops called this “The Find,” and it gave them thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq, according to members of the unit.
Daily Kos notes:
So the NSA and CIA have been targeting drone strikes at cellphones without first taking the time to be clear who is carrying the phone and what they might be doing. That’s how you end up blowing up weddings, political meetings, and groups of teenagers hanging out at a cafe.
Equally disturbing the NSA is collecting and storing information on every American with a cell phone that would allow them to quickly carry out their assassination via drone. (I should also add that if you have a 4G enabled tablet, it would seem the government can follow it even when turned off). Among the things the government absolutely should not be doing is secretly tracking citizens in a way that would allow for their extrajudicial killing.
It is time we renewed the ban on the US government performing assassinations. Once that capability has been created it is far to easy to abuse.
It’s worth noting that the same unaccountable agency which decides who should be killed by drones also spies on all Americans.
Postscript: It’s Not Very Reassuring When …
Given the trends in America towards loss of Constitutional rights, the potential abuse of information gained through spying is troubling. We’re not saying that the government is doing every rotten thing you can imagine. And we’re not saying that the sky is falling.
But the following trends together they show that unchecked power could lead to bad results:
- The government can – on a whim – label any American as a potential terrorist
- Any criticism of government – even by Americans living on U.S. soil – could be labeled as terrorism by the American government
- People who criticize those in power, they may be smeared by the government and targeted for arrest (and see this)
- Indeed, because the core things which reporters do could be considered terrorism, in modern America, they could even targeted under counter-terrorism laws. The American government has been instrumental in locking up journalists in America, Yemen and elsewhere when for the crime of embarrassing the U.S. government
- The Department of Justice told a federal court that the courts cannot review the legality of the government’s assassination by drone of Americans abroad
- One of the nation’s top constitutional and military law experts said that Obama claims the power to assassinate any American without charge and at his own discretion
- The director of the FBI said he’d have to “check” to see if the president had the authority to assassinate Americans on U.S. soil
- Former Department of Justice lawyer John Yoo – the guy who wrote the memo justifying torture, even of children, which was used to justify torture of innocent people, including children – said that the president has the power to assassinate Americans on U.S. soil in times of war
- The Attorney General of the United States confirmed the president can assassinate Americans living on U.S. soil. After a hurricane of protest, the Attorney General pretended to “clarify” that only “enemy combatants” would be assassinated on U.S. soil. But that phrase is so broad as to be meaningless … and provides no real protection for American citizens
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