FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Revelations of Edward Snowden

by MARJORIE COHN

“Big Brother is Watching You,” George Orwell wrote in his disturbing book 1984. But, as Mikko Hypponen points out, Orwell “was an optimist.” Orwell never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day. Orwell could not have foreseen that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use.

In his recent speech on NSA reforms, President Obama cited as precedent Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty, who patrolled the streets at night, “reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.” This was a weak effort to find historical support for the NSA spying program.  After all, Paul Revere and his associates were patrolling the streets, not sorting through people’s private communications.

To get a more accurate historical perspective, Obama should have considered how our founding fathers reacted to searches conducted by the British before the revolution.  The British used “general warrants,” which authorized blanket searches without any individualized suspicion or specificity of what the colonial authorities were seeking.

At the American Continental Congress in 1774, in a petition to King George III, Congress protested against the colonial officers’ unlimited power of search and seizure. The petition charged that power had been used “to break open and enter houses, without the authority of any civil magistrate founded on legal information.”

When the founders later put the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures into the Bill of Rights, they were attempting to ensure that our country would not become a police state.

Those who maintain that government surveillance is no threat to our liberty should consider the abuse that occurred nearly 200 years later, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover conducted the dreaded COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program).  It was designed to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” political and activist groups. During the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, in an effort to eradicate the perceived threat of communism, our government engaged in widespread illegal surveillance to threaten and silence anyone with unorthodox political views. Thousands of people were jailed, blacklisted, and fired as the FBI engaged in “red-baiting.”

In the 1960s, the FBI targeted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a program called “Racial Matters.” King’s campaign to register African-American voters in the South raised the hackles of the FBI, which disingenuously claimed that King’s organization was being infiltrated by communists. But the FBI was really worried that King’s civil rights campaign “represented a clear threat to the established order of the U.S.” The FBI went after King with a vengeance, wiretapping his phones, and securing personal information which it used to try to discredit him, hoping to drive him to divorce and suicide.

Obama would likely argue that our modern day “war on terror” is unlike COINTELPRO because it targets real, rather than imagined, threats.  But, as Hypponen says, “It’s not the war on terror.” Indeed, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal privacy watchdog, found “no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

The NSA spying program captures all of us, including European leaders, people in Mexico, Brazil, the United Nations, and the European Union Parliament, not just the terrorists. Although Obama assured us that the government “does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent,” our history, particularly during COINTELPRO, tells us otherwise.

Obama proposed some reforms to the NSA program, but left in place the most egregious aspects. He said that the NSA must secure approval of a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before it gets access to the phone records of an individual. But that is a secret court, whose judges are appointed by the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, and it has almost never turned down an executive branch wiretapping request since it was created in 1978. Most significantly, Obama did not say that surveillance without judicial warrants or individual suspicion should be halted.

“One of [Obama’s] biggest lapses,” a New York Times editorial noted, “was his refusal to acknowledge that his entire speech, and all of the important changes he now advocates, would never have happened without the disclosures by [Edward] Snowden, who continues to live in exile and under the threat of decades in prison if he returns to this country.”

Snowden’s revelations will reportedly continue to emerge. And you can bet that Orwell will continue to turn in his grave for a long time to come.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, a past president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her next book, Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues,” will be published this fall by University of California Press.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. She writes, speaks and does media about human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Her most recent book is “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” Visit her website at http://marjoriecohn.com/ and follow her on Twitter at @marjoriecohn.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
August 26, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Louisa Willcox
The Unbearable Killing of Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: 2015 Shatters Records for Bear Deaths
Paul Buhle
In the Shadow of the CIA: Liberalism’s Big Embarrassing Moment
Rob Urie
Crisis and Opportunity
Charles Pierson
Wedding Crashers Who Kill
Richard Moser
What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?
Dirk Bezemer – Michael Hudson
Finance is Not the Economy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Bernie’s Used Cars
Margaret Kimberley
Hillary and Colin: the War Criminal Charade
Patrick Cockburn
Turkey’s Foray into Syria: a Gamble in a Very Dangerous Game
Ishmael Reed
Birther Tries to Flim Flam Blacks  
Brian Terrell
What Makes a Hate Group?
Andrew Levine
How Donald Trump Can Still be a Hero: Force the Guardians of the Duopoly to Open Up the Debates
Howard Lisnoff
Trouble in Political Paradise
Terry Tempest Williams
Will Our National Parks Survive the Next 100 Years?
Ben Debney
The Swimsuit that Overthrew the State
Ashley Smith
Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution
Andrew Stewart
Did Gore Throw the 2000 Election?
Vincent Navarro
Is the Nation State and Its Welfare State Dead? a Critique of Varoufakis
John Wight
Syria’s Kurds and the Wages of Treachery
Lawrence Davidson
The New Anti-Semitism: the Case of Joy Karega
Mateo Pimentel
The Affordable Care Act: A Litmus Test for American Capitalism?
Roger Annis
In Northern Syria, Turkey Opens New Front in its War Against the Kurds
David Swanson
ABC Shifts Blame from US Wars to Doctors Without Borders
Norman Pollack
American Exceptionalism: A Pernicious Doctrine
Ralph Nader
Readers Think, Thinkers Read
Julia Morris
The Mythologies of the Nauruan Refugee Nation
George Wuerthner
Caving to Ranchers: the Misguided Decision to Kill the Profanity Wolf Pack
Ann Garrison
Unworthy Victims: Houthis and Hutus
Julian Vigo
Britain’s Slavery Legacy
John Stanton
Brzezinski Vision for a Power Sharing World Stymied by Ignorant Americans Leaders, Citizens
Philip Doe
Colorado: 300 Days of Sunshine Annually, Yet There’s No Sunny Side of the Street
Joseph White
Homage to EP Thompson
Dan Bacher
The Big Corporate Money Behind Jerry Brown
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
DNC Playing Dirty Tricks on WikiLeaks
Ron Jacobs
Education for Liberation
Jim Smith
Socialism Revived: In Spite of Bernie, Donald and Hillary
David Macaray
Organized Labor’s Inferiority Complex
David Cortright
Alternatives to Military Intervention in Syria
Binoy Kampmark
The Terrors of Free Speech: Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act
Cesar Chelala
Guantánamo’s Quagmire
Nyla Ali Khan
Hoping Against Hope in Kashmir
William Hughes
From Sam Spade to the Red Scare: Dashiell Hammett’s War Against Rightwing Creeps
Raouf Halaby
Dear Barack Obama, Please Keep it at 3 for 3
Charles R. Larson
Review: Paulina Chiziane’s “The First Wife: a Tale of Polygamy”
David Yearsley
The Widow Bach: Anna Magdalena Rediscovered
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail