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Surveillance, the American Way: NSA-AT&T Cohabitation

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The convergence of power against the ordinary citizen, here via the interpenetration of government and the telecommunications industry, a collapsing of the public and private spheres of authority (it doesn’t matter which of the two seizes the initiative, for what amounts to the privatization of repression under the aegis of the State), eviscerates/invalidates the existence of a democratic social order. The American Imperium wears no clothes, a condition at least a century in the making. The present, however, is perhaps worse than ever, from the standpoint of freedom of thought and expression, as witness, in passing, the clear rightward shift of the political spectrum in which both major parties field candidates stopping just this side of outright fascism.

Surveillance is not the cause of this ideological sameness of retrograde posturing, but certainly a contributing factor—one thinks twice knowing his/her emails and telephone conversations are being monitored and stored possibly awaiting further disposition. A society does not require standing armies when self-policing, circumspection, silence will do as well or better. The breadth of political-economic discussion, the entertainment of alternative visions, has shrunken to a point familiar to anyone living through the darkest days of McCarthyism—or rather, at least then one saw repression for what it was, whereas now repression has become so internalized that the internal checking of views is hardly noticed.

Is America a Police State? I think, yes. Not just in the ordinary sense, where authoritative racism is back in business and local police forces have become beneficiaries of the wider militarization of American culture and technology. For now emphasis is on coming at the people from all sides, like surround-around sound, a sweet narcotic of patriotism and the veneration of wealth (especially for those who don’t have it, yet must be encouraged to identify with those at the top if stability is to be maintained), a gentler more accommodating repression which leaves intact but unnoticed further trends toward wealth concentration, corporate rapaciousness, an ever-expanding appetite for global conquest, overt or through market-financial penetration. Each step down the primrose path of fascism necessitates a tightening of structure, an impelling urge toward social control, a fear of leaving any loose ends by which the populace can gain a self-consciousness of purpose. Not a million intercepts per day is sufficient, there must be more, there must be total control. Simply, surveillance on the scale practiced and hedged in by guarantees of impunity is, no other word will do, totalitarianism.

I have often criticized the New York Times for bedding down with status-quo political-institutional forces, instruments, practices in America, but on this occasion—and often on national-security reporting—the paper does itself proud, the reporters Julia Angwin, Charlie Savage, Jeff Larson, Henrik Moltke, Laura Poitras, and James Risen’s article, “AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale,” August 16, a devastating critique of private-public cooperation in the abridgment of free thought. AT&T as the showpiece of Corporate America makes its participation all the more symbolic of, and reaching down into, the militaristic core actuating the total society. (As a general proposition, toss in GM, IBM, Morgan Chase, etc. etc. and you have, in fact, US Inc., a hierarchical polity run on behalf of business and according to its principles, aka The Capitalist State, shorthand for the paradigm of German and Italian fascism.)

The Times article minces no words: “The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.” Newly disclosed NSA documents describe the relationship as “’highly collaborative’” and praised AT&T’s “’extreme willingness to help.’” No arm-twisting; even the UN falls within its purview, and also striking is the way AT&T has plowed through the interstices of the law to avoid prosecution: It “has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.”

AT&T is clearly hot to trot, NSA’s ‘top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership [being] more than twice that of the next-largest such program,” as “the company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil,” while, in addition, “its engineers were the first to try out new surveillances technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.” Veritably, a sublime marriage of like-parties consummated in Valhalla. The documents were provided by Edward Snowden and reviewed by The Times and ProPublica. When asked to discuss the findings, AT&T, speaking for itself, NSA, and Verizon, replied, “’We don’t comment on matters of national security.’” (Stonewalling, as found also in FISA Court decisions and up-and-down the ladder of repression.)

Obama, civil libertarian bar none, reveals his adeptness in utilizing the state secrets doctrine. Verizon “unsuccessfully challenged a court order for bulk phone records” last year; meanwhile, “the government has been fighting in court to keep the identities of its telecom partners hidden.” The reporters continue: “In a recent case, a group of AT&T customers claimed that the N.S.A.’s tapping of the Internet violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. This year, a federal judge dismissed key portions of the lawsuit after the Obama administration argued that public discussion of its telecom surveillance efforts would reveal state secrets, damaging national security.” One secret, I suspect, is fleshing out just what NSA’s Special Source Operations division is up to—Obamaen secretiveness choking off all vestiges of liberty.

As in any national policy driven by hubris (and ego-fulfilling fanaticism), it only gets worse. One NSA program, Fairview, begun in 1985, already established a partnership with AT&T, and led to surveillance on UN headquarters and, as I understand it, the content of the Japanese-American cable, which is operated by AT&T. Too, it played a major role in Bush’s warrantless wiretap program, only days after 9/11, and before others also jumped in. NSA praised it as providing “’a ‘live’ presence on the global net,’” and a decade later, in “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” AT&T was “handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day” to NSA. Not satisfied with such valiant service, AT&T went on to engage in “peering,” an industry term for supplying NSA with Internet traffic that it transmits for other telecom companies. In the words of one document: Its “corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and I.S.P.s [Internet Service Providers].” As for foreign-to-foreign traffic, AT&T “gave the N.S.A. access to ‘massive amounts of data,’ and by 2013 the program was processing 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day.”

My New York Times Comment on the foregoing article, same date, follows:

So disheartening. One definition of fascism is the collapse, as here, between the public and private sectors, in effect a systemic removal of constitutional safeguards, e.g., the Fourth Amendment, on citizens’ right to privacy. Surveillance was expected in Nazi Germany, not in the Bush and Obama administrations.

A curtain is descending on American freedoms. The health of civil liberties, as when Zachariah Chafee and William O. Douglas defended them, is now long past. More dismal still, this appears to be an unchecked runaway process, neither NSA nor AT&T amenable to public standards and controls. (For those who still vilify Snowden, let this be a lesson.)

The cynicism and smugness of the representatives of government and business on this whole issue effectively raises the question: Is there still democracy in America. Surveillance and democracy do not mix; further, the cancer spreads to other institutions, notably the judiciary. Let Obama puff and preen about leadership; he has proven himself just another Heinrich Himmler. NSA should be abolished. The surveillance program should be abolished. A stockholders’ revolt of AT&T should throw out its corporate officers and those harmed by its policies have recourse to damages. Time to clean out the Augean stables, if America is to claim any constructive–let alone progressive–role in the world.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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