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Empire Notes"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.
"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.
A Blog by Rahul Mahajan
Big Brother is watching you. At least when you’re on the phone -- he knows what numbers you’ve called, how many times and for how long, what numbers people at those numbers have called, and so on.
Last week’s revelation that, for almost five years now, the National Security Agency has gotten AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth to turn over all the calling records of all their clients, marks a qualitatively new step in the Bush administration’s post-9/11 creation of the panoptic state, one of its key goals in the constantly metastasizing “war on terror.”
Before now, every step in the increase of domestic surveillance and repression was, for all practical purposes, targeted at a small minority of people. The Justice Department’s dragnet put out shortly after 9/11 affected South Asians and Arabs primarily, as did the later “special registrations.” Extended detentions and curtailment of rights up to and including habeas corpus affected small numbers of supposed “terror suspects” (again from those same ethnic groups). The “no-fly list” was the same, although the so-called “terror suspects” on that list included significant numbers of nonviolent activists. Pentagon surveillance of domestic antiwar groups also didn’t touch normal people. Even the warrantless NSA wiretapping revealed last fall supposedly affected about 500 people at a time, a total of several thousand since 9/11. And, we were assured, except for a few cases of error in placing the location of a cell phone, at least one end of those monitored conversations had to be in a foreign country.
Not only did those measures affect small groups and not the general public, they affected groups the public either hates, dislikes, or at the least doesn’t give a damn about. Arabs, South Asians, foreigners trying to get into the country, people with alleged terrorist connections, and last but not least, leftist activists.
The upshot was that, despite early and constant agitation by activists about the PATRIOT Act and its successors, a notable majority of the public has favored these measures (polls in 2005 and early 2006 usually showed 50-60% in support of the Patriot Act and 30-40% against – see http://www.pollingreport.com/terror2.htm).
Although the primary rationale was always that these measures were supposedly necessary for fighting terrorism, it was difficult to avoid the suspicion that the real reason was that normal “middle Americans” did not believe these measures applied to them. In a so-called “war” notable for the lack of any calls to sacrifice by the leadership and any desire for sacrifice by the public, it was hard to believe that a majority would support real invasions of their privacy in order to “fight terrorism.”
Those suspicions have been corroborated. These latest measures affect everyone. The Rocky-Mountain-based Qwest did not turn over its records to the NSA, citing legal concerns, so if you use Qwest and only call people who use Qwest and they only call people who use Qwest and so on, you’re fine. For the rest of us, the vast majority, the government now has access to a huge array of extremely intimate information about us.
Although the data collected is simply call records and not actual contents of the calls, it would be child’s play for an investigator using those records to figure out whether you’re having an affair, making illegal bets on the Rose Bowl, or one of the myriad of other things that ordinary people would rather not have found out. If this program is actually deemed legal by the courts, then those results could, in turn, potentially be used to obtain search warrants – giving the final coup de grace to the “probable cause” requirement, which has been under assault in the courts for 25 years and which CIA-Director-designate Michael Hayden, who implemented this program at President Bush’s behest, does not believe is part of the Fourth Amendment.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what the government intends to do with all of this information. The avowed intention of the NSA is to use this data to perform “social network analysis,” to see the pattern of linkages between terror suspects and others. Analysis of those patterns can tell whether different suspects are part of a cell, whether different cells are part of an organization, whether hitherto unknown people are involved, and so on. In theory, analysis of that kind can be a powerful investigative tool. In practice, the NSA deals with 650 million intercepts a day, only an infinitesimal fraction of which ever go in front of an actual human analyst. On September 10, the NSA intercepted two transmissions in Afghanistan, one saying "The match begins tomorrow" and the other, "Tomorrow is zero hour." They weren’t translated until September 12; to this day, if dealing with potential attacks was the primary consideration, the best investment would be in more Arabic translators. Social network analyst Vardis Krebs, interviewed by DefenseTech.org, dismisses this approach as counterproductive, saying, "If you're looking for a needle, making the haystack bigger is counterintuitive. It just doesn't make sense."
Those problems are further exacerbated by the way we know that this administration uses such data. First, they develop an idée fixe about who their enemy is and what he is doing, then they try to manipulate that data to prove what they already “know” to be true. This takes forms that range from the Pentagon spying on antiwar groups holding peaceful vigils to torturing captured al-Qaeda operatives until they “admit” nonexistent links with Saddam Hussein’s government.
But even if this information is useless for foiling terrorist plots, other potential uses abound. What I wonder about most with this administration that has done its best to identify the Republican Party and, indeed, the party’s right wing, with the “national interest” and “national security” (to the point that even the Democrats are upset) is whether any of this information has been or will be used for Nixon-style “dirty tricks” against political opponents. If it’s done carefully, it might not at all be obvious that NSA-obtained information was being used. If it is to be done, there will be no better opportunity than the 2006 elections, about which the Republicans are deeply worried.
Whether this is a real possibility or not, the point is that the information is there and can be used at any time against any of us by the government for any nefarious purpose that comes up. As some of this starts to sink in, polls are showing a majority of Americans opposed to this program; USA Today showed 51% disapproving to 43% approving, with 31 of that 51 saying such a program would never be right in any circumstances. Newsweek had 53% saying the program “goes too far in invading people’s privacy” to 41 saying it was a “necessary tool to combat terrorism.”
Those poll results indicate that this issue may finally be able to gain some traction. The answer is not to start yet another campaign or yet another organization – we’ve got more than enough of those -- but to mount a renewed effort to explain to the public what the “war on terror” really is. In a nutshell, it’s an organizing principle to be used to transform not only U.S. military policy but also, domestically, the relationship between government and society, in the direction of increased authoritarianism and militarization.
In foreign policy, the Bush administration articulated the notion of “pre-emption,” a supposed right that past administrations have come very close to asserting, but have never quite done in such an open fashion (in terms of international law, the correct term is not “pre-emptive war,” which implies that there is a real, gathering threat but rather “preventive war,” fought against an enemy that might conceivably become a threat at some nebulous point in the future). It’s quite clear now that the ever-evolving plans for domestic surveillance embody the same principle. Going far beyond finding terrorists before they strike, this latest program involves finding necessary information about all of us before we become terrorists. Combine that with a very broad view of who the “enemy” is (potentially including all those who disagree with the administration) and you have not only a rather frightening vision of the destruction of liberty in this country, you have a paranoid, secretive, incompetently run proto-panopticon that is collapsing under its own weight.
The conventional wisdom is that the war on Iraq is a failure and a “distraction” from the important “war on terror” – the truth is that the “war on terror” itself, as a concept, is a massive failure, even from the point of view of the string-pullers in the Bush administration.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of the blog Empire Notes and teaches at New York University. He has been to Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah while it was under siege in April. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies, as well as continuities between Democratic and Republican policies on Iraq. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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