The Surveillance State: It Knows Almost Everything About Us, We Know Almost Nothing About It

Photograph Source: Mike Lewinski – CC BY 2.0

An argument can be made that in an environment where almost everyone’s personal information is known, in the world of the Internet and government surveillance, that it is almost beyond foolish to believe that there is some information about individuals and groups that remains beyond the purview of government observation and collection.

When considering this concept, Edward Snowden’s name comes to mind. Readers will recall that Snowden was an NSA contractor when he discovered that that agency had collected personal information on masses of people around the world and in particular on those in the US. The Constitution (remember that quaint founding document from the revolutionary history of the US?) protects those in the US from unreasonable searches and seizures of our personal information in the Fourth Amendment and establishes our right of free expression that is enshrined in the First Amendment. At least that is what some learned in eight-grade civics class.

Following the Vietnam War era, the US Congress limited the government’s ability to pry into the lives of those in the US. That period, in the late 1970s, was the high point of reining in the government’s ability to spy on those in the US without a warrant and further limited the government’s ability to conduct “dirty tricks’ and sabotage of individuals and groups, as it had done through the FBI’s counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) spying program.

A footnote to J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program was the existence of a secret set of files that he held in a place near his office at the FBI that was hidden from the view of all but Hoover and an assistant. Do those kinds of files on targets that the government identifies as suspicious exist today, or are secret files unneeded with the incredible reach the government now has to monitor millions beginning with the 2001 Patriot Act and subsequent laws?

With sweeping government surveillance in mind, I recently received responses to two requests I made of two government agencies through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) denied my requests with essentially the same language.

I do not know whether either agency has any information about my political affiliations, political action, or writing, and that’s precisely why I requested any information those agencies may have about me. The result of my inquiry was fairly predictable.

Here, I’ll focus on the NSA’s response to my query.  The essence of each law the NSA cites in denying my request for information is paraphrased and is not a precise legal assessment of each law. What the NSA seems to say is that the laws governing secrecy, state that that agency doesn’t have to disclose anything to an individual seeking to know what that agency may or may not have about them. One statement within the NSA’s response was disconcerting and here I paraphrase once again. They, the NSA, reasoned that if the NSA gives a person information, then a terrorist could trip the NSA up and get information that might help them in their nefarious plans. Pretty dubious reasoning there. Having written and protested about US militarism and empire since the Vietnam War, it seems as if the government may have had a fleeting interest, but this is not an exercise in ego. I doubt if the NSA’s line of reasoning holds much water. If that agency performed their roles within laws that existed before 2001, wouldn’t they have information about anyone with plans to do harm to others? Did they, the NSA and other spy agencies, really need Draconian laws to make the Constitution a laughable document?

Again, here’s how they reasoned in response to my query:

+ Title 18 US Code 798: The government can keep classified information from you as an unauthorized person.

+ Title 50 3024(i): The director of the NSA protects intelligence sources and methods.

+ Section 6, Public Law 86-36: Laws can’t require the NSA to disclose the functions and activities of the NSA.

+ 150 US Code 3605: This law protects the NSA from disclosing the organization or any function of the NSA.

Spy agencies, including the NSA, don’t have to disclose anything they may have in their possession about an individual or group. To these agencies, a citizen of the US has few rights since the attacks of 2001. These agencies have the right, by law, to keep all information about people they may surveil as secret information. Spy agencies have rendered the Fourth Amendment toothless. These agencies know everything about many of us and we know almost nothing about them and are effectively barred from learning anything about the information they collect. What they know is that they now have the legal right and means to collect everything about us and our affiliations and actions. Due process enshrined in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and habeas corpus are pretty much out the door in many cases: Consume: Be Silent.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).