Can the Surveillance State Be Stopped?

Despite the public furor over NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. government surveillance, the process rolls on unabated with few prospects of significant reform, writes Danny Schechter.

By Danny Schechter

With the publication of Glenn Greenwald’s new book on Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency, the state surveillance issue is back in full force, as if it ever went a way.

Purloined formerly top-secret NSA documents are now there for the downloading, even as the calls for truth and privacy buttressed by irrefutable information, has run up against the institutional armor of the surveillance state that has little respect for public opinion or calls for “reform.”

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in Moscow on Oct. 9, 2013. (From a video posted by WikiLeaks)

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in Moscow on Oct. 9, 2013. (From a video posted by WikiLeaks)

Every day, there are new stories showing duplicity in high places and revealing the existence of new tracking technologies and forced and voluntary collusion between the secret agency and its many “partners” in the private sector. PBS “Frontline” is out with one more exposé.

Just as the publication of the Pentagon Papers in l971 did not end the Vietnam War, the leaks from a world of questionable “intelligence” gathering have only made our spymasters more determined. There were more years of carnage after Daniel Ellsberg dropped the hidden history of our intervention in Vietnam showing how officials knew the truth even as they fed the public a litany of lies to keep a profitable if murderous enterprise going.

The charade was finally ended by the Vietnamese liberation army 39 years ago, but the NSA and its handsomely financed partners in the self-styled “Intelligence Community” will go on and on until someone stops them and their spying, and that someone is hard to identify given the way the agencies seem to have the goods on the government as well as the rest of us.

There is no American liberation army with the clout to shut them down.

I spoke with retired CIA veteran Ray McGovern for a TV series I am producing about how government spying intimidates people in government.  He told me:

“Everybody is afraid. It’s not just the journalists, it’s people like Barack Obama, it’s people like Dianne Feinstein think about what the NSA has on Dianne Feinstein and her husband who has made billions from defense and post office and all kinds of nice cozy contracts, okay? This goes back to J. Edgar Hoover”

So far, all the noise and media condemnations have not led to meaningful reforms or legal restraints on the NSA’s electronic octopus. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union writes in the Guardian about lawsuits against the NSA that were thrown out of Court:

“What’s surprising even remarkable is what the government says on the way to its conclusion. It says, in essence, that the Constitution is utterly indifferent to the NSA’s large-scale surveillance of Americans’ international telephone calls and emails:

“‘The privacy rights of US persons in international communications are significantly diminished, if not completely eliminated, when those communications have been transmitted to or obtained from non-US persons located outside the United States.’

“That phrase ‘if not completely eliminated’ is unusually revealing. Think of it as the Justice Department’s twin to the NSA’s ‘collect it all.’”

Leave it to the outspoken Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei, who has been spied on and jailed in China, to recognize the similarities between pervasive Chinese surveillance and the U.S. imitation of it. He writes: “Civilisation is built on that trust and everyone must fight to defend it, and to protect our vulnerable aspects our inner feelings, our families. We must not hand over our rights to other people. No state power should be given that kind of trust. Not China. Not the US.”

Easier said than done. As we focus on the government role in spying, we seem to be ignoring the commercial aspects of wiretapping and eavesdropping. American corporations are not just cooperating with the NSA but competing with it. And, not just with Google cars photographing every street in the world.

Just ask Donald Sterling, the now-banished-from-the-NBA Los Angeles Clippers owner. As much a jerk as he may be, ask him about what non-government spying did to him (when he was recorded telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to games).

I spoke to Sam Antar who was wiretapped by the government as part of an investigation into illegal practices by the Crazy Eddy electronics chain years ago and who became a convicted felon. He says that spying has become a profitable business and that it is bigger and even more insidious than the NSA.

I told Antar: “You made a point before about how a lot of the spying is not ideological. It’s almost like a technology itself. It’s almost like a business with no particular political goals, but, you know, it gets funding, it gets support. People are afraid of what they don’t know so they justify it.

He responded: “That’s entirely correct. My point is this: ‘It’s not a left-wing issue. It’s not a right-wing issue per se. It goes on everywhere in this world. People want to know about what they don’t know about. And spying agencies play to that.”

So where are we? We know more than ever, and they know we know it, but that hasn’t stopped the government to try to shut down all debate on the issue. A new executive order instructed all government employees not to publicly discuss classified information, even if it has appeared in reputable media outlets.

And Congress? Can we expect politicians allegedly providing oversight on overreach to enact effective reforms. Not so far, writes Jameel Jaffer who tells us to be very, very wary:

“While the current version of the reform bill, the USA Freedom Act, would make some necessary changes to a handful of surveillance laws, it would not narrow the surveillance powers granted by the 2008 law. Nor would it narrow the surveillance powers the NSA derives from the presidential directive that regulates the NSA’s surveillance activities outside the United States.

“Reform is urgently necessary, and years overdue, but this imperfect legislation would leave some of the government’s most sweeping authorities intact and to a large extent it would leave the privacy rights, of Americans and non-Americans alike, to the mercy of the NSA.”

And that’s where we are, in a sense, where we have always been, on the receiving end of government abuse.

CIA veteran Ray McGovern says let’s hope there are more Snowdens in the wings: “Now, if you only have 1 out of 100 or maybe even out of 1,000 … technically proficient people like this, that’s all you need to do what Edward Snowden did.

“The governments cannot operate without these very bright people a lot of these bright people bring consciousness to their expertise, as long as that’s the case, and that will continue to be the case, the governments will not be able to get away with this kind of thing.

“So, that’s the good news bad news of course is that they’ll keep trying, and as I said before, with the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches all kind of complicit in this … well, and then you have the media, and the corporations and all that it looks very much like the classic definition that Mussolini gave to Fascism.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits and blogs at He is producing a TV documentary series on America’s surveillance state. Comments to [email protected].

9 comments for “Can the Surveillance State Be Stopped?

  1. May 24, 2014 at 10:53

    Maybe we shouldn’t chastise the more violent natured individuals in our country. In the end when the tipping point is reached and the average Consortium consumer is at home writing a protest article about freedom . It will be these individuals who strikes the first blow for freedom. The Duck Dynasty people you like to poke fun at, the ones who were raised in a culture that believes in fighting for what one believes in even at the expense of offending the more fair natured among us.

  2. Mike Ryan
    May 23, 2014 at 02:10

    Arrogance has a way to be checked, and this will not be an exception. As you mentioned, no one is immune to this spying and intrusive behavior by the government including members of the agencies themselves. Everyone is afraid, not sure or knowing what has be obtained on him or her. Security, investigation and cheating gave birth to wiretapping, eavesdropping(bugging) and now in the digital and information age and unauthorized easy access to our private lives. To wiretap or bug requires physical devices to be installed covertly, and requires court authorization which more often than not, is done without. Internet communication protocols makes us leave unique identification, and through technological tools we are vulnerable to it easy access including stored information on personal computers. Subsequently, every information you send or receive could be intercepted/trapped and stored; all that is needed is a bunch of codes/conditions written that scales through security protections on data transmission to access it automatically as intended. Only God knows to what extent this illegally gotten information could be used. It puts the scares on those who would otherwise have stood up against it, to stop it. You are not sure what has been gotten about you. This is like a blackmail, and you must continue to pay up, hence those that matter are doing nothing about this violations. Remotely, you can be monitored real-time on you device as you are on it, everything step of the way. No court orders are necessary in the new police state of continuous spying and monitoring. The police state must be stopped, for they are no longer protecting us, but interfering with our life. Congress as you mentioned, are reluctant but indirectly cooperating in this violation of constitutional right of privacy. A check and stop is overdue, but how is it going to come about? Maybe, a mass protest by citizens will do it.

  3. Geoffrey de Galles
    May 20, 2014 at 15:54

    Studying the alternative news media in combination with all the comments posted by MSM readers in respect of the flood of NSA / GCHQ revelations, it is clear that the US & UK governments are utterly out of touch with the Zeitgeist and have completely lost the plot. Moreover, the anti-surveillance agitators, activists, & advocates Greenwald, Poitras, Assange, Binney, Drake, Wiebe, McGovern, Gelman, Snowden, etc., who are directly responsible for such a profound shift in the Zeitgeist of late, are so very much more erudite, articulate, incisive, cogent, and convincing than are Alexander, Hayden, Clapper, Feinstein, Rogers, and the like (cf. Frontline) — it should already be clear enough that, in the USA at least, the government has lost the debate, and most especially with young folk. It seems to me then that, in the forthcoming US elections, but more particularly the next presidential election, no democratic or republican candidate can count on victory unless s/he will repudiate the surveillance state, pretty much lock, stock & barrel. Otherwise a Rand Paul, perhaps even campaigning in tandem with Ralph Nader or such, will be poised to radically destabilize matters by championing just such a podium in such a way as, one way or t’other, to completely upset the democrat // republican apple-cart. Such a circumstance, then, might not only spell the demise of the surveillance state but also even precipitate collapse of the entrenched dualism that has for so long afflicted US politics (which’d be, methinks, not half a bad thing). An independent as POTUS, maybe? Vederemo: 2016.

  4. Linda Lewis
    May 20, 2014 at 09:58

    Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Government’s unresponsiveness to its citizens is not merely an obstacle to reining in mass surveillance. It is an obstacle to resolving virtually every other problem, from environmental abuses to income inequality. To make any progress on those issues, we need to identify the factors that insulate government from public opinion and focus our collective energies on eliminating them. I would not be surprised, however, to learn that mass surveillance is one of those factors.

  5. Bill Habedank
    May 19, 2014 at 22:46

    The surveillance state is firmly entrenched and those controlling it will not give it up without a fight. As GWB said “the Constitution is just a goddamn piece of paper”. When you give up these rights you have to fight to regain them.
    Those of us speaking out do not want violence but if ever the people rise up and say “enough” much violence and persecution will be brought down upon us. History shows this over and over. What happens in Syria, Egypt and other places can easily happen here. Those in power always, always will do whatever it takes to hold it. Wish it weren’t so but that is the nature of the beast.
    Those willing to stand up for our inalienable rights will fall first and I hope many, many others will follow by finding the courage to follow.

  6. John
    May 19, 2014 at 08:04

    This issue involves the entire economic oligarchy which the dark state serves, which also controls the mass media and elections, hence all federal agencies, as well as public opinion. The surveillance state is their tool, so the question is whether the oligarchy can be reformed.

    Public knowledge of the problem via whistleblowers is necessary but ineffective without true public debate. When the media are controlled, there is no true public debate, and new technology of debate is soon controlled by the oligarchy as with internet.

    With modern organization such totalitarianism is unlikely to be subverted by anything better. Totalitarianism is primarily a means to prevent its own overthrow, so when overthrown the organizational means may be almost as totalitarian, as in the Russian revolution. The likelihood of subversion is low unless the public is suffering massively.

    Massive public suffering is prevented by tiers of opportunist loyalty: government employees protect it from the citizens, who protect their interests from foreign subversion by supporting imperialism, etc.

    So nations become empty suits of armor which can be defeated only by external enemies, military or economic. In the nuclear era, economic defeat by external economies is probably the only means to stop economic oligarchy. And that requires a stronger economy, probably another economic oligarchy. So totalitarian economic oligarchy is the biggest bully boy and runs the show from now on. That will consolidate after a few major wars, possibly economic wars, into global totalitarianism.

  7. jo6pac
    May 18, 2014 at 16:45

    Yes the coup has already happened in Amerika and the cycle-0-paths have won and I’m not sure the sheeple who have been lied to and beaten down have it in them to do anything. Sad for the coming generations and the planet.

  8. Franzen
    May 18, 2014 at 14:05

    I’m sure somewhere there’s an article in an East German dissident pamphlet wondering if the Stazi could be stopped. It might even have been written shortly before people started collecting chunks of the Wall as souvenirs. There are two things we can learn and remember. First is that millions of people in the streets can stop and change anything. Even that which had previously appeared unstoppable. Second is that no one ever sees it coming. Neither activists nor spies have the slightest clue that it might happen tomorrow.

  9. Ronny
    May 18, 2014 at 11:03

    The problem in regard to making realistic change is that “they” will not allow it unless “they” are forced to make the changes, and to do that means changing more than just a few laws. It means tearing them down with chains and grappling hooks, burning the bodies and starting over again. It mean rebuilding the system that was attempted before but learning from the mistakes yet again, but this time not allowing complacency and apathy to work against us and for them. We must acknowledge that “they” will always exist, and “they” need to be controlled, because “they” work for us and are apt to forget that important aspect.

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